Backgrounder: A.O. Scott

“Just who do we think we are?” film critic A.O. Scott asked himself sarcastically in a July 2006 New York Times article entitled “Avast, Me critics! Ye kill the fun,” in which Scott contrasts the disdain of film critics with the public’s enthusiasm for blockbusters, such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Spiderman 2. Some might dispute his opinions, but Scott isn’t overly concerned with agreement; “My hope is that people think about my review and make up their own mind about the movie,” he explained in a September 2006 e-mail interview with this reporter.

At first glance, being a film critic looks like a dream job: you see as many movies as you want — for free no less - and take occasional forays to exotic locals like Cannes. But, as Scott points out in the July Times article, movie going is tough work. “We take entertainment very seriously,” he wrote of critics, “which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.” How do reviews help the average moviegoer you might ask? In an email to this reporter, Scott answered, “because the readers, who are inundated with hype and spin, deserve to have someone talk to them seriously and honestly about movies (or any other art form), and that is what critics are for.”

Since joining The New York Times in 2000, Scott has offered his readers witty, sarcastic, and sometimes harsh reviews of documentaries, foreign films, and blockbusters. Over the past six years, he has written more than seven hundred reviews. As a body of work, they reveal his many sides: film guru, literary intellectual, and social commentator. “I just write what makes sense to me to write, which sometimes includes social commentary, sometimes jokes, sometimes personal reflections, etc,” he told this reporter. Scott’s review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ exemplifies his refusal to equivocate, regardless of the controversy surrounding a film. “The Passion of the Christ,” wrote Scott, “is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.”

The Brooklyn-based critic was born in Northampton, Massachusetts on July 10, 1966. “I grew up in an itinerant academic family,” Scott told this reporter. After Massachusetts, Scott and his family hit the road and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, then to Chicago, then Chapel Hill, North Carolina, then to Princeton, New Jersey, finally landing in Providence, Road Island, where he attended high school.

He earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard University in 1988. Upon graduation, Scott found himself at Johns Hopkins University in the American Literature graduate program. After spending what he describes as “too many years teaching and working on a dissertation I didn’t feel like writing,” he came to the realization “that journalism—criticism specifically—was much more suited to my temperament and ambitions.”

When Scott realized that graduate school was not for him, he started writing occasional freelance book reviews for The Nation. At the time, The Nation was looking for a new kind of writer, and Scott fit the mold. “They were interested in finding new writers, youngish people, who would be willing to write for 10 cents a word, which I, not knowing any better and wanting very much to see my work published, was,” Scott recalled. He went on to contribute reviews to other high profile publications, such as the Village Voice and Newsday. After making a name for himself in critical circles, Scott took an editorial job at The New York Review of Books in 1997.

By chance, a 1999 piece he wrote on Martin Scorsese for Slate, “Martin Scorsese: The Vicar of Cinema,” caught the attention of some editors at The New York Times who encouraged him to apply for an open film critic position. “They asked me if I wanted to apply and, thinking it was the longest of long shots, I did and, much to my surprise and everyone else’s, got the job,” Scott said in a September e-mail. His method for landing prestigious jobs was no secret, “I think (at the risk of sounding like a jerk) that I’m fairly easy to work with. I tend to make deadlines, to hand in clean copy, and to treat editors with respect and courtesy even when I’m arguing with them.”

Scott continues to write book reviews, literary essays, and to cover the debates that occasionally consume critical circles for The New York Times. In “In Search of the Best,” an article he wrote for the Times in May 2006, Scott explores the myth of the “great American novel.” The article analyzes the last twenty-five years of American literature. Drawing parallels between the best of contemporary fiction, he points out similarities between novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, both of which connect personal struggles to social and political movements. In light of Scott’s avid interest in American literature, it should come as no surprise that he is currently working on a book about the evolution of the American novel since World War II.

Scott says his success as a critic is the result of his “willingness to try new things and accept interesting-sounding assignments even when they seemed to come out of left field.” Just as important as his knack for pleasing editors is his ability to entertain and intrigue his readers. Scott creates a dialogue with his audience, explaining his opinions and presenting an argument instead of a decree. This sets him apart from the vast majority of critics today. He uses his wide breadth of knowledge to contextualize his opinions. Scott’s “savvy criticism bristles with references from all kinds of culture,” according to “The New Kids in the Balcony,” a 1999 article by Sean Elder.

Kari Lipschutz is a junior at NYU, where she is majoring in broadcast journalism. She also serves as the Berlin editor for Baedeker, NYU’s travel publication.


Elder, Sean. “The New Kids in the Balcony.” Salon. 9 December 1999.

“Film Critic Biography: A.O. Scott.” The New York Times. 17 September 2006.

Scott, A.O. “Avast, Me critics! Ye kill the fun.” The New York Times. 18 July 2006. 19 September 2006.

Scott, A.O. “In Search of the Best.” The New York Times. 21 May 2006. 18 September 2006.

Scott, A.O. “Good And Evil Locked In a Violent Showdown.” The New York Times. 25 February 2004. 3 October 2006.

Scott, A.O. “Martin Scorcese: The Vicar of Cinema.” Slate. 9 October 1999. 9 October 2006.

Scott, A.O. “Re: Backgrounder.” E-mail to the author. 20 September 2006.

Scott, A.O. “Re: Backgrounder.” E-mail to the author. 1 October 2006.