Richard Corliss Dies at 71, Was TIME Magazine Film Critic for 35 Years
To any fan or friend who would ask whether a new movie was “worth seeing,”
TIME film critic Richard Corliss had a stock, succinct reply: “Everything is worth seeing.”
He meant it.
By Richard Zoglin
Film critics can sometimes be intimidating figures: self-assured, cynical, crusaders for an overlooked masterpiece one week, debunkers of your favorite movie the next. Richard Corliss, TIME’s movie critic for the past 35 years, conveyed nothing so much as the sheer joy of watching movies — and writing about them. He savored it all: the good, the bad, the indifferent. Except that he was indifferent to nothing. To any fan or friend who would ask whether a new movie was “worth seeing,” Corliss had a stock, succinct reply: “Everything is worth seeing.” He meant it.
For TIME, he was an indestructible, inexhaustible resource. He wrote some 2,500 reviews and other articles for the magazine, including more than two dozen cover stories. He covered, at various times, theater and television, wrote about theme parks and Las Vegas shows, contributed cover stories on topics as far afield as yoga and Rush Limbaugh. And as TIME’s longest-serving movie critic (and perhaps the magazine’s most quoted writer of all time), he was a perceptive, invaluable guide through three and a half decades of Hollywood films, stars and trends.
On Thursday night, following a major stroke that felled him a week ago, Richard Corliss, 71, died in New York City. He is survived by his wife Mary Corliss and his brother Paul Corliss, of New Jersey. The magazine, along with all lovers of film and great critical writing, will have a hard time recovering.
“It’s painful to try to find words, since Richard was such a master of them,” TIME editor Nancy Gibbs said in an internal note to staff. “They were his tools, his toys, to the point that it felt sometimes as though he had to write, like the rest of us breathe and eat and sleep. It’s not clear that Richard ever slept, for the sheer expanse of his knowledge and writing defies the normal contours of professional life.”
Everyone who had the pleasure of working with him has stories of his kindness, his quirks, his humor, his obsessions, the bright, fresh breezes of his head and heart,” Gibbs added. “And the many millions more who had the pleasure of reading him found the most engaging and trustworthy guide not just to what movies were worth seeing, but to the sprawling variety of his interests and passions. Our tributes and a sampling of his writing from his 35 years at TIME allow us to savor the immense range and excellence of his work as one of the world’s most important voices on film, and so many other subjects. We will miss him terribly, and our prayers are with his beloved wife Mary.”
As a movie critic, his tastes were populist but eclectic. He was a fan of Chinese kung-fu movies and Disney animation (he put Finding Nemo on his list of the 100 greatest films of all time, along with Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II), but also the more demanding works of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He revered the classical storytelling of Hollywood greats like David Lean, but was also drawn to dazzling, over-the-top stylists like Baz Lurhmann. Before coming to TIME he wrote a dismissive review of a surprise hit called Star Wars (“The movie’s ‘legs’ will prove as vulnerable as C-3PO’s,” he sniffed), but he quickly became a champion of the fantasy-adventure films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. “Not since the glory days of the Walt Disney Productions — 40 years ago, when Fantasia and Pinocchio and Dumbo first worked their seductive magic on moviegoers of every age — has a film so acutely evoked the twin senses of everyday wonder and otherworldly awe,” he wrote of Spielberg’s E.T in a 1982 cover story (which, as Corliss was fond of pointing out, was bumped from the cover by the outbreak of the Falklands War). “The movie is a perfectly poised mixture of sweet comedy and ten-speed melodrama, of death and resurrection, of a friendship so pure and powerful it seems like an idealized love.”
His reviews were authoritative but never intimidating; he had an encyclopedic knowledge of film, but never flaunted it. His prose was zestful and sparkling — it simply jumped off the page. He loved wordplay. The violent films of Quentin Tarantino, he once wrote, “allow for no idle bystanders; you either get with the pogrom or get out of the way.” Steve Martin, an early exemplar of what he dubbed the “post-funny” school of comedy, “filters laugh-a-minute zaniness through Redford good looks: goy meets Berle.”
