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A Fearless Critic: Michael Wilmington (1946-2022)

Hearing the sad news late last night of the passing of film critic Michael Wilmington, I thought immediately of another self-made, unflappable, larger than life figure. Like Augie March, Wilmington “touched all sides.”

“He was a great actor who wandered off into the field of film criticism and mastered that terrain as well with his profound knowledge as well as mischievous wit and indelible wisdom,” author/critic Joseph McBride wrote on his Facebook page. With McBride, Wilmington is the co-author of John Ford (1974, BFI), a superb and vital critical analysis of the director’s formidable body of work.

“His writing on film was always incisive, honest, and thoughtful. He taught me most of what I know about acting,” McBride said.

Michael Wilmington (1946-2022), died Thursday afternoon in hospice care at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was preceded in death by his beloved mother, Edna Tulane, who died at the age of 94 in 2009.

After short stints in Arlington, Virginia and Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Michael grew up in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, near Lake Geneva. He played football and basketball in high school and served as the captain of the forensics team.

Wilmington, McBride, Patrick McGilligan, the Peary brothers (Gerald and Danny), Peter Brunette, and others, were part of the remarkable “They Marched into Sunlight,” generation of writers, critics, and cultural historians who came of age at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, during the anti-Vietnam student protest movement.

Michael toggled, seamlessly, between theater, arts, performance, and writing. He was part of the nascent film and theater scene there, also an early member of an earlier iteration of Organic Theater that Stuart Gordon created at Madison. Wilmington was part of a legendary Gordon production of “Peter Pan,” that was threatened with closure by the Madison police after word circulated of 10 female undergraduates appearing nude. (At the time of his announcement as the new film critic at the Chicago Tribune, in 1993, Wilmington expressed regret for turning down Gordon’s offer to join his new troupe in Chicago.) McBride directed Wilmington twice, including a production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. (“He was brilliant.”)

Michael was the lead critic for Madison’s student paper from 1970 to 1972. He also wrote extensively for the city’s alternative weekly, Isthmus. Another close friend during the period was the filmmaker and editor Barry Alexander Brown, who became a crucial Spike Lee collaborator.

After his graduation from Madison, Michael spent time in New York with Brown trying to make a go as an actor and screenwriter. The Ford book led to writing gigs at Sight & Sound and Film Comment. He spent much of the 1980s and early '90s in Los Angeles.

He was the film editor and critic at the LA Weekly when his friend, Jack Matthews, became the film editor of the Los Angeles Times. Michael joined him there in 1984, and began a long and prolific tenure.

He developed his trademark staccato voice of a “radical traditionalist,” insurgents who loved equally the studio masters of Ford and Hawks and unclassifiable individualists like Orson Welles, Sam Fuller, and Stanley Kubrick and the iconoclastic post-war figures of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Elaine May.

Until the end of his life, Michael prioritized the idea of the European master. One of my favorite anecdotes he told me was Oliver Stone calling him up, and yelling into the phone, “You owe me $10,” after Stone had gone to see Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Midst,” on the basis of his passionate endorsement.

Michael turned up in Chicago in the fall of 1993 after Dave Kehr left that summer for a job at the New York Daily News. It was well known at the time the editors wanted to hire a woman. The preferred candidates turned down the inquiries. Gary Dretzka, the former Tribune entertainment editor, brought Michael to Chicago. His first Tribune review was of Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence.”

Michael was astoundingly prolific during his first decade at the Tribune. He wrote full length reviews, capsules, a lot of short festival pieces and sidebars and director’s interviews. I remember, by chance, looking up and seeing he had close to 1,400 bylines for one year.

It was during this time I got to know Michael, personally and professionally. We stayed together three times at Cannes, in 1996, 1997, and 1998.

The Chicago Tribune provided stability and a prominent platform. He felt burned by the editors at the Los Angeles Times, who in his telling, lured him from the LA Weekly, with the promise of a staff job that never actually materialized. 

Even if he wasn’t the first choice of his editors, Michael was not going to take anything for granted. He was going to continue to hustle.

At Cannes, Michael loved the ritual and pomp of the festival. He loved blowing off the early morning competition press screenings in favor of getting dressed up in his formal wear for the evening premieres at the Lumiere.

If Michael was your friend, he fought for you. The notoriously thin-skinned and paranoid local Warners rep was blacklisting the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum from local screenings at that time, and Michael used his new found clout to intercede on Jonathan’s behalf.

He did the same with me, opening up a brief moment that allowed me to do some freelance reviews for the Tribune. He also, I learned from other sources, advocated for my behalf with some Chicago publicists who were reluctant to include me on their own screening invitation lists.

Michael was a lot of things, cantankerous, rough hewn, sometimes quick to anger, often hard to hear or difficult to understand. Technology easily flummoxed him. He was, to state the obvious, not socially skilled. He was also generous, warm, funny, unpredictable, and a blast to be around.

That authentic intensity is what drew people to Michael, and allowed them to forgive his quirks and sometimes prickly behavior. I saw it first hand, in the presence of powerful, important artistic figures, like Altman or Jaqueline Bisset, and one could immediately sense the genuine, emphatic, and tender qualities in the man.

The passion, the depth and intensity of his feelings, about acting, about a specific director, or a movement, became his own governing principles. Even when you argued with him over a director, the way I did with him about Kazan, for instance, I always respected what he had to say.

His mother’s passing was a death knell. It brought about his return to Los Angeles. He wrote about new movies and DVD releases for the website Movie City News.

“A poet takes words, thoughts and objects, talks colors and feelings, and makes them palpably physical and dancingly metaphoric,” begins Wilmington’s apparently last published critical piece, writing about Jim Jarmusch’s “Patterson,” on December 30, 2016.

Despite the intense physical and emotional hardships he suffered, Michael was fearless until the end. He cut his own path, and he went his own way. He burned bridges. 

Nobody I have known has ever taken so much pure delight and pleasure in the act of watching movies. My favorite personal memory took place at Cannes one of those years we stayed together. He was telling me about a friend and his particular difficulties, with editors and deadlines, and what a difficult experience he was going through that day. In the middle of the telling, Michael suddenly stopped and said, “You’re in the South of France, watching movies, how bad can it be?”

(Photo Credit: A still from an upcoming film that 24x24 films LLC is making about Michael Wilmington, "Always Another Movie/The Michael Wilmington Story" [to be finished in 2022]).

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog, http://lightsensitive.typepad.com/light-sensitive.

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