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Film critic Stanley Kauffmann dead at 97

Wednesday - 10/9/2013, 8:50pm  ET

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stanley Kauffmann, the erudite critic, author and editor who reviewed movies for The New Republic for more than 50 years, wrote his own plays and fiction, and helped discover the classic novels "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Moviegoer," died Wednesday. He was 97.

Kauffmann died of pneumonia at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan, said Adam Plunkett, assistant literary editor at The New Republic.

Kauffmann started at The New Republic in 1958 and remained there -- except for a brief interlude -- for the rest of his life, becoming one of the oldest working critics in history. He wrote during a dynamic era that featured the rise of the French New Wave and the emergence of such American directors as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. He was among the last survivors of a generation of reviewers that included The New Yorker's Pauline Kael and the Village Voice's Andrew Sarris, idols of the "Film Generation," so-called by Kauffmann himself.

"I think it is the end of an era, and the passing of an extraordinary writer who had seen silent films as a boy and kept up with the most advanced pictures of the 21st century," David Thomson, a fellow film critic at The New Republic, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "He was a superb critic and a very kind and generous man.

"But I know he would have said: 'End of an era? What nonsense. We advance!'"

Never as famous as Kael or Sarris, Kauffmann still had a dedicated following, with admirers including Susan Sontag and Roger Ebert, who once called him "the most valuable film critic in America." He received an Emmy in 1964 for his commentary on WNET-TV and a Polk Award for film criticism in 1982. His theater reviews brought him a George Jean Nathan Award in 1974.

The kind of critic who preferred the word "film" to "movies," Kauffmann was far more skeptical of popular culture than was Kael, with whom he (and so many other reviewers) occasionally feuded. He did not share her passion for "The Godfather" ("an aggrandized gangster film") or "Nashville" ("a superior book-club novel"). In recent years, he didn't bother with "Avatar" or other blockbusters, reasoning that they would manage fine without him. He did spread the word about such foreign-language releases as the Russian musical "Hipsters," a documentary about German painter Gerhard Richter and the Israeli family drama "Footnote."

When the American Film Institute was compiling a list of the 20th century's best movies, Kauffmann declined to participate, worrying he would be "trampled under the thundering herd" of opinions with which he disagreed.

Kauffmann's interests and influence were not limited to film. He worked in publishing in the 1940s and throughout the 1950s. He wrote several novels, among them "The Philanderer," released in Britain in 1953, soon banned and the subject of a landmark obscenity trial. Jurors acquitted publisher Fredric Warburg and the case helped change British laws on artistic expression.

As a publishing editor, Kauffmann twice helped make history. In 1953, at Ballantine Books, he took on a disturbing novel about a future society in which books are burned -- Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." A few years later, at Alfred A. Knopf, an agent sent him the manuscript for a novel by a young author named Walker Percy. Kauffmann would recall that the book was beautifully written but poorly structured and needed substantial revision. Acquired for $1,000, Percy's "The Moviegoer" was published in 1961, developed a word-of-mouth following among fellow writers and went on to win the National Book Award, beating "Catch-22" among others.

For Kauffmann, the success was bittersweet. He had often disagreed with the publishing house's founder, Alfred Knopf, and had been fired by the time "The Moviegoer" caught on.

A dentist's son, Kauffmann was born in New York City in 1916. He witnessed film's early years firsthand, seeing new works by Charlie Chaplin and others during the silent age. He began going to the theater in the 1920s and had memories of John Barrymore, the daring Shakespeare productions of Orson Welles and the raucous opening of Clifford Odets' pro-union "Waiting for Lefty," when audience members shouted along with the play's closing chant of "Strike!"

Theater was his first love. He graduated from New York University's College of Fine Arts in 1935 and was an actor and stage manager with the Washington Square Players. He wrote several plays and taught for years at the Yale School of Drama, his students including the future Broadway producer and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman. In 1966, he became the theater critic for The New York Times but was regarded by Broadway producers as too negative and by Times executives as "too ponderous and professorial," according to Gay Talese's history of the newspaper, "The Kingdom and the Power." He was replaced within months and was back at The New Republic the following year.

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