Withering put-downs were leavened by his wit. “Richard Attenborough’s movies,” he said in a review of the director’s screen version of A Chorus Line, “are like the best-behaved guests at a Swiss embassy reception; they never offend, never impress.” After castigating Saturday Night Live stars like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for selling out to do mediocre Hollywood films, he drew a sharp contrast with another SNL alum: “Adam Sandler is of the new SNL breed. His Cajun Man, Opera Man and the rest were not varied characters; they were expressions of one capacious ego. The issue for him was not selling but finding a buyer.”
And yet Corliss was at his best when praising — never merely an enthusiast (or “enthusi-wooziast,” one of his favorite neologisms), but a keen analyst of the film’s place in cinematic, cultural and American history. “Welcome to the old nightmare,” he said in his 1987 cover story on Oliver Stone’s searing Vietnam film Platoon. “Welcome back to the war that, just 20 years ago, turned America schizophrenic… In Vietnam, Stone suggests, G.I.s re-created the world back home, with its antagonisms of race, region and class. Finding no clear and honorable path to victory in the booby-trapped underbrush, some grunts focused their gunsights on their comrades. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army (NVA) were shadowy figures in this family tragedy; stage center, it was sibling riflery.”
Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s breakthrough film, “towers over the year’s other movies as majestically as a gang lord at a preschool,” Corliss wrote in 1994. “Tarantino’s movies are smartly intoxicating cocktails of rampage and meditation; they’re in-your-face, with a mac-10 machine pistol and a quote from the Old Testament. They blend U.S. and European styles of filmmaking; they bring novelistic devices to the movie mall. And in Pulp Fiction, a multipart tribute to the hard-boiled books and films of American mid-century, he has devised a sprawling, sturdy canvas that accommodates the high-octane and the highbrow.”
He was drawn to the vigorous, violent films of directors like Tarantino and Stone, but he could also respond to the more refined pleasures of a tony drama like Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. “The film is, in an old phrase, beyond gorgeous,” Corliss wrote. “All year we’ve seen mirages of good films. Here is the real thing. To transport picturegoers to a unique place in the glare of the earth, in the darkness of the heart — this, you realize with a gasp of joy, is what movies can do.”
If there was a genre that turned him off, it was a certain kind of sentimental, uplifting crowd-pleaser, the sort of films that often become sleeper hits and win Oscars. “A confession is in order,” he wrote at the outset of his 2000 review of Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot. “There are movies whose feel-good sentiments and slick craft annoy me so deeply that I know they will become box-office successes or top prizewinners. I call this internal mechanism my Built-In Hit Detector. I squirm through these masterpieces of emotional pornography, jotting down derisive notes. Oh, if the contrivance is blatant enough, I may get a bit teary; it is, after all, no more difficult for filmmakers to make an audience cry by depicting, say, a child in jeopardy than it is for a lap dancer to evoke an erection in her client. At the end I have the gloomy certitude that moviegoers will love Ghost or Cinema Paradiso or The Full Monty every bit as much as I disliked it. There — I’ve said it. Is everyone alienated?”
Surely, no one was.
He grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a businessman and a mother who taught first grade for more than 40 years. His Jesuit schooling gave him a grounding in strict Catholic values — which started to come unraveled when he began haunting darkened movie theaters. He saw his first film, Cheaper by the Dozen, at age five, and had an epiphany at age 16 when he saw Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal. “I had grown up thinking of movies as something to eat popcorn with,” he said. “Bergman and the other European directors were the first ones to open my eyes to film as art.”
He graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia (where he helped edit the school newspaper), then moved to New York, where he did graduate work in film at Columbia and New York University. He began writing reviews for such publications as the National Review, SoHo Weekly News and New Times. In 1970 Corliss became the editor of Film Comment, the movie journal published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and for many years served on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival. In 1974 he wrote his first books, Talking Pictures, a critical survey of the major Hollywood screenwriters, and Greta Garbo. (His next, a monograph on Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, came 20 years later, and last year he published Mom in the Movies, a look at iconic film mothers.) His immersion in the New York film scene also brought him his wife Mary, curator of the Film Stills Archive at the Museum of Modern Art. They married in 1969, and were lifelong partners at screenings, film festivals (regulars at Cannes every May) and countless get-togethers for film-world friends at their loft in downtown Manhattan.
