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.