Debating the Auteur Theory: An Argument Against

Auteur Theory Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris

The second of a two-part debate between CURNBLOG’s Simon Butler and Jonathan Eig on the legitimacy of the Auteur Theory. See Part One here. 

Let’s go to the source. Andrew Sarris, writing in the Introduction to his seminal book The American Cinema: “Not all directors are auteurs. Indeed, most directors are anonymous. There is much more of Paddy Chayefsky than of Arthur Hiller in The Americanization of Emily.” The Auteur Theory, germinated by the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema and then given a formal exposition by Sarris, was conceived of in a time of great artistic, commercial and political upheaval. As Sarris initially proposed it, the theory provided a new method for analysing the careers of directors. And, bolstered by the counter-arguments from, in Sarris’ words, “a lady critic with a lively sense of outrage,” the whole debate did in fact get critics to look at movies and directors in a new way. But Pauline Kael (Sarris’ outraged lady) never denied that in many cases directors provide the dominant vision in a film. And Sarris, as noted above, began backtracking and tinkering with his original conception almost from the beginning.

Those of us who argue against the Auteur Theory today are not rehashing the Sarris-Kael imbroglio. We are fighting the notion that has evolved over the past fifty years which suggests that the film director is exclusively responsible for the quality of a movie. Surely in a collaborative medium like cinema, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, choreographers, composers, editors, designers, etc… occasionally have a great deal to do with the quality of the final product. Those who argue in support of the director’s eminence usually point out that since the director can have the final say over all aspects of a film production, he is ultimately responsible for those component parts.

But for a significant portion of film history, almost no director did have that level of control. Prior to the independent film movement of the 1950s, the producer often was dominant. This is as true for Ferdinand Zecca at Pathe Freres in the earliest days of French cinema as it is for David Selznick during the Golden Age of Hollywood. If you watch the RKO horror films produced by Val Lewton’s “snake pit” in the 1940s, you will find a consistency of theme and technique whether Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, or Mark Robson served as director. Producers meddle. Does anyone really think that Harvey Weinstein has never texted a director with a “suggestion” or two? If Martin Scorsese really had final say, Gangs of New York (2002) would run four hours long.

auteur theory top hatEven the most ardent anti-auteurists would agree that in some cases, the director deserves the title of auteur. Charles Chaplin produced, directed, wrote, starred in, and composed the music for Modern Times (1936). Shane Carruth produced, directed, starred in, composed the music for, edited, and filmed Upstream Color (2013). Call those directors auteurs and I won’t argue.

But consider these other examples: Does Mark Sandrich deserve primary credit for Top Hat (1935), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Shall We Dance (1937), or was Fred Astaire more responsible for their success? Sandrich never came close to making a movie as good as his Astaire-Rogers musicals. Michael Curtiz, on the other hand, made plenty of strong movies. But do you really think King Creole (1958) owes more to Curtiz’s direction than it does to Elvis Presley’s screen presence? Maybe the theory doesn’t apply so much in musicals. Let’s look elsewhere.

The screenwriter Sarris referenced in the opening quote, Paddy Chayefsky, penned two marvellous movies in the 1970s, and I suspect that if you watch The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976), you will notice a consistency that transcends the fact that they were directed by two different men. Is the overriding aesthetic of Shakespeare in Love (1998) more likely to have come from director John Madden, who has not to date directed another movie like it, or from screenwriter Tom Stoppard, the wittiest English language dramatist of the past fifty years? Michel Gondry has directed a handful of mediocre to poor movies in the past ten years. Are you prepared to award him credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), or is it more likely that the extraordinary Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is most responsible?

Forget screenwriters. Do you know who directed Jason and the Argonauts (1963)? Neither do I. But I know that Ray Harryhausen did the effects. Did Irvin Kershner ever direct another movie like The Empire Strikes Back (1980)? Is it likely that George Lucas had more to do with the finished product? Hugh Hudson went from Chariots of Fire (1981) to Greystoke (1984) in a couple of years. Doesn’t it make you consider how much Vangelis’ music and David Watkins’ cinematography meant to the Oscar-winner? When John Singleton had the best young cast in Hollywood, he made Boyz in the Hood (1991). He hasn’t come close to it since.

auteur theory upstream color

Upstream Color (2013)

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. There are simply too many talented artists involved in the creation of a movie to assign the director all the credit, all the time. And it’s this over-application that is most troublesome. Sarris initially conceived of the Auteur Theory as a method for evaluating directors, and it has real value when used in that limited manner. But that doesn’t mean it can be used to evaluate any individual movie. Each film needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Peter Bogdanovich began his directing career with four outstanding movies. He has never equaled them. What happened to him? On each of those first four movies, Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, played a crucial role. She wrote two of them, designed all of them. She even did the costumes. Bogdanovich and Platt split up after those four movies. I’m not suggesting that Platt was more instrumental than Bogdanovich on those first four. He deserves credit for making four very good movies. But I will note that Platt went on to produce or otherwise be involved in movies with Louis Malle and James L. Brooks, and that she produced Wes Anderson’s feature debut Bottle Rocket. A pretty significant impact on American film – and she never directed a thing.


Check out Simon Butler’s argument for the Auteur Theory here.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

9 thoughts on “Debating the Auteur Theory: An Argument Against

  1. Pingback: Nicholas Ray and Nicolas Rey on St. Nicholas Day | Bunnybun's Classic Movie Blog

  2. Jon, you’ve written a great article here that almost — but not quite — makes me want to join the other side. 😀 One thing I do want to stress is that I certainly believe in the contributions of individual cinematographers, editors, composers etc., and seeing a Surtees, Krasker or Roeg in the credits as behind the camera is more likely to get me thinking that there’s some quality there than not. Yet I still believe that the ultimate shape of a picture owes itself to the director — no matter whether it’s the studio era (and many great directors with defined cinematic characterstics, such as Lubitsch, for instance, worked then) or beyond. To my mind, the influence of a director is greatest of all contributors, as it helps to fashion a variety of disparate components into a whole.

  3. Hi Jon. A well-researched and compelling argument for your ‘side’ of this debate. Your examples are well-chosen, and very much prove your point. I have to agree that the description of directors as auteurs, is over-used, in the same way that over-use of the word ‘awesome’ (mainly by Americans), has diminished the true meaning of that word also.

    However, I still have to nail my colours to Simon’s mast, and go with my heart. Welles, Lean, Kurosawa, Renoir, Eisenstein et al. The list goes on. These were men who left a stamp on a film. Something easily identifiable, and they always produced outstanding results.
    Some are auteurs in the true sense, many are not. That’s how I see it.

    Great argument though, and I really enjoyed reading it.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I think we may not be as far apart on this as it initially appears. I have no trouble agreeing that some directors can be called auteurs. I just don’t believe they can all be so named, and I think the standards for awarding the title need to be fairly stringent. What I’m most appalled by is a first time director getting possessory credit for a movie written by a veteran, starring veterans, filmed by a veteran, etc… Directors need to earn their titles.

      • OK Jon, I think we sort of agree that only certain directors ‘qualify’ as auteurs. I think that some define their talent with their first efforts, but it depends on their consistency later on.
        Good argument though…
        Regards from England, Pete.

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