Sunday, October 2, 2011

ANIMADVERSIONS OF A “LOOKIST” CRITIC


In The New York Times Book Review of September 25, Maureen Dowd reviewed Roger Ebert’s autobiographical “Life Itself.” The highly favorable notice contained the following: “Ebert tries to avoid gossip and ‘hurtful’ comments about actors. ‘I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look,’ he writes. ‘They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.’”

Needless to say, in her laudatory review, Dowd does not take issue with this statement, so the burden falls on me. It is a foolish assertion of Ebert’s for any number of reasons. First of all, because it makes him one of those ill-informed people who claim I made that procedure my specialty. I never went out of my way to attack actors for their looks; I attacked then, when I did, for something more relevant: not looking like what their parts called for. That, as I repeatedly stated, does matter.

If a set designer’s sets look poor or inappropriate, we criticize them with universally conceded impunity, even praise for our perceptiveness. The same goes for our criticism of a production’s costumes. Now, of course, it will be said that sets and costumes have no feelings, and cannot be hurt.

True, but their designers can be hurt more than actors can. If I say that actor X, in the hero’s role, looks like a garden gnome (which I haven’t actually), future directors and producers may, being ever so much more humane or purblind, disagree and ignore my “unfounded” slur. If, on the other hand, they agree with it, what harm have I done?

With sets and costumes, though, it is a different matter. Because opinions pro and con in those areas are much less emotionally charged and more debatable, sympathies can be more easily shaken than about faces, and poor reviews may actually damage a designer’s opportunities.

I do not hold with pussyfooting criticism of any kind.  If I say that actress Y in the role of the leading lady looked like a cigar store Indian (I actually did), I was saying so because she glaringly didn’t fit the role: two dashing young men would not have fought a deadly duel over her.

Now, I know that some reviewers would merely say of a visually thoroughly unsuited actress that she is miscast; or if she is many years too old, that she is too mature for her role. But those statements do not make much of an impression. A critic is a salesman for his reviews, and to sell them, he needs to make a powerful effect. Ergo the cigar store Indian.

There are other things to be considered. If a performer is brilliant, such talent easily eclipses any deficiency in her looks. Take, for instance, Edith Piaf. Her looks were definitely wanting, but never made me note a lack that she glowingly transcended. OK, she was more a singer than an actress, but I have been just as tolerant of, say, Rita Tushingham or Peggy Ashcroft, whose talents dazzled. And surely sovereign talent is what we are entitled to get from a performer.

In other words, actors can definitely help their looks, often even without surpassing talent. Wigs, makeup, costuming and, onscreen, clever photography can also do the trick. It doesn’t matter how it is arrived at as long as it is done. And then there are all those roles for which looks are not necessary. In some cases, albeit rare, good looks can even be inappropriate and distracting.

Among these cases I include not only such obvious examples as the witches in “Macbeth,” but even Lady Macbeth herself, who, though she shouldn’t look repulsive, need not be a great beauty in that very much leading part. This seems especially true in Britain, which, for whatever reason, does not have so many beautiful women, and thus also beautiful actresses, as can be found in other countries. But who would have found fault, say, with Celia Johnson for not having had Hollywood good looks?

And, speaking of Hollywood, what does anyone who considers thespian comeliness unimportant make of the fact that looks of actresses, and to only slightly lesser extent actors, was capitalized on and greatly contributed to the movies’ success? So why not criticize looks in a medium where looks have been paramount—and not only at Paramount?

But never mind crassly commercial Hollywood; didn’t even so great a director as Ingmar Bergman set tremendous stock by the looks of his leading ladies? And if beauty can be of such importance, cannot its absence be equally important and duly reprehended?

As for me, I take beauty seriously everywhere, even in dogs. I am ill at easy with unsightly canines, no matter how vaunted the supposed superior intelligence of mutts may be. I am all for pure breeds, except, of course, in breeds like bulldogs, where ugliness is prized. But they look funny, and this is where comedy comes to the rescue. An unsightly actor or actress can be just the thing in comedy or, better yet, farce. There lack of looks actually scores.

Accordingly, I have no problem with Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”; it is only as an unfunny girl, especially when, as in “The Way We Were,” the smashing Robert Redford is in love with her, that she really bothers me. Of course, in real life handsome men often marry plain women, but art plays by other rules than life.

