By BILL BRUNS and SUE PASCOE
On March 25, longtime Pacific Palisades resident Kenneth Turan tweeted: “After close to 30 years in the most exciting and rewarding of jobs, I am stepping away from being a daily film critic for the Los Angeles Times. I will keep writing about film but at a different pace. To quote Ecclesiastes, ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’ Looking forward to what’s to come.”
Turan, 73, has been a Times film critic since April 1991, when he reviewed the crime dramedy “The Object of Beauty.” His latest reviews for the paper were “Balloon,” the East Berlin escape drama, and “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations,” on March 12.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Turan’s love of movies began early. With an observant Orthodox father, the young Turan had few opportunities to go to local movie houses. But he watched the “Million Dollar Movie” offerings on television, which introduced him to the cinematic experience.
In a 2016 article for the Palisades News (“Turan: Viewing with a Critical Eye”), Libby Motika wrote: “Without realizing it, Turan was becoming a critic as he began to form opinions, analyzing a film by trying to figure out how and why it was doing what it was doing.
“The boy critic became a professional critic by way of a fortuitous conversation with Judith Crist, one of New York’s top film critic, whose seminar in film reviewing Turan took while pursuing his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia.”
“She said to me, ‘You could do this, you could be in this line of work,’ Turan recalled. “As anyone who ever met her knows, when Judith Crist spoke, you listened.”
Motika continued, “Of course, becoming a full-time film critic did not come easy. Turan says it took 20 to 25 years of freelance assignments plus writing stints at the Washington Post and several magazines [TV Guide, GQ, California] to figure out how and why he was doing this work.
“‘Through focusing intently on what I liked and disliked, it gradually became a process of finding out what was important to me on a broader scale,’ Turan said. ‘A way to find out, in short, who I am.’”
After graduating from Swarthmore College and earning his masters at Columbia, Turan started his career as a sports reporter for the Washington Post, while also authoring two books: “The Future Is Now: George Allen, Pro Football’s Most Controversial Coach, With William Gildea” (1972) and “I’d Rather Be Wright: Memoirs of an Itinerant Tackle (1974). He also wrote “Sinema: American Pornographic Films and the People Who Make Them (1975).
In the mid-1970s, Turan became a staff writer at the Post and also began writing about movies. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1990, was hired as the interim book editor at the L.A. Times. He has served as the director of the Times Book Prizes since 1993.
During his career at the Times, despite the pressure of watching and reviewing two to four movies every week, Turan managed to author or co-author seven books.
His film-related books include “Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made” (2003); “Never Coming to a Theater Near You” (2004); “Now in Theaters Everywhere” (2007) and “Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film” (2016).
His autobiographical books are “Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke,” with Patty Duke” (1987) and “Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told,” with Joseph Papp (2010).
Although Turan is widely respected for his judgement and fairness as a critic, certainly not everyone has agreed with him.
When he panned James Cameron’s blockbuster movie about an ocean liner and an iceberg (“Titanic’ Sinks Again [Spectacularly],” he wrote: “For seeing ‘Titanic’ almost makes you weep in frustration. Not because of the excessive budget, not even because it recalls the unnecessary loss of life in the real 1912 catastrophe, which saw more than 1,500 of the 2,200-plus passengers dying when an iceberg sliced the ship open like a can opener. What really brings on the tears is Cameron’s insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities. Not only isn’t it, it isn’t even close.”
Cameron called the Times and demanded that Turan be fired. He even took out a full-page advertisement urging such action. But nobody could sink this critic.
“No, in general, what I think is what I think,” he answered.
When his book audiences (including those in the Palisades) pushed him to reveal a favorite movie, he selected “Casablanca.”
“I could see it over and over again,” he said. “This was supposed to be a programmer, not a major film. The story, acting, humor, sophistication: it’s a miracle it turned out the way it did. No amount of analysis will get you to the heart of the film. It is a marvelous film.”
In an 2016 essay he wrote about “Fifty-Four Favorites,” Turan noted that “…I took it as a good sign that my list ended up striking something of a balance between films like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Godfather’ that everyone will have seen and those like ‘First Contact’ and ‘Leolo’ that have a more limited following. I re-saw each one before writing an accompanying essay and made sure each one fit a specification Roger Ebert once laid down: ‘Every great film should seem new every time you see it.’”
Turan is also a film critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and teaches film reviewing and non-fiction writing at USC.
Justin Chang, who took Turan’s class at USC and is now the Times’ sole regular film critic, tweeted on March 25: “Can’t begin to express what Kenny Turan means to me — his words, his wit, his decency, his friendship. This is a loss for movie lovers, Los Angeles, journalism, and for me personally. I’m grieving. I’m also thrilled for him, and grateful to have had the very best of colleagues.”
In an email to Circling the News this week, Turan said, “Friday, April 3, is my official last day. It does feel good to have made the decision to step away from the grind, that’s for sure. I have some book ideas, but no signed contract yet. Believe it or not, I’m teaching my USC class via Zoom video. Kind of amazing.”