Review: OBIT (2017) 'an amusing and informative look at the New York Times' obit writers'


Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
May 17, 2017 at 10:59 p.m.

OBIT (2017)


Directed by Vanessa Gould 

On January 6, 2006, the obituary for Candy Barr in the New York Times read “an exotic dancer whose hardscrabble life became Texas legend as she befriended Jack Ruby (who killed President John F. Kennedy's assassin), dated a mobster, shot her husband went to prison for drug possession, and starred - unwillingly, she insisted - in a famous stag film, died on Friday in Victoria, Tex. She was 70.”  The local girl from Edna who led a famed life is featured in this intriguing documentary about the writers who painstakingly research and craft obits for the daily newspaper that has won 122 Pulitzer Prizes. 

Vanessa Gould is a Peabody Award-Winning filmmaker who was inspired to make “Obit” after working with journalist Margalit Fox on the obituary for a close friend that passed away.  Fox, who has written over 1,200 obituaries for the New York Times, appears in the film along with several writers who discuss the process of putting together these condensed versions of someone’s life for the publication’s readers.  

You didn’t have to be a celebrity to make it into the Times' obit section as long as your life was newsworthy.  Some of the people who made the prestigious cut include adventurer John Fairfax who became the first person to row cross an ocean solo, naval engineer Richard T. James who invented The Slinky in 1943, and William P. Wilson the man who negotiated the first televised presidential debate.  Many credit Wilson with helping Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon by applying the right amount of makeup on Kennedy to make him look tan and confident while Nixon who was recovering from an illness appeared sweaty and pale.  As obituary editor Bill McDonald explains “these lives had an impact of one sort or another.”

Several writers speak candidly about some of the most memorable obits they’ve written and Gould gives us a behind-the-scenes look of a day in the life of these fact checking journalists.  When someone famous like Michael Jackson or Prince dies suddenly these writers only have a few hours to summarize the celebrity’s life, a task accomplished by Times' pop music critic Jon Pareles who only had 3 hours to put together Jackson’s obituary.

Another interesting part of the film involves a trip to archives or “the morgue” where Jeff Roth oversees scores of filing cabinets filled with thousands of photos and newspaper clippings used to prepare the obits.  There are dozens of active folders on living people whose obituaries are works-in-progress should they suddenly pass away. 

Fascinating and often humorous, “Obit” puts a face and a personality behind the talented writers who persistently scour the internet, make phone calls, and interview friends and family in the pursuit of an accurate and straightforward account of the deceased’s life, flaws included.  No sugar coating here. 

(3 ½ stars) 

Now playing at the Violet Crown Cinema (Austin)     



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