Remembering John Simon (1925-2019 ): The Day The Meanest Critic Alive Made Me Happy

John Simon, who died three days ago at the age of 94, was known as a merciless, even cruel cultural critic.  From the Times obituary:

John Simon [was]one of the nation’s most erudite, vitriolic and vilified culture critics, who illuminated and savaged a remarkable range of plays, films, literature and art works and their creators for more than a half-century…In an era of vast cultural changes, Mr. Simon marshaled wide learning, insights and acid wit for largely negative reviews and essays that appeared in New York magazine for nearly 37 years…In a style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric…he produced thousands of critiques and a dozen books…While English was not his native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”

I met him exactly once (and we later had an online exchange), but in that single encounter he said something that meant a great deal to me, and that I will never forget.

As a drama critic, Simon made Frank Rich seem like an old softy. I don’t care for his kind of critiques, applying rarefied personal standards so divorced from the average audience member that they give no guidance at all. Simon was fun to read if you had no stake in the play or movie he was trashing, but those who worked full-time in show business generally hated him, and it is no wonder.  In one compilation of his reviews, “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films” (1982), he was positive about just 15 of the 245 films he discussed.  William F. Buckley .quipped that Simon “reviewed movies in the same sense that pigeons review statues.”

He was accused of being racist, misogynist, homophobic or grossly insensitive,  denied being any of those things, and argued that no person or group was above criticism, especially those who, in his view, lacked talent and covered themselves in mantles of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity and used them to claim preferential treatment in the marketplaces of culture. But some of his quotes resonate with me:

  • “I do not like uniforms. I do not like people who are a professional this, that or the other. Professional writers, actors and singers are O.K., but I don’t like professional Jews, professional homosexuals, professional blacks, professional feminists, professional patriots. I don’t like people abdicating their identity to become part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of it.”
  • “My greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the truth. Kästner says, in essence, ‘All right, the world is full of idiots and they’re in control of everything. You fool, stay alive and annoy them!’ And that, in a sense, is my function in life, and my consolation. If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that.”

In 1998, my now retired  professional theater company, The American Century Theater, was in the midst of its 1998 production of “Lady in the Dark,” the 1940 experimental musical by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. At that time, it was the first full run of the show since the original had closed on Broadway.  Our star, Maureen Kerrigan, informed me that her old room mate was married to the terrifying John Simon, and that both had traveled from New York to see her in the next day’s  Sunday matinee performance. Simon was infamously disdainful of musicals, and once described a guaranteed Broadway hit as “A loud, vulgar musical about Jewish Negroes.”

This was not happy news. We had already gotten our usual pan from the Post, which had no interest in our mission of producing American stage works at least 25 years old that had fallen out of the professional theater repertoire. Now we were going to be eviscerated by John Simon. He was used to watching all-Actors Equity productions in 2000 seat theaters, with multi-million dollar budgets. Our show had what I considered to be an excellent cast, but only Maureen was Equity. We did have a brilliant director—me. Somehow I doubted Mr. Simon would appreciate our talents.

After all, it was a production of a lavish show with a huge cast in a small black box theater seating 130 at best, with a full orchestra crammed behind scenery, on a budget about 1% of what the opus would take to do justice to now. I was expecting to be humiliated.

Simon watched the performance with a critic’s poker face, and afterwards, never inquiring about his verdict,  I volunteered to drive him and his wife to the airport. They both sat in stony silence for most of the trip, and then Simon suddenly said, “I’m very glad I saw your production.”

“Why is that?” I asked. He said, “I saw the Encores production, the concert version, several years ago, and I found it incomprehensible. I wrote in my review then that “Lady in the Dark” shouldn’t be revived. Now that I’ve see the whole thing, I realize I was wrong: it deserves to be revived and get a full production. Thank-you.”

Well,  that was the whole reason we started TACT: to give audiences a chance to see American shows that weren’t being produced, and to demonstrate why they shouldn’t be forgotten. Coming from maybe the toughest, most demanding critic who ever lived, Simon’s statement was high praise. And, of course, I knew he wasn’t just saying it to be nice, because he didn’t care about being nice.

I will always be grateful to John Simon for making me feel like the theater and the dedicated “Lady in the Dark” cast and production staff accomplished something important, when he, unlike so many in the theater, didn’t hand out praise indiscriminately.

Addendum: This is as good as anywhere to finally confess that having my young, struggling theater company take on one of the most famously difficult and complex musicals of all time was reckless and irresponsible. We were always dangerously short of money, and were committed to keeping tickets under 20 dollars. Our typical show to that point had cost 10-15 thousand dollars, and some of those lost money. “Lady in the Dark” ended up costing over $50, 000, easily the most expensive in the company’s 20 year history. Had the production flopped, it would have been the end of the experiment, and nobody knew whether anyone would want to see a nearly four-hour, three-act 60-year-old musical about a troubled professional woman undergoing psychoanalysis.

