That was the question once asked by writer Ted Elrick, his answer coming in the form the essay Classic is in the Eye—and Mind—of the Beholder (as published in DGA News Magazine, Feb. 1992). Elrick gave the daunting task of defining that elusive quality which differentiates a good movie from a classic film to over 100 people working in the entertainment industry. Many of them were veterans of the classic silver screen themselves– still with us when the story went to print back in 1992.
Below are a few of the highlights from this most insightful piece, written at the height of the industry’s first major rally in Washington on the issue of film preservation, and I hope it provides much food for thought…and discussion.
A classic film must stand the test of time, have universality of appeal, and be a reflection of the society at the time it was made, but must not seem dated.
An impossible question. A classic film is one that was not quite like those that went before and was not quite like those that followed.
Something that lasts. If they really last I would say they fit the description of a classic. … Universal truth and something that appeals to everyone. The reason of life.
The elements that go into making a film a classic are a timeless story and a script that have a meaningful subtext, outstanding direction that enhances the script, great ensemble acting by the cast and exceptional cinematic treatment in every department.
Edward James Olmos
A classic film takes us into an experience and grounds us into something eternal.
A classic film is one that leaves me intellectually stunned and so emotionally drained that I can’t get up from my seat. It accepts and incorporates the established conventions of art of filmmaking and takes it to the highest levels or artistic superiority that it stands the test of time.
A classic film is not necessarily of a time. Whatever its theme was, whatever its point of view was, it was not only pertinent then, it’s pertinent now. (his example: Citizen Kane)
When a film creates a world and characters that you are compelled to visit again and again, it is a classic. (His examples: Sunset Blvd, Rear Window, Lolita, 8 ½)
That’s a very tough question when you come right down to it. More than ever, it’s survivability.
Any film you can watch after 20 years without embarrassment has a chance to become a classic.
If a picture’s not credible, then it can’t be memorable. [It must] touch upon great truth.
John Levin (agent)
A classic film is one that continues to amuse, move or frighten years of moviegoers with the appreciation and passion deepening with each new generation. (His example: The Wizard of Oz)
Diane Cairns (ICM agent)
A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.
A film is a classic because it is unique in conception and execution and it exposes human weaknesses and strengths with a cinematic eloquence and beauty which enlightens, astonishes and entertains. (His examples: Welles, Kurosawa, Chaplin)