Every Comma Mattered: Sheila Benson’s Life & Times, by Chuck Wilson, friend & colleague

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Former Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson died February 23, 2022 of natural causes. She was 91. Admired by colleagues for the eloquence of her prose and by filmmakers and actors alike for her generosity of spirit, Sheila came to criticism quite naturally. Her parents were artists and writers. She herself studied ballet under the great Balanchine. Observing the world, onscreen and off, with an artist’s eye, was an intrinsic gift Sheila spent her life cultivating.

Sheila was born December 4, 1930 in New York City to museum curator-dioramist turned costume designer Dwight Franklin and novelist-screenwriter Mary C. McCall, Jr. During the Depression, the Franklin-McCall’s moved to Los Angeles. Sheila was four-years-old. Her parents found great success in Hollywood, with Dwight designing costumes for Cecil B. DeMille while Mary became the first woman to be voted president of the Writer’s Guild of America (twice).

Sheila attended Beverly Hills High School and studied theater arts at UCLA alongside classmates James Dean and Carol Burnett. Sheila would eventually become a writer like her mother, but in her heart of hearts, she was a dancer, and as a teenager, studied at the School of American Ballet under choreographer George Balanchine. A harsh taskmaster whom Sheila adored, the Russian master taught her a respect for rigor and detail that she would carry forth into her own work. For Sheila, every comma mattered. Intensely.

She would marry three times, first to photographer Charles W. Ashley, with whom she had two daughters, Ann and Eden. Later, she married developer Walter Benson, with whom she had her daughter, Caitlin. Some years later, in 1982, she married businessman Herman Hong, who would prove to be the great love of her life. This August would have been their 40th wedding anniversary.

By the end of her second marriage, Sheila was living in Mill Valley, California, and writing film criticism for the Pacific Sun. Sheila’s reviews were immensely popular and caught the attention of Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, who invited her to join the paper.

Soon, Sheila was back in the city of her upbringing, traveling to screenings at the movie studios at which her parents had once worked, often with their daughter at their side. Those years, along with her deep love of literature and art, infused every line of every review she wrote.

Sheila was the Chief Film Critic of the Los Angeles Times from 1981 to 1991 and Critic at Large from ’91 to ’92. She was invited to serve on the critic’s jury to many prestigious festivals, from her beloved Mill Valley Film Festival to Telluride, Toronto, Sundance, and Berlin. She often moderated onstage interviews with filmmakers and actors, including a grand one with Alfre Woodard as well as a nerve rattling but triumphant encounter with Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni.

In those years, Sheila won the adoration of L.A. Times readers, who were known to read her reviews aloud or cut them out and post them on the fridge. Her reviews turned many small, no-budget releases, such as Some Girls and One False Move, into local hits.

Carl Franklin and Jesse Beaton, the director and producer, respectively, of One False Move, credit Sheila’s early support with helping the film, now hailed as a masterpiece, gain a nationwide release. “She changed the course of both our lives,” Beaton said upon learning of Sheila’s passing.

As Hollywood turned to superheroes and L.A. traffic became a bit too awful to bear, Sheila stepped away from the Times and she and Herman moved to Seattle and a new life. There, they made many new friends, and as in Los Angeles and Mill Valley, the Benson-Hong house was always brimming with activity. Dinner, of course, was served after 9 p.m. when it could be savored and the day fully discussed and appreciated. If you called, and you were welcome to call late, Sheila might talk with you, but Herman would surely chime in, his commentary laced with laughter. There was much laughter in that house. Laughter and joy and enviably good food.

Sheila was with us for 91 years and each was full to bursting with life.

Sheila Benson is survived by her husband, Herman Hong, and daughters, Ann Brooke Ashley, Eden Ashley Umble, and Caitlin Benson Hartford, and sons-in-law Michael Umble and Tim Hartford. She doted on her four grandchildren, Chloe & Riley Umble, and Samantha & Michael Hartford. She is also survived by her sister, Mary David Sheiner, and niece, Laurel Phillips.

Plans for a Sheilabration (multi-city tour) will be announced later this year.

In lieu of flowers, her family invites you to consider a donation in her memory to support human rights (refugee aid for Ukraine), reproductive rights, literacy, or voters’ rights – all causes near and dear to her activist’s heart.

What’s kept Argo’s flame burning brightly

I have a hunch about what’s helped keep Argo’s awards slowly, stubbornly piling up inside Hollywood: Benghazi and its seemingly interminable fallout.

Argo opened one month and a day after that murderous attack. It was a month that reshaped what we knew about the realities of  “diplomacy” when, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of State, the bodies of our Ambassador to Libya and three men who tried to save him were returned to their families and to a largely uncomprehending country.

And as we began to think about what it is that diplomats do, Argo arrived to show us. It was deadly-real and it was Hollywood-real; it had the look of newsreel footage and a grand, bogus bigger-than-life finale, and at its core were six, human, identifiable characters – diplomats all.

At its most deadly serious, Argo was sound for sound, action for action, what happens when an American embassy (consulate, mission) is overrun in a decidedly unfriendly country. Even when Benghazi became political attack fodder, Argo’s resonance of resilience under fire lingered.  Last week, the film got gold-standard corroboration from Hillary Clinton, during her day-long testimony about Benghazi to both houses of Congress, when she said,

“Marine security guards, as you know, are very much a presence on more than 150 of our posts.  . . If you saw the recent movie Argo, you saw the Marines in there destroying classified material when the mob was outside in Tehran.”

Having your movie taken as a point of reference by the Secretary of State  must have given Ben Affleck a not-bad day, although he’s been having a lot of those recently (the Producers Guild Award, back-to-back with the Screen Actors Guild Best Cast win, on top of all those other odd-shaped awards Argo has collected for all its artists along the way.)

But I think that Argo does something well beyond winning awards: it connects us to that soaring, exuberant, embarrassing emotion, patriotism, in the same way that the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir did when they took “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to pure lump-in-your throat, tear-stained national pride at Obama’s Inauguration.  For every one of Argo’s artists, its portrait of American patriots, in Hollywood, Tehran and even Washington D.C. may have come at exactly the right moment.