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Richard Corliss had the kind of savvy, quick wit and New Yorkcentricity that marked him as a tempermental descendent of the sharp-penned, smart-mouthed critics and culture arbiters who ruled a generation before he came along. Dressed and coiffed just a bit differently, it was easy to picture him, cigarette in hand or mouth, as an unflappable, quip-ready supporting character in anything from Twentieth Century to All About Eve.
As it was, Richard bridged that sophisticated world and the one of the ’60s/’70s breed of film buff spawned by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, foreign films and the movie brat generation of American directors. He was incredibly prolific, turning out reviews, articles and books while also editing Film Comment. I will always be in his debt for giving me my first national visibility as a writer about films as West Coast correspondent for the magazine in the second half of the ’70s.
Richard and his pal Roger Ebert were the two critics I knew who wrote exactly like they talked. Roger could bang out a review in 25 minutes if he had to and I always imagined Richard was similarly talented, so smoothly did his prose roll. Get these two together in a bar in Cannes late at night as I sometimes did (before Roger put an end to his drinking days), and they competed mightily to top one another with stories about Pauline (Richard coined the term “Paulettes” to describe her acolytes), Russ Meyer (Roger knew all there was to know about Russ’s female stars) and just about anyone else in the movie world.
One other thing that Richard and Roger shared was happy matrimony. Roger was famously rescued from likely permanent bachelorhood when, rather late on, he met and married the wonderful Chaz. Richard was hitched to Mary, the longtime curator of the film still archives at the Museum of Modern Art, for 46 years and the couple always seemed inseparable in Cannes.
He’s been called a populist critic, which is true, but in the best way. He was the first serious critic to start putting Pixar films on his ten best lists and doubtless remains the only one who regularly did the same for Simpsons episodes. But not too many critics had the courage to equally champion Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Baz Luhrmann, Michael Haneke and Peter Jackson. Richard’s enthusiasm for cinema evidently started with seeing Bergman’s The Seventh Seal when he was 16 and his taste for the high-quality highbrow never left him. But he always seemed most partial to real zest in filmmaking, to something fresh, original, sparkling and witty.
Richard was always best known to the public as film critic (alongside Richard Schickel, with whom he could strenuously disagree) for Time magazine beginning in 1980. He was made for this job and thrived at it. But his stewardship of Film Comment for most of his 20-year stint was perhaps even more important to me and other critics and film journalists. He brought along, developed and provided a platform for as long list of young, aspiring and eventually prominent writers about film, promoted a smartly auteurist line that was expansive rather than doctrinaire, and in the main had fun with it.
I will certainly miss seeing him in Cannes, which he and Mary started attending one year after I went for the first time, way, way back in a distant century. He was one of the smart ones.
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