All of which reminds me that Peter Bogdanovich once described my film criticism as being “about as much help as a legless man teaching running.” And why not? May not a legless man value running more highly than those who take it for granted, and so dedicate himself to studying it and guiding runners from his wheelchair?

I have, in any case, one consolation: rat-faced and legless as I may be, I can still be a perfectly adequate critic of performing arts and even actresses’ looks. Unlike actors, a critic does not depend on his looks, only on his writing.

32 comments:

  1. John Simon, whatever one thinks of his criticism, is a master of the English language, whereas Dowd and Ebert are masters of journalistic careerism whose prose has as much to do with the multifarious beauties of the English language as dogs have with gods.

    Ebert's specialty is to reduce the art of criticism to a mass-marketed product for one and all. In THE GREAT MOVIES I, he lumps CITIZEN KANE with THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In THE GREAT MOVIES II, he lumps JULES AND JIM with THE COLOR PURPLE. In THE GREAT MOVIES III, he lumps FORBIDDEN GAMES with CAT PEOPLE. Please. There is no comparison between John Simon's achievement, or Stanley Kauffmann's, or Pauline Kael's, or James Agee's, with what Ebert does. None.

    That said Roger Ebert -- affectionately known in Chicago as the male Mae Tinee -- has finally found his medium: the tweet, though even at 140 characters he finds himself sorely challenged.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm sorry...but anyone who thinks that THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE COLOR PURPLE, and CAT PEOPLE aren't great films need to get their head out of their ass.

    I don't care if what I just said wasn't as fluid or masterful as a great linguist, but I think it cuts straight to the point.

    Which is that you're a pretentious, conceited, over-analytical asshole.

    Oh look, I did it again. Perhaps I should take some English classes...

    ReplyDelete
  3. So much anger in that comment. Are you a Tea Party member? Not taking sides, just saying.

    ReplyDelete
  4. While I couldn't care 2 shits about squabbles between the 5 star set and the 2 star set, it is nevertheless amusing to see critics' tender fee-fees get hurt over..... criticism.

    https://twitter.com/#!/ebertchicago/statuses/120682035588247552

    ReplyDelete
  5. @ Joe Carlson

    I guess Joe if you are the kind of person who is impressed by a patrician attitude, complex sentence construction, and arcane vocabulary that you might judge Simon a "master of the English Language". But for me, (and of course all these judgements are of course subjective), Ebert is by far the more interesting, thoughtful, and subtle writer, and one who seems to be constantly evolving. I believe that his writing now is the finest of his career.

    Chacun a son gout.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Brave man, Joe, picking on a guy who can't physically talk back to you. What's your next trick, punch a starving African child for taking up too much space? Eating Fried Chicken in a Chemotherapy Ward? How about proposing a game of squash in a room of asthmatics?

    I'd take Mr. Ebert and his volumes of writing, and logs of thoughtful, interesting tweets over your inkhorn phrases and mean demeanor any day of the week, you rotten schmuck.

    ReplyDelete
  7. To imply that Streisand is plain! : ) Shocking sensationalism. It sells.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. All this offense about Simon openly stating that he finds certain actresses homely makes me happy to be an opera fan. At least in that milieu, the fans try not to confuse physical comeliness with musicality, dramatic and vocal talent. The attractive singers have to constantly prove that to the die-hards that they didn't get by on looks alone.

    I can only think of one great film director who works with plain looking actresses-- Mike Leigh.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "All this offense about Simon openly stating that he finds certain actresses homely makes me happy to be an opera fan."
    Christine apparently has a short memory. In the past, if not now, or at least so much, overweight sopranos were often criticized for not looking the part (as well as being relatively inexpressive or immobile on stage - not apparent, of course, in recordings). Perhaps Simon hasn't made clear enough his principal point, that in the absence of outstanding talent he prefers good looks or appearance that suits the role.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Nathanael Hood:
    You're right, Nate, FRANKENSTEIN'S PURPLE CAT is a masterpiece. World awaits your cogent mini-review.

    @sherifffruitfly:
    Thank you for the link to Roger Ebert's response: "John Simon sets straight Maureen Dowd and me. He makes a point, but in some of his descriptions he was actually cruel."

    @James:
    "Chacun a son gout." Sorry, Jimbo, no sprechen sie Deutsch.

    @Saint Stryfe:
    That an inkhorn in your pants or you just happy to see me?

