Richard Schickel, whose erudite prose and piercing critiques made him one of America’s most important film critics in an era when cinema became increasingly ingrained in the cultural consciousness, died Saturday in Los Angeles from complications after a series of strokes, his family said. He was 84.
In a career spanning five decades, thousands of reviews and dozens of books, Schickel chronicled Hollywood’s changing landscape, from the days when studios reigned with stars such as Katharine Hepburn to the rise of independent directors who summoned a new wave of realism that distilled the yearnings of a turbulent nation. A reviewer for Time magazine, Schickel had a legion of followers; he could be incisive and at times bruising in praising or panning a film.
“He was one of the fathers of American film criticism,” said his daughter Erika Schickel, a writer. “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.”
In his 2015 memoir “Keepers: The Greatest Films — and Personal Favorites — of a Moviegoing Lifetime,” Richard Schickel wrote: “I just like to be there in the dark watching something — almost anything, if truth be known. In this habit — I don’t know if it is amiable or a mild, chronic illness — I have been indulged by wives, girlfriends, just plain friends and children. Of course, a lot of the time I’m alone, unashamedly killing an evening, no questions asked.”
Schickel began his career as a critic in the 1960s, joining a generation of voices, including Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, who were capturing Hollywood at a time of aesthetic and financial change. Movies were speaking to the country’s identity, its fabric, and film critics often found themselves reviewing not only cinema but the moods of society. In his 1967 review of Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Schickel wrote of the interracial love story starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Hepburn:
“Where to begin discussing the ineptitude with which the nightmare is realized on screen. … Kramer is earnestly preaching away on matters that have long since ceased to be true issues.”
He took on other classics as well, describing “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) as “close to travesty” and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) as “cramped and static.”
But Schickel did not inflate the role of the critic or for that matter the importance of cinema. Movies at their best, he said, were a “joyous enterprise” and at their worst a “harmless addiction.”
"Richard was a giant of American film criticism, one of the last survivors of a golden age," Times film critic Kenneth Turan said. "No one could touch him for the high quality of his writing sustained over so many formats and so many years."
Schickel was a prodigious writer and documentary filmmaker. His 37 biographies, critiques and other books included an array of subjects: Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, D.W. Griffith and Elia Kazan. He wrote and worked on 37 documentaries, including “From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga” and “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.”
His review of “The Aviator” went like this: “Director Martin Scorsese soars triumphantly close to the sun, and unlike Icarus, never falters in his flight. An epically scaled biography of Howard Hughes, the mad genius of airplanes, movies and womanizing, this is filmmaking on a grand, rare, often curiously poignant scale, featuring a stunning performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the great American nut cases.“
Born in Milwaukee in 1933, Schickel estimated that he had seen 22,590 movies in his lifetime. The first was Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1938. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and lectured at USC and Yale University.
He is survived by daughters Erika and Jessica; step-daughter Ali Rubinstein; and grandchildren.