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Sheila Benson, former LA Times film critic, dies at 91

Sheila Benson, who was chief film critic at The Times from 1981 to 1991, died in Seattle on February 23 at the age of 91. Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Eden Umble. A cause of death was not announced.

Benson was born on December 4, 1930 in New York City. Her father, Dwight Franklin, was a costume designer on many films, including Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate. Her mother, Mary C. McCall Jr., was a screenwriter and novelist, charter member and the first president of the Writers Guild of America.

Benson grew up in Beverly Hills and graduated from Beverly Hills High School. She attended UCLA, where her classmates in the acting department were Carol Burnett and James Dean.

Umble recalled how the family put together a memory book for Benson’s 90th birthday because they couldn’t throw a proper party due to COVID, and that “we’ve heard from so many people saying they made a career out of her because she did everything to do something for the people because she believed in them and because she could. It’s a big part of her, she was very generous and very thoughtful, and she was a great cheerleader. She was a great person to have in your corner.”

Before joining The Times, Benson was a film critic for the Pacific Sun in Mill Valley, California for eight years and reviewed films for a Marin County radio station. She also served as a film critic for Microsoft’s interactive film guide Cinemania from its entire run in the 1990s. She was a member of the National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

Benson also taught a critical writing course at UCLA. She was a jury member at film festivals in Berlin, Sundance, Seattle and others. Her writing has also appeared in publications such as Variety, Film Comment, Premiere and the New York Times.

After working for the LA Times, Benson moved to Seattle in 1996 and most recently lived in Bellingham, Washington.

The Berlin International Film Festival 1985 International Jury with Sheila Benson

Sheila Benson, bottom row, third from left, was a member of the international jury at the 1985 Berlin International Film Festival.

(Erika Rabau / Ullsteinbild via Getty Images)

Barbara Saltzman, editor of the Daily Calendar at The Times when Benson was a film critic, recalled, “No matter what Sheila wrote, whether it was a positive, lukewarm, or negative review of a film, you could always sense that she had tremendous love and had affection not only for the art of making films but also for the people who made them.

“She was a firm believer that no writer, director or actor wanted to make a bad movie,” added Saltzman. “Whenever she criticized a film, she did so with an inner friendliness that made her criticism more of a lesson in what not to do than a callous, random attack. Because of that, the people whose films she reviewed always had her on their side, even when she realized in press that the film wasn’t very good.”

Her tenure as a film critic at The Times coincided with the rise of 1980s Hollywood blockbusters and the American independent scene. Her notable reviews at the time included Return of the Jedi, where she astutely predicted the longevity of the Star Wars series.

She panned the first Back to the Future but gave a positive review to the first sequel Back to the Future Part II. Among her many other reviews were positive references to Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape”. She was an early critical supporter of filmmaker Michael Mann and actress Laura Dern.

Contrary to popular belief that critics all hated him at the time, Benson gave Elaine May’s “Ishtar” a mostly positive review, capturing what many have come to appreciate about the film over the past several years. Benson hailed the film as “a love letter to showbiz dreamers,” adding, “It’s a smart, generous, and really fun thing to do. Sometimes, like the camel that almost saunters away with the picture, it’s a bit dated, but it’s based on a most astute vision of life.”

This opinion was shared by Chuck Wilson, a film critic in Los Angeles who was mentored by Benson. He recalled: “She was just effusive. Sheila lived brilliantly. Sheila lived so full every day. Sheila loved the movies, but she really loved life. She taught you that life was always better than the movies.”

She is survived by her third husband, businessman Herman Hong. Her previous husbands, photographer Charles Ashley and real estate developer Walter Benson, both predeceased her. Benson had three daughters – Eden Umble and Ann Brooke Ashley with her first husband and Caitlin Hartford with her second. She had four grandchildren. She is also survived by a sister, Mary David Sheiner, and a niece, Laurel Phillips.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-02-28/sheila-benson-times-film-critic-dead-at-91 Sheila Benson, former LA Times film critic, dies at 91

Caroline Bleakley

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