Susan Stark, longtime Detroit film critic, dies at 80

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Susan Stark, a longtime Detroit film critic who "loved being in that world between the artists and the average person," died Friday at a New York hospital beside her daughters. She was 80 years old.

Ms. Stark died from cancer a week after checking into a New York hospital. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer 20 years ago and had a clean bill of health until recently, her friends and family said.

"She had not been feeling well since the first of the year," said longtime friend Judy Diebolt. "She was always active, a walker that loved yoga, but after she checked into the hospital last Friday, they found many tumors."

Susan Stark on July 17, 1991.

Ms. Stark was born on July 9, 1940, in New York City. She's the daughter of Albert A. and Lillian Rothenberg. A graduate of Smith College, Ms. Stark went on to study English and literature at Harvard University.

In March 1968, Ms. Stark moved to Detroit from New York to marry late Detroit News columnist and editor Al Stark, who suggested she'd enjoy writing for the newspaper. But at the time, The News wasn't hiring. But Mort Persky, the Detroit Free Press features editor was.

She and Mr. Stark had two daughters they raised in Detroit, Allana and Paula-Rose. 

"I used to love going to the movies with her," said Paula-Rose, 46. "She was the local celebrity. People always wanted to catch her outside of the movie and they would give their own review. I think she liked that too. She loved being in that world between the artists and the average person. She also liked to understand the people that read the paper."

Susan Stark died Friday, March 12, 2021.

Ms. Stark spent 11 years as a film critic for the Free Press before joining The News in 1979. After 34 years and a conservative estimate of 6,800 movie reviews, she retired from The News in December 2002.

In her farewell column, Ms. Stark said she remembers when the paper took a stand against X-rated pictures, no advertising and no reviews.

Her first review for the Detroit Free Press ran in August 1968, "a visually enchanting Swedish import 'Elvira Madigan,' " she wrote.

She started as a professional critic the year of "The Graduate" and also "I Am Curious (Yellow)," a C-minus pornographic film from Sweden, and said it set her on a course "I could not possibly have envisioned," she wrote.

In her final reviews, she gave positive notices to "Elvira Madigan" and the film version of "Chicago."

"As a critic, I come to the movies with no fixed expectations," Ms. Stark wrote. "I allow each film to tell me what kind of response it hopes to evoke and then I judge it on the goals it makes clear. Over the years, therefore, my reviews of quality films have praised them for the way they fulfill their mission: to intrigue, amuse, instruct, cleanse, horrify, whatever."

Ms. Stark cherished movies that humanized the viewer. She touted actress Meryl Streep saying, "From where I sit, Streep is not only the greatest screen actor of our time, but also the most sensible person involved in screen acting that I have ever interviewed. I submit to you that the two aspects of her greatness are not unrelated."

Paying homage to her younger daughter and grandmother named Rose, she used roses to rank movies, four roses being the highest ranking.

"I would give her four big roses," Paula-Rose Stark said.

Ms. Stark loved to travel up until the lockdown, her daughter Allana Stark said.

"I'm actually sitting in her New York apartment looking at a wall covered in paintings and art she's collected from her travels since she was 16," said Allana Stark, 49. "She was a very talented watercolorist, did a lot of painting during her retirement, was a mother of several cats and stepmother to my father's four children from his previous marriage."

Ms. Stark wished not to have a funeral or memorial service, her daughters said. But in honor of her memory, donations can be made to breast cancer research charities or the ASPCA.

Diebolt, a longtime friend and newspaper colleague of Stark's for nearly 50 years, said she died shortly before cocktail hour, a time they often shared with a long-distance phone call and drink of their choice.

"We first met when I was a reporter at the Freep and she was the new film critic in the 1970s. She made the leap to The News first and I joined after," Diebolt said. "She loved Belle Isle, Eastern Market and had a very fine intellect. She spoke flawless French and Italian. I can remember in her 50s for fun, she translated Dante's Inferno from the original Italian."

Back in the day, Diebolt says, newspapers were a big deal and Ms. Stark was sent everywhere from New York to Paris for a story.

"She was a marquee name," Diebolt said. "At the time, they would promote people heavily and have billboards with her face reading, 'Sit in the dark with Susan Stark.' "

Marty Fischhoff, a former Detroit News assistant managing editor who worked with Ms. Stark, said she had a reputation of being blunt but had a warm side to her.

"She was thoughtful, smart, a good writer, extremely organized and an old-school beat reporter," Fischhoff told The News. "She was the queen of the roof when I came in. She owned the beat and became the standard in town. I remember her passion for animated films and children's books. That always showed the sweet side of her."

Tom Long, who followed Stark as The News’ film critic after Stark’s retirement in December 2002, said she was one of the "groundbreaking film critics."

“Susan was a stylist," Long said. "She had a very strong writing style that was her own voice and was hyper-intelligent, there’s no getting around it. She was very sophisticated.”

Stark never got bored or burned out in the job, Long said. “We used to do Oscar stuff in the office, and I remember when ‘The English Patient’ won Best Picture, she was literally dancing around,” he said. “After many, many years, she was still super enthusiastic about certain directors and certain films.

“She was very much an institution. She considered it an art, she considered it very important. There was a feeling that film was more than just popular culture with Susan.”

Us Weekly film critic Mara Reinstein remembers reading Stark as a child growing up in Farmington Hills.  

“I grew up really loving Susan Stark,” said Reinstein, who recalled listening to her appearances on Friday mornings on WJR-AM (760) with J.P. McCarthy.

In 1993, Reinstein won a News-sponsored contest to be a teenage movie critic and she got to meet with Stark, who sat down with her and a small group of winners and taught them tricks of the trade. “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done. Susan Stark is talking to me? This is the greatest thing ever.”

Reinstein said Stark taught her the cardinal rule of film criticism: Never bring yourself into the review. “She said to never use the word ‘I’ in a review,” she said. If and when she breaks that rule today, "I still think of Susan Stark," she said. 

In summer 2002, when she was writing for Teen People, Reinstein remembers seeing Stark at a press screening of “Austin Powers in Goldmember” in New York. “Just the fact that I had made it to the same screening as Susan Stark was like, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Reinstein said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Adam Graham contributed.