Corliss joined TIME in 1980, dividing the film beat with the formidable Richard Schickel, and two made a collegial, perfectly simpatico team. But Corliss quickly proved himself a jack of all trades. He filled in for a time as the magazine’s theater critic (hailing, among other shows, the hot new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in London, Cats) and wrote television reviews too (penning TIME’s 1980 cover story on Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” frenzy). Over the years he grabbed any and every opportunity to write about his many wide-ranging passions: Cirque du Soleil spectacles, new rides at Disney World, the pop singers and songwriters of the Brill Building era. When Bette Midler made her first splash in movies, Corliss made it abundantly clear, in his 1987 cover story, that he had been following the Divine One for years:
“At the dawn of her solo career 15 years ago, Bette (rhymes with pet, sweat, coquette and martinet but never regret) declared her intention to become a “legend.” She made good on the boast with a song-and-comedy act that elicited raucous laughs and heaving sobs on both sides of the footlights. She was the Callas of Camp, peppering her program with naughty jokes in the spirit of Mae West and Sophie Tucker. Midler’s good-timey raunch made her famous as the Divine Miss M, a creature she once described as embodying ‘everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be — and your little boy.’ The image obscured her rightful claim as the most dynamic and poignant singer-actress of her time: a 5-ft. 1-in. Statue of Libido carrying a torch with a blue flame. Her phrasings were as witty as Streisand’s, her dredgings of a tormented soul as profound as Aretha’s, her range wider than all comers’.”
Corliss loved the TIME tradition and format, reveling in the challenge of stuffing his bursting-at-the-seams prose into tight 45-line spaces, or churning out a late-breaking obituary in two hours on a Saturday afternoon (which always wound up reading like the product of a lifetime’s rumination). His virtuosity was almost uncanny. Once, because of an arcane TIME rule, he was not allowed to append the name of two correspondents at the end of a story he had written but they had helped report. So he rewrote the entire story so that the first letter of each paragraph spelled out the two uncredited reporters’ names.
He was a workaholic, who loved writing in the wee hours and pushed deadlines to the breaking point — but always came through with pristine prose that left his editors in awe. He pulled countless all-nighters in his office, catching a couple of hours sleep on his couch, then emerging bright-eyed in the morning, sometimes with a fresh shirt brought up to the office by Mary. (When, every once in a while, the clutter of books and videos that were always piled high in his office suddenly disappeared — that was usually Mary too, having come round in the evening to help him clean out.)
As a writer, he was voracious. When Time.com was in its early stages and eager for copy from magazine writers, Corliss eyed the new venue like a frontiersman just discovering the Louisiana Territory. In addition to supplying the website with reviews of all the films he couldn’t squeeze into the magazine, Corliss launched a series of 4,000 and 5,000-word considerations of classic pop culture, under the title That Old Feeling: thoughtful, evocative, often definitive essays on figures as diverse as Richard Rodgers, Jack Paar, Hugh Hefner, Marlene Dietrich, S.J. Perelman, Alistair Cooke, Bettie Page and Dr. Seuss. (A posthumous collection, anyone?)
In one of his last reviews, of the Soviet-era thriller Child 44, he still sounded like a kid watching his first movie. Director Daniel Espinosa, he said, “seems to be aiming for an art-film epic here in what we may call the classic Soviet style. That means dim, dark, depressing and lonnng. Some two-hour-plus movies are compact enough to resist cutting; Child 44 is a work that spectators could trim as they watch it, scene by scene.” And yet, always judicious, he also found the bright spots — a couple of good minor performances, a well-staged fight scene, the work of cinematographer Oliver Wood, who “gives [co-star Noomi] Rapace’s high cheekbones a lovely, Rembrandty glow amid the dominant murk.”
Amid the murk he sometimes had to wade through, as well as the masterpieces that turned him into an enthusi-wooziast, Corliss’s writing always glowed. And so did he.
Zoglin is TIME’s theater critic, a former TIME top editor and the author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century