With the Passing of James Harvey, the Film Critic Generation of Kael and Sarris Is Truly Gone

The film historian embodied a spirit of moral inquiry, and was as excited about “Jackie Brown” as he was romantic comedies of the ‘30s.
Film historian James Harvey died at age 90.
Film historian James Harvey died at age 90.
Nancy Crampton

Though his actual first name was Howard, and he signed his books “James Harvey,” in the 20-plus years of our friendship I always knew him as Jim. In our household, my wife, daughter and I also had a nickname for him, “The Owl,” because of the night hours he kept. I am a morning person, and sometimes the difference created tension between us, if, say, we were having dinner after a film and it was going on 10:30 and I could barely keep my eyes open. I would stand up to signal I was done and ready to leave while he was still nursing his espresso, just getting started, and he would get a wounded look in his eyes and let me know he thought I was being rude. It’s true, I can be abrupt, and he was the opposite, apt to make a more gradual, mannerly leave-taking. We were both great walkers, he even more than I, but being such a passionate lover of animals he would stop to pet every dog whose path we crossed and chat with the owner, which irritated me.  Each had little habits or eccentricities we had to forgive in the other, like an old married couple. Such is the nature of enduring friendship.

I found him an open, generous conversationalist, always asking after one’s mental state and family members, willing to entertain any topic, not shying away from giving or receiving personal disclosures, but of course we would always get around to what movies or other cultural forms we had seen recently. He had a broader range than I, and was a regular opera, theater and ballet-goer, whereas I would only dip into those other art forms occasionally, being film-monogamous. We would talk on the phone and discuss the various movie possibilities in town (sometimes mighty slim) and meet up at the theater, I always getting there early, he sometimes arriving maddeningly close to show-time.

Our opinions about a movie were generally in sync; I would say 80% of the time we agreed.  He had higher standards and a tendency to be picky and critical. If I mostly liked a film or thought it had good elements, I would wax enthusiastic, and he might sigh and say it was “okay.” Having come to cinephilia in the ‘60s through André Bazin, Andrew Sarris and auteurism, I was more of a formalist in my takes, and would expatiate about the compositional or cutting style. He noticed those things too but they mattered less to him than the overall moral and psychological stance of a film. Was it unnecessarily mean to one of its characters or dismissively caricaturing?

We both disliked nasty movies, by which I mean those that achieved effects through sensationalist appeal, sadism, or cruelty. In short, we were no longer thrill-seeking adolescents, and were looking for wisdom and worldly perspective, perhaps even some kindness or tenderness. I am no spring chicken myself, approaching 77 this November, but Jim was a good 13 years older. He had a different historical frame of reference and experience of life, which was partly why I cherished his company and looked up to him for guidance.

With the passing of that whole generation of older film critics — Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Richard Schickel, Stanley Cavell, and now Jim Harvey — we have lost an incalculably valuable, rich grasp of cinematic tradition. I mean something like when Kael pointed out in her barbed critique of “The Graduate” that there is nothing new about the sexual mésalliance of a younger man and an older woman, it goes back to the silent era, or when Schickel wrote an unsurpassed biography of D.W. Griffith. I remember as a young man in my 20s, hero-worshipping Godard, when I read with incredulous shock Manny Farber discussing the (to him, younger) Jean-Luc as though he were still a work in progress and needed to mature. I now think he was right.

In Jim’s case, it meant discussing in his first, now classic book “Romantic Comedy: in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges,” the plots of the Jeannette Macdonald/Maurice Chevalier Lubitsch musicals not condescendingly as campy shenanigans but as serious moral dilemmas. Or his drawing a sharp distinction between the persona of Mae West and Jean Harlow, in favor of the latter. In his second book, “Movie Love in the Fifties,” he was able to penetrate deeply into the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, whom he actually knew and had interviewed. His analysis of Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” uncovers all its heartbreaking paradoxes and contradictions, the nobility of Juanita Moore against the stagy falseness of Lana Turner, and the tragic Susan Kohner caught in between.

It was Harvey’s critical technique, a risky one, to work patiently through a movie scene by scene, interpreting the choices and subtexts along the way, rather than glibly summarizing with a few witty ripostes. In his third book, the brilliant “Watching Them Be,” his sympathetic but clear-eyed study of star presence from Garbo to Balthazar (the donkey), he was able to get to the heart of Ingrid Bergman’s differential acting under David O. Selznick and Roberto Rossellini, John Wayne’s partnership with John Ford, Godard’s close-ups in “Masculin Féminin,” Bette Davis as directed by William Wyler.  He was by no means stuck in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and could discourse as happily on Tarantino’s singular achievement in “Jackie Brown” as on Garbo, but when he approached the icons of the past he did so with the understanding of a contemporary, who had seen their movies when they first opened.

We often showed each other drafts of what we were writing. Jim responded invariably with praise. His critical suggestions for improvement were never over matters of style but rather morality, such as if he thought I was being unfair or cruel towards someone I was writing about. His own manuscripts, quirky-syntactical and densely thoughtful, were typed old style with erasures and penciling, which made me gasp when I first saw them.  Wanting to spare him the dismissals of editors, I offered to retype them for neatness’s sake into my laptop, but he would have none of it. In his last years, approaching 90, it became harder and harder for him to finish a piece to his satisfaction. He regarded my productivity with bafflement if not mild disapproval. Yet he was the quintessential loyal friend and would always attend my public events and read my pieces when they appeared.

Jim had been raised Roman Catholic, and turned more and more back to the church in his later years. He even tithed, which I warned him to stop doing when he worried about financial matters, but he did not take my suggestion seriously. Since I was a secular, skeptical Jew and he a practicing Catholic, it was one more matter for us to view with different lenses. I was ecstatic over Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Tales,” it was mother’s milk to me, but he was put off by something: perhaps it was too sardonic, too familial-quarrelsomely Jewish. On the other hand, when we saw Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” together, he left the theater deeply moved; I had found it leaden, solemn, over-cooked. We agreed to disagree about some of Terrence Malick’s recent movies, like “To the Wonder.” He thought them bravely spiritual and to me they seemed self-indulgent and silly. Increasingly, he was sensitive to the spiritual dimension of movies, and wanted to write a final fourth book about the movies and religion. It never got past the book proposal.

Jim lived alone. He told me it was by choice. A bachelor his entire adult life, whose single desire when younger was to get away from his conventional parents, he could not see sharing his living space with any other creature besides a cat or a dog. His refrigerator was bachelorically bare, he did not cook except to heat up the occasional frozen meal, and he took most of his meals in cafes and restaurants, as often as possible in the company of a friend. He had many, many friends, in fact a genius for friendship, it was his preferred mode.

Politically on the left, a self-described “democratic socialist,” usually he kept MSNBC on all day when he was not writing or watching a movie; he was both dreading and looking forward to the 2020 Presidential election. But in the last year of his life he developed a blood disease and had to go into the hospital regularly for infusions. He started falling, the hazard of the elderly, and since he would not or could not give up his marathon strolls (sometimes leaving me in Manhattan to take the subway, while he walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge), these tripping incidents occurred in the street more and more often.  The last time it happened, he was walking his dog and the leash entangled his leg when the animal bolted. He went into the hospital to have a leg operation and two months later he passed away.

Ordinarily I would have visited his hospital bedside, but he had the bad luck to fall ill at the onset of the coronavirus quarantine, so visitors, especially those at high risk, were discouraged. He dearly wished he could be released and allowed to die at home. Since he lived in a third floor walkup apartment and couldn’t rise out of bed by himself, that was clearly never going to happen. He died in mid-April, 2020.  The saddest part is that he died alone.

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