Fortunately, people did. The show played to over 100% capacity, and nearly broke even.  “Lady in the Dark” did wonderful things for the company, attracting subscribers, donations, and respect. But it was pure moral luck.

The Inherently Incompetent Profession: Film Reviewer

I noted just now, as we were debating the virtues of “Deadpool 2” in this post, that the New York Times savaged “Aquaman,” though it is shaping up as a huge hit with audiences.  Earlier this week, the Times reprinted excerpts from the original reviews of classic Christmas movies in its pages, showing how the Times’ arbiters of film quality had originally given a “thumbs down” to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and “Scrooged,” as well as some theoretical Christmas fare as “Die Hard,” and a personal favorite, the Christmas horror movie “Black Christmas.” (Pop Quiz: One director was responsible of two of the films mentioned above. Which two, and who?)

This raises an issue—again—that I have thought about often. Why should anyone pay attention to what a movie critic thinks? They are so far from typical viewers it’s ridiculous. They see too many movies; they see the same plots and devices over and over again. They develop powerful biases against performers, directors and whole genres. To take an example from the Christmas list: “Black Christmas” pioneered the mysterious serial killer movie, well before “Halloween,” and added some important tricks to the genre to come.  Most reviewers dismissed it as “too violent.” In other words, they would never see such a picture if they weren’t paid to do it. Slasher films, however, are not made for such individuals.

What movie is made for the people who hate that kind of movie? I’m pretty literate in film history, technique and direction, but I have no more business reviewing a super-hero film like “Aquaman” than a fish. Why should my opinion of a movie that I would never buy a ticket from dissuade someone who likes such films from buying one? Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Fat-Bashing Film Critic Rex Reed

melissa_Elle

Actress Melissa McCarthy stole the film “Bridesmaids” right out from under its better known stars, including the screenplay’s author, Kirsten Wigg. In that film, her hit CBS sitcom “Mike and Molly,” and subsequent films (of varying quality), McCarthy has shown that she is s versatile, appealing comedienne with deep dramatic resources. Film critic Rex Reed, however, is mostly concerned with her weight, which is usually a component of the characters she plays and the quality, other than her talent, that sets her apart from the standard issue, impossibly thin, fit and sexy Hollywood actress.

In his withering review of her latest comedy “Identity Thief,” Reed causally refers to McCarthy as a “female hippo” and reduces her career to this: “Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) is a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.” Called on his fat-bashing, Reed responded, “I have lost entirely too many friends to obesity-related diseases to pretend Ms. McCarthy’s alarming obesity is anything to applaud.”

There are two aspects of this that are striking. One is that Rex Reed, who played the pre-op Myra Breckenridge in the awful movie version of Gore Vidal’s gender-bending, and considered scandalous at the time, satiric novel (Raquel Welch, now over 70, was post-op), is still alive and reviewing, albeit obscurely until, as now, he writes something outrageous. At one time—40 years ago? Longer?— Reed was considered the most quotable and one of the most influential film critics; now, to say he is passé would be a compliment.

The other striking aspect of this incident is this:  while the culture will turn with unforgiving venom on any public figure who derides individuals for their color, sexual orientation, malady or disability, any of which would be considered cruel, bigoted, and hateful, deriding individuals because their weight doesn’t meet with aesthetic norms—among which are now out-sized breasts on otherwise fat-free frames and sharply chiseled abdominal muscles, a look that was literally freakish until the dawn of Nautilus and personal trainers—-still is largely regarded as justified and acceptable. Continue reading

Howard Kurtz And The Critic’s Dilemma

David Niven would understand, Howard.

David Niven would understand, Howard.

The Daily Beast has canned Howard Kurtz, the only current official news media critic in captivity, and now CNN, long the home of Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” panel show that reviews the media’s choice and manner of news coverage during the week, is “reviewing” his status with that show as well. The sudden downturn in Kurtz’s fortunes is, we are told, the result of an accumulation of mistaken stories, missed facts and sloppy reporting of his own. I’ll buy that explanation, but there is more here too.

Kurtz’s departure was overdue. I have followed him for years, and his coverage, as I have pointed out periodically, was unacceptably politically slanted for a quasi-journalism ethicist. A typical performance was when he recently criticized —correctly—Republicans who were (and are) trying to twist the Boston bombing tragedy into an argument against immigration reform. In a reply to a comment on the recent Ethics Alarms post on the same topic, I noted that media commentators who saw nothing wrong with the Democrats using a Newtown massacre that would not have been altered in any way by background checks to push for more gun controls were suddenly applying the correct standards to a similar conservative manipulation of the Boston Marathon attack: Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?”

