“Through more than thirty years of writing and behavior, Simon has shown us how easy it is to be a snake.” So ends an attack on me of a good many years ago on Salon by Charles Taylor, showing how easy it is to misjudge me from a widely held but unexaminedly researched, lazily hostile point of view.
People who have unprejudicedly read my criticism in magazines, or collected in book form, must know how mistaken dear Mr. Taylor is. “Dear” because he has, however belatedly and unintentionally, given me this occasion to set things to right.
Let me begin with the most commonplace attacks on me as an alleged disburser of gratuitous vitriol, a view of which a little more honesty and effort would have revealed me, on the contrary, as a good praiser frequently as well. In fact, one would probably find a positive review for every four or five negative ones, which seems perfectly justified when you consider how much trash is being offered on stage and screen, and only a little less so in literature. But that would not be viewed as a legitimate proportion by the typical reviewers, who find it more profitable to gush than to discriminate, of which, in any case, they are rarely capable.
So let me start with the serpentine view of me, most conveniently promulgated on the basis of my satirical remarks about something which the poor actors could not control. But are not performers in shows and movies supposed to be appealing,
indeed exemplars of something all of us strive for, or do we go to the theater and cinema to look at unsightliness? Except, of course, where the latter is predicated, or do we want the witches in “Macbeth” played by or acted as gorgeous women?
The old Hollywood dedicated to glamour knew what it was doing all right, even if its notion of beauty wasn’t always of the subtlest kind. This has changed, with populism insisting that it would rather look democratically at a homely Zoe Kazan or Jessica Hecht than romantically at a Laura Osnes, Laura Denanti, or Katrina Lesk. And yes, if we desire sets and costumes—again with meaningful exceptions—to be beautiful,
why not the faces and figures of performers? Are they not part of the spectacle? Or do young women aiming for stage or screen careers grow up yearning to be Barbra Streisands? Heaven help us, maybe they do. Still, I would like to think that, however unavowedly, they would rather be a Jane Fonda or a Sharon Stone.
Note that this does not mean that acting talent does not come first, only that aesthetics should not lag too far behind. Yet does not some of my wit at their expense hurt the actors’ feelings? No doubt it does, but that is the consequence of being a public figure and of lack of self-criticism. The early Maggie Smith and the greatly gifted Judi Dench would not have gone out for parts that required beauty queens, or else would have used their talents to make us believe that they could. Suffice it to say that I have never praised an actress for nothing but looks alone, take for example this from an early review of “Les Enfants du Paradis”:
“Maria Casares as the desperate wife. Who else could have made nagging, choking, marathon jealousy look so touching, lovable, even heroic? How that plain face of hers can become transfigured with the humblest happiness; how, in the agonies of rejection and anger, its ugliness remains profoundly human.”
Next comes the accusation of my alleged enjoying curmudgeonliness overmuch. There is no denying that writing a well-turned, well-deserved slam is fun, but so is a convincing rave. The only rather less enjoyable thing is writing a mixed review, chiefly neither praise nor disparagement. But even that should be readable as a specimen of justness, of the agility in sorting out the good and the not good in the mediocre. One must make the merely tolerable resonate as well as the enthusiastic, albeit with a lesser clangor.
What I would ask from any reader—and I admit it is no small thing—is to have checked out one of my critical collections in a library or bookstore, without necessary purchase, but enough to elicit either approbation or censure. As an example of a truly positive review, consider in “John Simon on Theater” the notice of “Private Lives” on pages 810-11, or that of “Barrymore” on pages 667-68, or yet that of “Comic Potential” on pages 782-84. Only someone who truly enjoys to accord praise could have written any one of those. Even some of what can be read standing up in a bookstore will dismiss the notion of me as an attack dog.
If you try to decide whether not to boggle at my negative reviews, try those of two other productions of “Private Lives,” pages 36-38 or 284-87. The latter takes apart Elizabeth Taylor’s Amanda, but should provide good enough reasons for doing so. As for my alleged homophobia, consider the praise lavished on some known homosexual playwrights or performers, of which you can find plentiful examples. I believe I acknowledged their talents quite irrespective of their, yes, private lives.
None of the foregoing, however, is intended as an elaborate justification of my criticism or me as an individual. I am sure that disagreement with my critiques is not excluded. Certainly perfection eludes me as much as it does the next person, though perhaps a little bit less than it does other reviewers, especially those in the dailies. If you want to use this very blog entry as inducement to proclaim disagreement, by all means do so. I am all for private or public debate as one of the best sources of discoveries. I only wish I had a better outlet for reviews than afforded by my blog entries and occasional magazine publication, especially now that The Weekly Standard has bitten the dust. The one thing I am perfectly confident about is that my views are thoroughly clear, unlike, say, those of French and American structuralists and semioticists. Also devoid of talking (or writing) from both corners of my mouth.