    @Christine:
    Opera singers, essentially, are ambulatory musical instruments. But you're right: the power, beauty, and humanity of those special voices shatter petty considerations concerning "looks."

    ReplyDelete
  12. Translation: men should be judged on character and good works, but genetic good luck is the only thing that matters for women. A hot female Mengele is a more worthwhile woman than Mother Theresa. Also, men's opinions are more important than women's. Women who disagree are pathetic slime.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Who's the hot female Mengele? Let us all know her name, please, and don't say it's Cosima Wagner. Also last I heard, in spite of Mother Teresa's considerable efforts, Calcutta is still a nasty place to visit.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I seem to recall Simon complaining that an actress playing Juliet had breasts too small for the role... Between that and other cruelties such as not only slamming a playwright but also the poor man's father-playwright, in look-how-clever-I-am couplets, Simon lost me years ago. His work is about showing us how smart he is rather than serving a reading public. Woe to the Simonized...

    ReplyDelete
  16. I have always admired your criticism, and though I do not always share your opinions, I respect them. One of the "rights" of being a critic is to say what you think, and to say it well. Too many critics don't say what they really think. It's really a shame.

    Art does play by different rules than life, and an actor or actress in a film is, for better or for worse, part of a work of visual art in motion, and that actor or actress must be judged on they way s/he looks in a role. To do otherwise is to minimize the medium.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I get a wicked delight in the guilty pleasure of reading Simon's stinging barbs about the looks of this or that actor or actress, without a shred of an excuse of redeeming value for it: as when, for example, he once (or twice) referred to Amanda Plummer as "grotesque", I could not help a grin of glee. If one must redeem such barbs (and not only against Barbra), I suppose one could simply say that if people choose a life of the screen or stage, they ask for it; though they hardly need worry about it, as most film critics seem to walk on gingerly eggshells for fear of hurting the precious feelings of these various adults they treat as children.

    The only other film critic I can think of who dares (let alone cares) to approximate Simon on this was Mary Brennan who wrote for the Seattle Weekly.

    ReplyDelete
  18. John, that is such a tired and disingenuous criticism by insecure people too dishonest to admit that their own literary efforts fall miserably short of your erudition and style.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @ Joe Carleson

    John Simon has a high degree of technical ability when it comes to writing.  But, his writing often reeks of arrogance, sarcasm, visciousness, and pretension, which makes it (among other unpleasant things) no fun to read.  And that's a shame, because sometimes he's insightful and interesting.

    Dickens and Proust, for example, wrote on a much higher technical level than Simon, and are fun to read.  And remembered, as Simon won't be.  Roger Ebert, whose writing ability is every bit as good as Simon's, and who could no doubt imitate his style if he unwisely choose to, will be remembered, if for no other reason than his recent memoir "Life Itself".

    Simon should make a serious effort to acquire some psychological insight, especially into himself.

    ReplyDelete
  20. @pbhact:
    It's "Carlson"not "Carleson." Guess your high degree of technical ability doesn't extend to proper spelling. Tip of the cap for getting "Joe" right, though.

    ReplyDelete
  21. @ Carlson
    Amazing that the best you have to offer is pointing out a typo. Also, I never said I had a high degree of technical writing ability. I'm just a mathematician. That involves logic.

    ReplyDelete
  22. @pbhact:
    I apologize. I intend to make a serious effort to acquire some psychological insight into myself. Hey, lightbulb time: you, me, together on DR. PHIL!!!

    ReplyDelete
  23. @Joe Carlson

    Joe, I'm sorry, but I'm interested in serious, rational discussion, not wisecrack remarks and sarcasm.  You and John Simon seem to excel at that (but at least he has a sharp wit).  And that's sad, since you both have a high level of intelligence and the ability to write well.

    You sound young, and I hope that's the reason for your lack of seriousness.  It would be a real shame if you were over 30.  That's one of Simon's problems.

    I hope you can restrain yourself from writing additional adolescent wisecracks.  My guess is that you can't.  But, I can and will restrain myself from additional replies to them.  

    I would, of course, always be interested in having a serious dialogue with you.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @pbhact:
    It's one of Simon's problems that he's over 30? Alas, so am I. Would like to have a serious, rational dialogue with you -- perhaps on the eternal tug-of-war between pure and applied mathematics -- but I have to go to the toilet, NOW!

    ReplyDelete
  25. @Joe Carlson

    "It's one of Simon's problems that he's over 30?"

