Sheila Benson, who was chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1981-1991, died February 23 in Seattle. She was 91.
A gregarious enthusiast who always hoped for the best when the lights went down, Benson came from a family with strong ties to the film industry. She was born in New York City, where her father, Dwight Franklin, created dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History before heading for Hollywood in the mid-1920s to work on the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Black Pirate. For the next 25 years, Franklin worked in various capacities on many films, notably handling costumes on several major Cecil B. DeMille productions.
Benson’s mother, Mary C. McCall Jr., studied at Vassar and Trinity College in Dublin, and in 1932 published her first novel, The Goldfish Bowl. The book was bought by Warner Bros and that same year was made into a film called It’s Tough to Be Famous starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
McCall wrote or co-wrote many more films including Babbitt, Dr. Socrates, Craig’s Wife, eight of the 10 Maisie movies and rewriting Shakespeare for Warner Bros’ 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But McCall was arguably best known for her long involvement in the Writers’ Guild, where she was a charter member, served six terms on the executive board beginning in 1935, and was the first female president of the WGA, from 1942-44 and again from 1951-52.
It’s fair to say that McCall’s daughter grew up with movies in her blood and a strong knowledge of Hollywood, both the town and the industry. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Sheila studied drama at UCLA, where among her classmates were Carol Burnett and James Dean.
Given her background, it’s easy to see why she was such an enthusiast; very few critics, if any at that time, have enjoyed this sort of ringside seat to the film business from the outset. Unlike more curmudgeonly or circumspect critics, Benson fundamentally had an open mind and, I truly believe, hoped to like any film she went to see. Of course, there were many films, notably during the not-so-hot decade of the 1980s, that didn’t make the grade, but she always gave what she saw a fair shake and her knowledge of the medium was imposing.
Earlier in her career, Benson spent eight years as a critic reviewing films for the Pacific Sun in Mill Valley, CA. During the 1990s she spoke about films for a radio station in Marin County as well as for Microsoft’s interactive movie guide Cinemania. In addition to her continued writing for numerous publications, she taught critical writing at UCLA and served on numerous film festival juries including at Berlin, Sundance and Seattle.
Benson was, in a word, exuberant. I shared screening rooms and cinemas with her many times, and she always seemed eager for a nourishing, energizing, even revelatory experience, or at least a good time. We all know that this will often not be the case. But it was always clear that she loved her job and, when you’re a critic, the next film is never very far off.
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