WordPress, for only the second time in three years, was kind enough to include my recent post about Stephen Sondheim’s footnote lament that musicals were the only art form largely reviewed by incompetents. This has brought a lot of new visitors to Ethics Alarms, and I hope they are interested in ethics as well as musicals. One such new reader is a Prof. Ratigan, who apparently does some reviewing himself. Here is his Comment of the Day, on the Jan 3, 2013 post (Here’s something weird—last year’s Jan.3 post was also about Sondheim!) Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?…

Two points. The first is the literacy issue. I think it’s interesting that it would appear that a good reviewer is either a novice or a master where everything in between is amateur. I’ve been reviewing movies for the past year (on a blog) and I’ve definitely felt that in my own stuff. The more movies I watched and connections I could draw, the more it became apparent how much I really needed to do to become proficient. I needed to read a lot more literature, read a lot more scripts, and watch a lot more movies. Otherwise, I would start to create a context but have a nagging feeling that the director/writer/actor (who are often scholars of film) might/probably know more than me and were doing something else. It seems that these musical reviewers aren’t expected to take the next step from reviewer to analyst. Continue reading

Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM

OK, but Stephen: compared to you, everyone is an ignoramus!

Stephen Sondheim completed his personal memoirs about his career in American musicals more than a year ago, but they are so thoughtful, detailed and dense that I keep discovering new treasures, provocative observations by a first-rate mind. Yesterday, I found one that was buried in a footnote, in the middle of a technical tangent that most readers, like me in my first tour through the books, probably skimmed.

Sondheim pointedly did not use his erudite analysis and reflections in his two retrospectives (“Finishing the Hat” and “Look! I Made a Hat!”) to settle scores with critics, a group that obviously annoyed and to some extent handicapped him over the course of his long career. In this brief footnote, however, the composer/lyricist delivers a withering verdict:

“The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses.”

At the end of the note, he repeats the indictment, this time changing the description to “illiterates.” Sondheim is accusing theater critics of engaging in professional conduct they are incompetent to perform, rendering expert opinions that are not really expert, and as a result, misinforming the public and undermining the efforts of serious artists, like him.  If he is right, not only are the critics unprofessional and unethical, the media organs that hire and publish them are unethical as well. Continue reading

“Liz and Dick,” The Ethics Train Wreck Movie

The real producer behind "Liz and Dick"?

The real producer behind “Liz and Dick”?

There was another movie I watched on TV when I was too sick to move, think, or, in this case, change channels: “Liz and Dick,” the infamous Lifetime Movie Network bio-pic starring Lindsay Lohan. Was it lousy? Sure it was lousy; there was no way such a film could have been anything but lousy. Lousy cable movies, however, are hardly news or uncommon, especially on LMN. Indeed, this one was probably in the upper 25% for the outfit that regular creates starring vehicles for the likes of Erika Eleniak and Kellie Martin. This one, however, was an ethics train wreck quite apart from its aesthetic flaws.

The whole project begins with a lie, albeit a popular and elaborately supported one, which is that Elizabeth Taylor was anything special as an actress. She was not. Taylor parlayed uncommon beauty, public sympathy, and later sexual notoriety into mega-celebrity status that drooling male movie critics disgracefully interpreted as genuine talent. She had a thin, unpleasant and brittle voice that made her already limited range even more so. She couldn’t play comedy, and didn’t have the chops for hard drama either. Continue reading

Quote of the Day: Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt made his famous “Man in the Arena” speech, one of the most inspiring calls to courage and personal character ever spoken. Its most quoted passage is this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

It’s an important quote, and not only because it carries the essence of a great man and leader. Teddy’s words should be revisited regularly by all those, including me, who stand on the sidelines passing judgment on the words and deeds of men and women who devote themselves to public service and elected office. It is not that we should not hold them to high standards and subject them to just criticism, for we should. We must always remember, however, that they have had the courage to undertake great responsibility and personal risk to accomplish what they believe is right, and though they may be misguided, mistaken, flawed or unsuccessful, they deserve our respect for that.

[Many thanks to my friend, Tom Vesper, a great trial lawyer and legal ethics specialist, for reminding me of the date and the speech.]

The Strange and Telling Case of the Illiterate Novelist

True, it was a lousy book, but at least the sentences were grammatical.

I have noticed of late a disturbing trend, the literary equivalent of those who play their car radios and sound systems at ear-splitting volume with the windows down, or youths who converse in shouts in public places. The trend is proliferation of the proud and unapologetic illiterates,  authors of e-mails, blog posts or even published material who regard the basics of punctuation, grammar, spelling and rhetoric as an annoying inconvenience, and who not only pay little heed to these archaic matters, but also display no regret about the barely readable products that result.

At this point, I am less concerned with why so many of those who communicate in writing are so shamelessly sloppy, and more interested in what the trend signifies for our society. Perhaps some insight can be gained by examining a recent exchange between a grammar and spelling-challenged novelist and a reviewer of her work on a book review blog called “Books and Pals.” Continue reading

Unethical Website of the Month: Eater.com

I would not have been able to resist giving the the Unethical Website title to Gizmodo [see previous post] unless there was a more typical candidate (as in “not criminal”) available. Thanks to a tip from Ethics Alarms quote-maven Tom Fuller, I give you Eater.com. It hasn’t stolen anything. It just sold out the interest of its own readers—lovers of fine foods and patrons of excellent restaurants—for a splashy feature destined to attract a flood of traffic, and to stick a knife in the backs of its competition. Continue reading