Sheila Benson, former Times film critic, dies at 91

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

Benson was born in New York City on Dec. 4, 1930. 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 who was a charter member and the first female president of the Writers Guild of America.

Raised in Beverly Hills, Benson graduated from Beverly Hills High School. She attended UCLA, where her drama department classmates included Carol Burnett and James Dean.

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

Prior to joining The Times, Benson was film critic of the Pacific Sun in Mill Valley, Calif., for eight years and reviewed film for a Marin County radio station. She also served as film critic for Microsoft’s interactive movie 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 course on critical writing at UCLA. She was on film festival juries at Berlin, Sundance, Seattle and others. Her writing also appeared in publications including Variety, Film Comment, Premiere and the New York Times.

After working at the L.A. Times, Benson moved to Seattle in 1996 and had most recently lived in Bellingham, Wash.

Sheila Benson, bottom row, third from the left, was on the Berlin International Film Festival 1985 international jury. 
(Erika Rabau / Ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Barbara Saltzman, Daily Calendar editor at The Times when Benson was 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 a tremendous love and affection not only for the art of making movies but also for the people who made them.

“She firmly believed that no writer or director or actor set out to make a bad film,” added Saltzman. “Whenever she did criticize a film she did so with an inner kindness that made her critique more of a lesson on what not to do, than a callous, random attack. Because of that, I think the people whose films she reviewed always felt she was on their side even when she noted in print that the film was not very good.”

Her time as film critic at The Times coincided with the rise of both the ‘80s Hollywood blockbuster and the American independent scene. Among her notable reviews at the time was “Return of the Jedi,” where she astutely foretold the longevity of the “Star Wars” series.

She panned the first “Back to the Future” but gave a positive review to its first sequel, “Back to the Future Part II.” Among her many other reviews were positive notices for 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 the popular conception that critics at the time all hated it, Benson gave a mostly favorable review to Elaine May’s “Ishtar,” capturing what many have come to appreciate about the movie in more recent years. Celebrating the film as “a love letter to show-biz dreamers” Benson added, “It is a smart, generous, genuinely funny affair. Sometimes, like the camel who almost ambles away with the picture, it’s longish in the tooth, but it is based on an extremely astute vision of life.”

That sentiment was echoed by Chuck Wilson, a film critic in Los Angeles who was mentored by Benson. As he recalled, “She just was exuberant. Sheila lived brilliantly. Sheila lived so fully every day. Sheila loved the movies, but she really loved living. 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 niece, Laurel Phillips.

Mark Olsen
Staff writer, LA times

Original LA Times Source

Enduring Gift – Ann Ashley, daughter

I think the most enduring gift we had from our mother was her unhesitating, ceaseless support. From earliest memory, no matter how outlandish our suggestions she would say only “Are you sure you want to do this?” “Ohhh, YES,”  we’d say, eyes alight with the newest venture.

And that was all it would take.

Her own parents, a writer-mother whose talents were equaled only by her self-absorption, and a gentle artist father, seemed to have left her to her own devices for the most part. Where she developed her empathetic well of support is a mystery, but it remained a constant throughout her life. Freely and generously dispensed, it was not limited just to family, although we certainly enjoyed the lion’s share. 

 We were lucky enough to watch as she emerged from being a parent to three daughters to a writer inventing herself as she grew. She was a marvelous example to us, and continued; helping and encouraging other writers, filmmakers and myriad artists. 

There was no shortage of stimulii, strong and witty friends gathered at the dinner table; one remarking that it was like being the shuttlecock at a badminton game. But good humour abounded, and now in her absence, remains a lasting memory that we can all cherish. What a gift she gave us all.  

Strays – Caitlin Benson Hartford, daughter

My mother took in strays. Not dog and cat strays, the house already had two or three much-loved cats and she would never have risked disturbing the feline harmony with an outsider.  No, she took in human strays. I don’t mean down-and-outs; Mom’s strays had perfectly nice families somewhere else. They were new arrivals who had just opened that funky store that caught her eye, international students far from home, and folks whose creative endeavors as writers, artists, or filmmakers my mother championed. And yes, some were hitchhikers encountered on the side of Hwy 101 that ran through our Marin County town. It was the early 1970s when hitchhiking, although lawfully prohibited in California since 1959, was nonetheless common. She welcomed them to her nest where her own brood of three daughters lived, aged tiny to mid-teen. In our house they found a place at the table and perhaps a couch for the night. I am the youngest and this was the age where my own memories are few and hazy and primarily enhanced by family stories of what really happened. I do recall quite well, however, the young man she found along the highway as he tried to make his way penniless to Los Angeles to search for his sister after being separated through different foster care placements. He repaid my mother’s generosity by not bothering her for a lift back to the edge of town the next morning, instead letting himself out before dawn with my middle sister’s piggy bank.  

Some might ask, “Well, what did you expect?” and the answer would be “the best.” My mother saw and expected the best in people. Not naively in a Pollyanna way, but because she took the time to listen and find that interesting aspect of their lives, recognizing kindness, talent, or warmth in just about anyone. She’d come home from, well from anywhere really, and recount the details of the new dental hygienist, the woman working the counter at the art gallery, or the waiter who had an interesting accent. The sisters and I would roll our eyes a bit and say, “Save the details, Mom. We’ll meet them at Thanksgiving.” And while we were teasing her, it was not an unimaginable circumstance. Many of my mother’s strays came for a meal and over time were woven into the fabric of our family such that we now have sisters and brothers whose birth certificates would beg to differ. Not all her strays were adopted; some went their own way after a spell, their presence memorialized by a piece of their art on the wall, a book, or a favorite dish. I don’t remember who Bob was, but fifty years later Bob’s Casserole remains a family staple.  

Simply, my mother recognized value and beauty in those near her and made sure they knew it. Ninety-one years’ worth of people are fortunate to have been folded into her life. I count myself eternally thankful to be one of them.