MCN Commentary & Analysis

Michael Wilmington, 1946-2022

Michael Wilmington was a singularity.

I’ve knew him for roughly 25 years. But I don’t know how well I ever really knew him. I saw him. I talked to him about movies and his beloved mom, Edna, and his vision of the future, for all of us. We talked a lot about his frustrations.

Michael’s tribute to his mother on her passing was, I think, the thing he wrote on MCN that he most cherished. He brought it up many, many times over the years.

Michael had a lot of things go right in his life. And a lot of things go terribly wrong. He required, in real life, enormous patience and a deep well of love. He had some of those people in his life – most notably Jackie, in my time – but for those of us who were rushing through life – for me – the inability to offer this man of thoughts and words more time and more love is our loss.

Others will chart Michael’s life history better than I. When I first really met him, it was in his Chicago era. He was famously quirky, but he had taken over the real lead critic spot at the Chicago Tribune while Gene Siskel played out his television life. (Roger Ebert, almost infamously, always did both things relentlessly, never giving an inch. Gene was less prolific.) Later, I would hear the story of how he had come to Chicago, leaving a lot of potential and frustrations in Los Angeles behind.

Michael was a handful, even at a paper like The Tribune, which would have been thrilled to have a workhorse with the skill level as a critic that was so much a part of who Michael was. But Michael was not a workhorse. He was a thoroughbred. And he spend years in an odd, empty space in Chicago, between the deterioration of his Tribune gig and the passing of his mother in 2009.

It was in that period that I offered Michael open space and a bit of cash to come be part of Movie City News. And so he did. The first reviews of his I can find in the archive is this Best of 2008 list. His Best of 2009 list also stood as a tribute to his mom. Mike’s take on the 4th TCM Festival expresses so much of his passion and attitude.

We proudly published Michael for about 8 years. It was my philosophy as an editor to give a lot of room to writers. Michael was not always an easy edit, especially as Michael wanted to work both on theatrical releases and DVDs. Ray Pride took the brunt of that editing work for a number of years and he deserved more credit for that.

Michael had a heart procedure in 2014 and never fully recovered. He would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the years that followed and suffer a broken hip in 2021.

Truth is, conversations with Michael, even before his mother passed, were challenging. The deep, rough voice and the tendency to lack volume meant that almost every critic in Chicago had a Wilmington imitation. They were all funny. And I like to think, loving.

(Side Note: So odd… just thinking about how I worked with 3 men who all had vocal issues. Michael, Len Klady (who smoked most of this life and could barely get through 2 sentences without punctuating them with heavy coughs), and Roger Ebert, who was of great voice until he lost it to his illness. Not sure what to make of that.)

Michael was never just about Michael. He showed enthusiasm for my work as a critic that was always overwhelming. He goaded me into applying for National Society of Film Critics when I knew I didn’t belong. (I don’t.) And he often offered positive opinions of others who were writing for MCN over the years. I never heard him punch down at anyone… ever.

He was always frustrated by the Siskel-replacement-process on the TV show, not just because he didn’t get what he saw as a full try-out, but because none of his fellow Chicago film critics (which Richard Roeper was not one of at the time) got what he felt was a fair shot. This would lead to me explaining the details of the actual process, to which I was a party, and to Michael pressing his someone inaccurate view of it even harder. But I truly felt it was about fairness in his mind and not a gig.

The last time I saw Michael was at a screening at Raleigh Studios of something really interesting that would go on to be underappreciated (the title eludes me now). He had a friend with him, as was needed for him to travel. And we had a long discussion about him getting an eviction notice from his decades-long residence in Hollywood. They were going to knock down his building and rebuild. The guy I was with happened to have a lot of experience in tenant law in Los Angeles. Lawyer’s names were bandied about and phone numbers were exchanged. I felt fortunate that fate had somehow brought us together in a way that could help Michael. I have no idea whether it actually did or did not.

Michael talked about the review he was going to send in soon. Anytime I saw him, in fact, he would talk about getting back to writing criticism. By that last meeting, I wasn’t really employing people anymore. But he would always have a place where he could publish with me.

I think this review of Paterson was his last for us.

There was no one else quite like Michael. I suspect there never will be another. To compare him to the misunderstood, underappreciated artists in history seems hyperbolic. But it fits.

If he showed up at a screening with one missing ear bandaged, you might be shocked, but you wouldn’t really be surprised. If you found that he had a silk satchel full of Edna’s remains in his pocket at all times, you would know that it was about his love and appreciation for his mother above all. If he told you he thought some horrible movie was genius, you would listen, because he might just be right.

Michael was, in his odd way, too good for this earth.

And now he is gone.

Rest in peace, Michael. You fought hard. Now rest.

(credit: the picture of Michael is from the “Michael Wilmington Film Critic” Facebook page.)

5 Responses to “Michael Wilmington, 1946-2022”

  1. ross johnson says:

    Great tribute for Mr. Wilmington. Somewhere, on some platform, he’s reading it.


  2. George Hesselberg says:

    Well done. Thank you.

  3. Gary Dretzka says:

    Technically, Michael succeeded Dave Kehr as the Tribune’s full-time film critic after Gene Siskel was asked to choose between continuing to be the paper’s chief critic and focusing on the TV show for Disney — newly acquired from PBS — and was accorded the title “film columnist” by Tribune management. At the time, it was seen as a forced compromise between Gene, Tribune executives afraid of losing brand identification and Tribune Media Services, which wanted to circulate his weekly column of “Flicks Picks” and occasional features. After several years as chief critic, Kehr accepted a job as critic in New York. It was an uneasy situation for everyone involved. After a national “bake-off,” Michael accepted the job in Chicago.

  4. Bradley Laing says:

    “Soderbergh: “I don’t think VR has long-form narrative applications. I just don’t. There’s some huge technical obstacles that preclude the use of some critical tools for a filmmaker. That combined with having that thing on your head for two hours, that combined with the inability while you’re watching something with somebody to have them be a part of your experience. The inability to show the face of the protagonist in a VR space. There’s no POV and reverse angle on a character who’s experiencing this is hugely limiting. That is how we engage with visual stories, is to watch the expressions of the characters so that we can read the emotions of what we’re experiencing.”

    This point was made in the 1990 book “The Hollywood Eye,” using the example of a film made in 1940s told entriely from the POV of the main character. You got to see the actor only when the character was looking in a mirror. The 1990 book said, “You’re in his shoes, not in his mind,” and that was not enough to make the movie interesting.

    “The Hollywood Eye: What Makes Movies Work” by Jon Boorstin

  5. Bob Burns says:

    The entire list of “prestige” films brought in roughly 1% of last year’s box office…. films that might possibly be a BP contender up to and including Dune. In 2018 that number was only 7% of total box office, even though Black Panther was an Oscar film.

    When we talk about saving theatrical, we are not talking about the joys of watching great actors and cinematography on big screens. We are talking about saving those big screen for computer driven tentpoles.

    Prestige cinema will always have screens, with or without box office. Right now, prestige cinema could make nearly as much money off theatrical, playing in film festivals, art museums and art house theaters. And the “supply” of such films will nonetheless continue to increase because the cost of making these films continues to drop. We have an abundance of actors and film makers; they will make movies…… how many truly talented film makers are graduated every year from the myriad films schools in this country alone? They are, one way or another, going to make movies….. and their moves will be seen.

    The discussion about sreaming and saving theatrical isn’t about art. It is about big paychecks drying up for a handful of people who camped out next to the river of money years ago.

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