    I thought it was obvious what I meant here.  Apparently not.  The problem with Simon's being over 30 is simply that most intelligent people recognize by that age that being a "wise ass" or writing with "arrogance, sarcasm, visciousness, and pretension" (to quote my first note) is not a wise or mature thing to do.

     "Alas, so am I. Would like to have a serious, rational dialogue with you -- perhaps on the eternal tug-of-war between pure and applied mathematics -- but I have to go to the toilet, NOW!"

    For a brief moment, I thought you had decided to be rational and serious... I guess not.  I knew you wouldn't be able to restrain yourself.

    I actually don't think there is a serious tug-of-war between pure and applied math.  Where did you get that idea?   That's a rhetorical question though.  Please don't bother to answer.  Please.  But, I know you will (beware of "double reverse" psychology here).

    ReplyDelete
  26. @pbhact:
    Ah, that visit to the toilet was so refreshing!

    Seriously, rationally, intelligently, when it comes to mathematics no way I stand toe to toe with one such as you. Stick to a subject I can fake as easily as the next guy: your favorite books. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME? Check. MRS. DALLOWAY? Check, though I prefer THE WAVES, which might appeal to a mathematician. But LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL? Really? Made your top three? Read it when I was fifteen and liked it. But can't imagine anyone past your magic age of 30 even picking it up. Stand and deliver on that choice, teach.

    ReplyDelete
  27. @ Joe Carlson

    I first read Wolfe when I was in my twenties (don"t think I could have handled him at 15) and was touched.  His prose was sometimes "purple", and seemed sort of undisciplined, but there were enough flashes of what I considered "genius" to enable me to include him on my small list of "great" writers.  I still felt that way after reading all four of his novels.  Recently, I began re-reading "The Web and The Rock", and had the same sort of reaction.  I just saw a quote from Saturday Review that captures my feelings about Wolfe's work:

     "Wolfe has written passage after passage that you want to read aloud, to memorize; no novelist since Conrad has more verbal effectiveness."

    "The Waves" is one of the few Virginia Woolf novels I haven't read.  I think I've been intimidated by what I've read *about* it.  I may give it a try soon.

    ReplyDelete
  28. LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL knocked me for a loop way back when. Reading that novel at that age made as strong an impression as any I've read, perhaps because teenagers by nature are impressionable. Years later I visited the Thomas Wolfe house, smack dab in the center of Asheville, where UNC student docents conduct tours. Spooky -- walking tight hallways and expecting to bump into Eugene Gant or others in his family.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Hesperus wrote: "The only other film critic I can think of who dares (let alone cares) to approximate Simon on this was Mary Brennan who wrote for the Seattle Weekly."

    Mary Brennan?? I haven't read her, or even heard of her until this very moment, and I lived in Seattle during her brief publishing career. (The Sea. Weekly archives list 4 pieces under her byline.) Nothing wrong with obscure choices, but how did she swim into your ken?

    http://nptonline.wordpress.com/

    As for Roger Ebert, his so-called contributions to criticism remain as inimitably worthless as ever.

    ReplyDelete
  30. npthompson,

    I don't know about the current archives on Brennan, but I know that during the 90s, she was regularly published in the Seattle Weekly -- at least 12 times a year, I'd say. At any rate, it's not quantity, as they say, that matters; right...?

    ReplyDelete
  31. Mr. Simon, your criticism is incisive, wonderfully well written and intellectually rigorous, qualities that are sadly lacking in today's shallow "reviewing" world. (Ebert? Please.) You have long been a model for me as a writer and critic (though one of humble achievement). Particular sentences and insights from your writings have stayed with me for decades. I am heartened to find your excellent work continuing online.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I enjoy the writings of both critics (obviously a shocking statement based on what trolling has been produced in these comments), but I have to thoroughly disagree with Joe Carlson's derogatory treatment of Ebert's writing style.

    To call Simon's writing voice masturbatory might be one of the biggest understatements of the century; he's clearly more entertained by technical trickery than making an insightful point. Plus, I've run across many factual errors in Simon's writing that seem far less frequent in the hundreds of Ebert reviews I've read.

    Ebert also isn't afraid of being (dare I say it!) simply entertained by a film... for those that think the movies are simply for didactic purposes, I pity you. To paraphrase Ebert, you are old at heart.

    That being said, I love both writers and there's much to learn from perusing their reviews. They're often not given the credit they deserve.

    ReplyDelete