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Richard Schickel, Influential Time Magazine Film Critic, Dies at 84

Variety logo Variety 2/20/2017 Carmel Dagan
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Richard Schickel, the longtime film critic for Time magazine who also wrote 37 books, mostly on film, and directed a number of documentaries on film subjects, died on Saturday in Los Angeles of complications from a series of strokes, his family told the Los Angeles Times. He was 84.

“He was one of the fathers of American film criticism,” his daughter, writer Erika Schickel, told the Times. “He had a singular voice. When he wrote or spoke, he had an old-fashioned way of turning a phrase. He was blunt and succinct both on the page and in life.”

He wrote and/or directed more than 30 documentaries, mostly for television.

Schickel shared a 1977 Emmy nomination for the documentary “Life Goes to the Movies” and received two nominations in 1987 for the documentary “Minnelli on Minnelli: Liza Remembers Vincente,” which he directed.

Schickel wrote film reviews for Life magazine from 1965 until the magazine folded in 1972, after which he started reviewing for Time magazine, remaining on his perch there until 2010 (longtime fellow Time critic Richard Corliss died in April 2015). More recently he wrote film reviews for the blog Truthdig.

In a 2007 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Schickel responded to an article in the New York Times whose author had written, “Some publishers and literary bloggers” view the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation’s leading newspapers “as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.”

An angry Schickel retorted: “Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”

In 2005 he told the Hedgehog Review: “Obviously a critic — a very endangered species in a nation that wants indulgence more than a criticism that questions its fatuity — is obliged to seek out and encourage anything that offers nuance. I continue to do that — not knowing any better — but I also know that the movies I generally like best are aimed at niche markets, elite markets.”

Much earlier, in a deliberately provocative 1973 piece in the Atlantic deriding “Gone With the Wind,” the critic said that “one measure of a movie’s quality is to ask yourself what you retain from it years after seeing it”; for him, when it came to “GWTW,” the answer was “not much.”

“Nor,” he continued, “does it satisfy my other rule of thumb about popular art (we do understand, don’t we, that we are not discussing Capital A Art?), which is the strength of one’s desire to see the thing again. In my case, it is minimal.”

Schickel started his moviemaking career in 1971 by writing the BBC documentary “The Movie Crazy Years”; no director was credited.

Soon thereafter he wrote and directed a series of PBS documentaries under the banner “The Men Who Made Movies”; the individual entries were on Golden Age directors William Wellman, Vincente Minnelli, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1976 he wrote and Mel Stuart directed the docu “Life Goes to the Movies”; the pair reprised their duties on “Happy Anniversary 007: 25 Years of James Bond” in 1987.

In 1977 Schickel wrote and Robert Guenette directed “The Making of ‘Star Wars,'” and the pair reprised their duties on 1980’s “SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back.” Schickel also wrote “From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Jedi’: The Making of a Saga” in 1983.

But mostly, Schickel both wrote and directed his documentaries. They include the following: “The World of Willa Cather,” a documentary about the Nebraska novelist, in 1977; the Walter Matthau-hosted CBS docu “Funny Business,” highlighting the best in movie comedy, in 1978; “The Horror Show,” a history of horror movies hosted by Anthony Perkins (1979, CBS); “James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1982, PBS); 1987’s “Minnelli on Minnelli: Liza Remembers Vincente”; “Cary Grant: A Celebration” (1988, ABC); “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend” (1989, TNT);  “Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home To” (1990, TNT); the Sally Field-hosted “Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire” (1991); the Clint Eastwood documentaries “Eastwood & Co: Making Unforgiven” (1992, ABC), “Eastwood on Eastwood” (1997, TNT) and “Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story” (2013); “Hollywood on Hollywood” (1993, AMC); the Emmy-nominated “Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey” (1994, AMC); “Arthur Penn” (1995); “The Harryhausen Chronicles” (1998, AMC); the Emmy-nominated “Shooting War: World War II Combat Cameramen” (2000, ABC);  “Woody Allen: A Life in Film” (2002, TCM); “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” (2003); “Scorsese on Scorsese” (2004, TCM); “Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us” (2005, TCM); “Spielberg on Spielberg” (2007, TCM); “Ron Howard: 50 Years in Film” (2008, TCM); and the three-part series “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story,” which aired in 2008 as part of PBS’ “American Masters.”

Schickel also wrote books on a wide range of subjects. There were tomes on Golden Age movie stars including Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando; books on directors Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Elia Kazan and D.W Griffith, the last of which won the British Film Institute Book Prize in 1985; meditations on the nature of celebrity including “Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity” (aka “Common Fame: The Culture of Celebrity”); a book on Walt Disney; a monograph on the film “Double Indemnity”; two books on Carnegie Hall; several books on fine art; a book on tennis; and 1978’s “Another I, Another You: A Novel.”

He also co-authored Lena Horne’s autobiography “Lena,” and most recently served as editor of 2006’s “The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian” and wrote 2011’s ” Conversations With Scorsese.”

In his 2003 memoir “Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory and World War II,” Schickel looked back at his childhood fondness for movies.

Schickel also did the commentary track for the DVDs of about two dozen classic films.

Richard Warren Schickel was born in Milwaukee. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955. He began his career in journalism while in college, where he wrote for the school paper — and also starting writing articles for magazines including the Progressive, the New Republic and the Nation. That led to a job with Life magazine in New York.

Long fascinated with the movies, he wrote his first movie review about what he called “quite a good little movie,” 1963’s “Sammy Going South,” starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Eventually he started reviewing films regularly for Life magazine.

He was involved in the restoration of 40 minutes of material cut from Samuel Fuller’s 1980 film “The Big Red One,” for which he received awards from the Los Angles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.

Schickel received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. He received the National Board of Review’s William K. Everson Film History Award in 2004, and the Maurice Bessy Award for film criticism in 2001.

He lectured at Yale University and at USC’s School of Film and Television.

Schickel was twice married, the first time to Julia Carroll Whedon; their marriage ended in divorce in 1976. He was married to Carol Rubenstein from 1985 until her death in 1991.

He is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Erika and Jessica.

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