Wednesday, January 23, 2019


“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.


  1. Serpentine? John Simon? No. More like what is popularly referred to as elitist, a term for which I prefer the word Olympian, which is loftier sounding and doesn't seem to get people all worked up.

    If one views Mr. Simon this way he's a kind of sour or curdled Olympian more than a predatory sort who likes to put homely women and mediocre writers down.

    He does like to go after (as it were) those whom he regards as his intellectual inferiors, but then he has the credentials to do so. This doesn't make him nice but it does help in trying to understand him.

    I've enjoyed Mr. Simon's film and theater reviews for decades now, and I admire his honesty. He if nothing else says what he believes to be true; and he doesn't cater to current fashions in art and, more broadly, the world of ideas.

    Nor is John Simon quite so negative a critic as he's been made out to be over the years. He is not a man who suffers fools gladly; nor does he have much patience for artists whose ambitions far outweigh their gifts; and in these matters I find his astringency like a breath of fresh air.

    Criticism of art, any art, can be an ugly job sometimes, but somebody has to do it; say the right things, tell the truth, at whatever cost. Mr. Simon's done a good job of this, to which it's worth adding, on a personal note, that I often disagree with his opinions.

  2. By coincidence, I was reading John Simon movie reviews today while waiting for my kids in the pickup line at school. I always keep a collection of good books to read in the floorboard of my car. At the moment, I have two John Simon books down there. I also have Raymond Chandler, Breakfast of Champions, and a few more. Today, I read John's reviews of Forrest Gump, Titanic, As Good As it Gets, and a couple more. Most of the time, Simon's reviews are better than the film itself. I marvel at the short puns, tongue twisters (for lack of a better word), and side humor he uses in every essay. And it's not just one or two times. Every piece is chock full of goodies.

    There's no doubt in my mind that John Simon is the greatest film critic of all time. He's probably one of the best writers on theater as well, but I don't have the knowledge of theater writers that I do for film writers. His essays on the theater are pretty damned good, though.

    My question is, where would Simon land in a list comprised of ALL the writers of the last 50 or so years? Think journalists, poets, novelists, and the like. I have John Simon number 13 on my well-known list of "Top 50 Writers of the Last 50 Years." I have him right behind Kurt Vonnegut (12), and right ahead of Cormac McCarthy (14).

    Okay, hold up, y'all. It's like a tornado's comin' through. . . . . .I'll be back later.

    Well, I had to stop my little ass-kissin' essay a while ago because the wife just got off work and she's on a fucking rampage.

    (We have company coming for the weekend.)

    When my wife gets in one of her spells, it's unsettling, to say the least. When my wife is angry she'd remind you of Ralph Cramden.

    "To da moon, Pop Leibel!" she will say.

    My wife yells and her face turns a bright red. The kids are fucking petrified of her. I'm not, I just scream back at her. Then I shut up because I don't want the kids to be around that kind of bullshit. So I cleaned the damned showers, and I swabbed the frigging toilets and mopped the kitchen floor, and I swept the garage floor. I also folded some laundry, fed the dog, and made dinner (barbeque chicken, mashed potatoes with chives & cheese, canned peas. I also warmed up a nice baguette.)

    Okay, so anyway, I think pretty highly of Mr. Simon. He's a good writer and I dig that Belgradian accent. You might say he's one of my heroes.

  3. I can dig it, Pop Leibel. Your whole piece, not just your comments on Simon. I'm hot and cold on him as a writer; stylistically, I mean.

    As to his movie (a word I know he dislikes,--LOL!) reviews being better than the pictures he reviewed, a resounding yes. He is a brilliant man, chose a difficult career for himself, as his uber European sensibility was bound to offend. Yet he was the right man for the right time. The things he said and wrote really needed to be said and written about.

    I agree with your fondness for Simon's accent, which to my ears sounds vaguely Middle European, by which I mean somewhere between Slavic and Germanic. His public image as an old world "highbrow" looking down on "inferior" Americans who cannot separate art from entertainment.

    For all that, I consider John Simon almost a kind of invisible mentor; a professor I never met; a friend I never got around shaking hands with. In his heyday, the Seventies, I read almost every review he wrote even as I knew I wouldn't watch every movie he reviewed.

    I hope he reads our comments, if only to know that he's more highly regarded
    by films buff (a two word combo I know he despises) than he could ever imagine. Even on the old IMDB classic film board, which focused mostly on old American movies from the studio era, when we had a folder on the best American movie critics he came up highly rated. Whether I mentioned him first I cannot remember, but I did praise him and his work highly, and I can't remember a single disagreement.

  4. John, thank you for the reply. I first stumbled upon Simon's writing in 1980 at a great old bookstore near the college. I think it was in the New Republic, but I don't see that publication in his bio. I could be wrong about the magazine. I've been following him since.

    A little story. The first time I found Simon I had my little brother with me. I was watching him for my mother. After the bookstore, we went into an Eckerd Drug store and my brother stole a toy while we were in there. The manager caught him red-handed. Somehow I talked the manager out of calling the police, and we went home. That was almost 40 years ago. My That brother of mine died last year of ALS. He was 45. So it goes.

  5. Thanks at my end, too, Pop. I've been reading John Simon since around the time I was a senior in high school. It was when Dick Cavett had his late night show and Simon was one of his guests, and his mix of an authoritative European accent, no nonsense opinionatedness and erudition drew me in.

