Auteur theory: The theory that the director is the ‘author’ of a film.
--The Film Encyclopedia
He is 67 years old now, a tenured professor of film at Columbia University in New York, 29 years a film critic at the Village Voice and now critic for the New York Observer. He lives in an apartment on East 88th Street in Manhattan--"behind the Guggenheim"--with seven windows facing the water.
Life, says Andrew Sarris, has been good. But the man credited with introducing auteur criticism to American film more than three decades ago knows that the mere mention of his name still burns like a hot branding iron in the collective psyche of Hollywood screenwriters.
“I’m the great villain in their eyes--the monster,” Sarris says in a high-pitched, squeaky voice that resonates with charm and humor.
Despite the passing years, there remains a perception among screenwriters that the auteur theory laid the groundwork for Hollywood elevating directors at the expense of others who collaborate in the filmmaking process, particularly writers.
“There is a war going on between writers and directors, and the directors declared it,” said J.F. Lawton, whose screenwriting credits include “Pretty Woman” and “Under Siege.”
“The auteur theory basically says the directors are the sole artistic influence on a film,” added Lawton, who himself has directed. “They are the film. It’s preposterous. The only reason the writers didn’t say it was because they were not arrogant enough to say it. The Directors Guild encouraged the auteur theory.”
As a result, critics of the auteur theory argue, directors not only are thought of as the “authors” of a film but have also in many ways eclipsed the producer. Directors now enjoy not only their own “director’s cut” on some movies but also dual screen credits: “directed by” and “a film by.”
The debate over the auteur theory erupted in France in 1954, when then-critic Francois Truffaut wrote an essay in Cahiers du Cinema called “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” in which he argued for “the policy of authors"--"la politique des auteurs.”
But it was Sarris who brought the controversy to American shores when he wrote an article in Film Culture titled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Soon, Sarris found himself something of a celebrity--and widely vilified. One critic of the theory even called him “Godzilla clambering up from the depths.”
Detractors argued that the auteur theory did not take into account the many hands that go into making films, from actors and writers to producers and cinematographers, to name a few.
Sarris today says that critics “oversimplified” what he wrote.
“The theory was that the director has the most to do--not everything; I never said everything--but the most to do with a movie,” Sarris said recently by telephone.
“My original article was not a defense of the auteur theory, it was a discussion,” he added. And, he stressed, it was never really a theory at all. “It was . . . a way of grouping the history of cinema. I am a film historian. What better way to organize them than by what the directors do.
“But you know, if I hadn’t been distorted, I wouldn’t be controversial, I wouldn’t have become famous, and I wouldn’t be what I am today.”
What Sarris believed, in essence, was that great films come from great directors.
“The best films in a given year are probably by the best directors,” he said. “I didn’t set out on a crusade. I wasn’t interested in pushing one craft over another. I argued that many of the American directors who had been underrated were just as good as the art-house directors from abroad and that the best American films are generally genre films. ‘The Big Sleep,’ for example, is just as good as ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’ Yet, it would have been insane to say that in 1946.”
Sarris said that in that regard his views have not changed: “The people I said were great are great. [Alfred] Hitchcock, [John] Ford, [Howard] Hawks are great. Jean Renoir is great. Thirty or 40 people I named then can stand up perfectly today.” He does admit to mistakes. “I underrated Billy Wilder.”
By the late 1960s, the auteur theory was sweeping academia.
“People were looking for a way to convince college administrators that movies were worth studying at universities,” said Rick Jewell, associate dean of the USC film school. “They tried to argue that [film] was an art form, not a collaborative undertaking at all, and the work of a solitary artist--the director--who shaped everything.
“By the mid-1970s, [the auteur theory] was completely discounted in academic circles,” Jewell said, “but I don’t think it’s been discounted in Hollywood circles. I agree with writers. It still holds sway.”
Jewell added that there were some directors--such as Ford, Hitchcock and Cecil B. DeMille--who were widely known 40 years ago, but not many others.
“Whereas producers such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn were very well known,” Jewell said. “Now, very few producers are well known, but directors from Scorsese to Spielberg to Tarantino are known all over the world. It has to do with a power shift away from producers.”
Sarris, who once worked as a $750-a-week reader at 20th Century Fox and even wrote two screenplay adaptations that do not include his name, believes that screenwriters have “allowed themselves to be in a subordinate position.”
“A great many writers really did not want to get into movies,” he said. “They went into movies for the money, yet they wanted to be superior to it.”
But Sarris also has harsh words for directors.
“I think directing is a difficult thing to defend,” he said. “It seems to be uncreative. Movies are not an art. No director created a tree or Garbo’s cheekbones. God did that, or some higher force. So, what does the director do?”
As for whether the auteur theory exalted the director in Hollywood, Sarris said the great directors today are judged by whether their movies make $100 million at the box office. “When he stops making $100 million, he’s a bum,” Sarris said.
Asked if he still stands behind the auteur theory, Sarris remarked: “It’s silly to talk about ‘Do I stand behind this theory.’ I think it is the best way to look at movies. You look at directors and then other things, and then you try to figure out why some movies are good and why others are not.”
Sarris said one of the great ironies is that while writers still vilify him, directors have never really embraced him.
“You’d think that the Directors Guild would be celebrating me, inviting me for dinner, but I’ve never gotten an award [from the guild],” he said.
Of course, he added, “I never said directors were all brilliant and wonderful. In fact, most directors stink. They are acts.”