Remembering Film Critic Charles Champlin

The passing on Sunday of Los Angeles Times arts editor/film critic Charles Champlin, 88, is significant to me personally because he was my mentor and therefore had the greatest impact in nurturing my career as a film journalist.

I interned for Chuck and the entertainment staff at the Times in the summer of 1978, my junior year at Cal State Northridge. In fact, my internship proved so valuable that he subsequently instituted a regular internship program. I wrote one published feature — an interview with art director Bob Boyle about collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock — which Chuck diligently helped me polish through at least four drafts. Indeed, he called me a diamond in the rough and took great pains to help me steer clear of academic abstraction in my writing when he critiqued a paper I wrote about Psycho.

The secret to criticism, according to Chuck, was to judge the movies on their own terms rather than how we would refashion them. ”The way I think you proceed as a critic is simply to try, first of all, to accurately isolate the intentions of the film,” he told Charlton Heston in 1976 at the AFI published in Conversations at the American Film Institute with Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation. His best line, though, was: “There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.”

The best advice Chuck gave me was to achieve balance in my criticism, taking into account all of the craft involved in the making of a movie, and to always write in an active, engaging voice.  I grew up admiring the way he elegantly wrote about the great films of the ’70s with such easygoing yet personal reflection (though it was hard to sometimes digest the long and winding sentences that exceeded 100 words).

It’s hard being a company town critic yet Chuck handled it as well as anyone.  He was enthusiastic yet discerning and successfully navigated the politics and was extremely well liked and respected for his fairness. The native of upstate New York attended Harvard and worked as a correspondent for Life (covering “politics and other disasters” in the mid-to-late ’50s in Chicago and Denver) before covering the arts as their London correspondent during the heyday of the swinging sixties.

Chuck then came to Hollywood at the best possible time — the late ’60s — and rode the crest of a cultural shift with freer and franker cinematic expression through the ’70s before switching to book reviewing in ’80. He was burned out (after writing 125 reviews a year) but instinctively knew that the tide was changing once again and it was time to pass the baton.

Still, it was a terrific time to watch and write about movies that mattered, and I’m grateful that Chuck cared enough to take me under his wing and eventually call me his protege when we last gathered at an Academy reception more than a decade ago.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Movies

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