When a buddy of mine, Daniel Berman, and I were in college and young firebrands we spoke on a panel and claimed a free press was limited in America by publishers who sometimes tried to squelch stories they didn’t like by burying them on the obituary page. An elderly lady who wrote society stories for the local newspaper raised her hand and said there was nothing wrong with that, exclaiming, “At my age the obituary page is the first page I read.”
I thought of that as I watched “Obit,” the fascinating documentary, directed by Vanessa Gould, examining the people and the process involving the writing of obituaries for the New York Times. It is a skill taken for granted, but very basic to chronicling the lives of important individuals from the high and mighty to other lesser-known persons who have made important contributions to society.
There is the practice of writing advance obits for the famous to have ready even though they may be a long way from death. Then there are the sudden deaths of important individuals that send the obit writers scrambling to have a viable piece ready on a short deadline.
We meet key people, including, among others, William McDonald, obituaries desk editor, and writer Bruce Weber (since retired), who help us by explaining what goes on at the venerable Times. Others in the film include writer William Grimes, former obit writer Douglas Martin, Margalit Fox, obituaries senior writer and Peter Keepnews, assistant obituaries editor, all of whom help complete the picture of the care with which obituaries are researched and composed and the seriousness of the job.
A vast morgue of clippings has been built at the Times over the years and these clips provide handy sources. There is also the problem of weighing how much space to give to one subject in relation to another, or whether someone gets space at all. Timelines are important too. If the news of a death comes in belatedly a decision might be made that it is too late to run an obit.
The film gets somewhat repetitious, but it is mostly an intriguing look into a vital corner of the newspaper business charged with ultimately evaluating who’s who when deaths occur.
I recall that in Neil Simon’s comedy “The Sunshine Boys” there was a funny line when someone hears of a show biz death and asks where the person died. “In ‘Variety’” was the answer. One might also quip that in New York if the person doesn’t die in the New York Times. he or she isn’t officially gone. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed April 26, 2017.