    Before long I was seeking out his reviews in I think it was The New Leader magazine; and shortly thereafter libraries, for his books. I became a fan of his work and his Olympian qualities as a writer even as I found his lack of affection for American film classics,--a special favorite of mine--not my cup of tea. Still, he was a compelling, Nietzschean figure as I saw it, and I came to admire him greatly.

    Those were Simon's best years as a public figure (such as he was one); a one man army fighting the influence of the "auteur theory" on American film criticism and in American film generally. For my part, auteurism was a useful "grid" for interpreting films and in helping me understand them.

    I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your younger brother. My younger sister died young also, and under circumstances that are still difficult to fully understand. Not a disease, as such; closer to something like bad timing, extreme misfortune.

  6. All too Simon

    Re-duck! old Simonizing coming,
    Female beauty, wide-eyed lensing,
    From the roles femeriors cleansing,
    According to Herr Simon’s laws.

    There rare to ovate the ovulaters,
    Scant bravas, herrahs, but prickly,
    Excessively, tragically, Simoniously
    Out his inner ham let, crying,

    “The flaws, the flaws, the flaws!”
    Crystalline naughts, fascistic oughts,
    From the rafters the legendary wail,
    "Eyes pluck’d unsightliness still smell!

  7. Mr. Simon's review of the Rolling Stones, esp. Mick Jagger, in the documentary Gimme Shelter, is the most hilarious and appropriately hostile review I've ever read. His review praising Wertmueller's Seven Beauties is also perfect, showing his passionate understanding of the arts, high standards, and powerful mastery of critical technique.

    1. It usually doesn't go well when singers who are not trained in acting try to do drama. I'm talking strictly about dramatic roles. Not film roles where the singer plays a (fictional) singer (there are exceptions). However, a good actor can play a singer/musician if the script and role are decent. Robert Duval in Tender Mercies comes to mind. More recently, Bradley Cooper does a fine job in A Star is Born.

      My top and bottom 5 acting roles for singers:

      Top 5:
      5) Ice Cube-Boys in the Hood (Very natural in the film, unforced)
      4) Mark Walberg-Boogie Nights (P.T. Anderson. Say no more)
      3) Dwight Yoakam- Sling Blade (Inspired hate. That's a good thing)
      2) Tom Waits-Down By Law (Hysterically deadpan)
      1) Tom Waits-The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Yes, I'm a Waits fan)

      Bottom 5:
      5) Meatloaf-Fight Club (Wasn't it Simon who referred to him as "Mr. Loaf"?)
      4) Art Garfunkel-Carnal Knowledge (Simon might say "bromidic")
      3) Mick Jagger-Performance (Yes, Simon was right)
      2)Roger Daltrey-Tommy (They should have used Pete)
      1) Doris Day-The Man Who Knew Too Much (The only flaw in that film)

  8. At his best, John Simon had a remarkable eye for detail, sensibility, what was behind the film,--attitude--whatever. He knew the score, wasn't just a put down artist. I remember his comments on Mick Jagger, and they were spot on.

    Thanks for bringing all that up, JC.

  9. Garfunkel was very good in Roeg's 'Bad Timing' (about a decade after 'Carnal Knowledge').

  10. I own all of Mr. Simon's books. I enjoy his criticism and his different perspective. Most critics are boring. They overpraise everything. Further 90% of them agree with each other, 90% of the time. PC has made the conformity even worse.

  11. A perfect example. Nothing is more absurd than watching old films where the most handsome leading men in Hollywood drool over Babs Streisand - and declaim on her "beauty". Yet, what critic ever pointed this out except John Simon?

    1. Couldn't disagree with you more...Mr. Simon certainly has his strengths as a critic but his harping on what he perceives as the physical inadequacies of performers has always been lazy, attention-seeking (and predictable) shtick. The relentless pounding he has given Barbra Streisand over the last 50 years says much less about Ms. Streisand than it does about Mr. Simon's peculiar and unexamined obsession with her( reading him on Ms. Streisand I have often thought, "My God, what is this woman's crime? What has she done to this man? Can an adult man really be so unnerved by a large nose?") ...I have always found Mr. Simon worth reading and have sometimes found him perceptive (though I rarely agree with him on movies) but it says something rather disheartening that when one thinks of Mr. Simon's criticism one's mind automatically drifts toward these sadistic attacks on the physiognomy of actors. One gets the distasteful impression that this dependable routine was a calculated ploy, Mr. Simon's claim to fame. In any event his writing never displays such relish as when he is telling his readers how ugly he finds some actress. It is undeniably his primary distinguishing feature as a critic--the John Simon brand- and I don't think that's such a good thing...(one would never say such a thing about Pauline Kael who was, within her own tastes, every bit as demanding and opinionated a critic as Mr. Simon

  12. Mr. Simon pleads his case, that he is not as the Salon criticaster claims a Debbie Downer. Having read a hundred or so of his film reviews from National Review and theater reviews from New York Magazine, I can affirm, yea asseverate, that in many (if not, pace Simon himself, most) of his reviews, he has praised the various talents involved with whatever productions he has appraised. And sometimes his praise is the more passing when pithier -- as in one instance (I can't remember the film) he parenthetically noted in passing, "...Albert Finney, a true actor..."

  13. How many John Simon's does the world need? At least one, though if there are more than that they should not, and would not, be anything like clones of each other. There will never in all likelihood be very many. In any case, John Simon's occasional vitriol (perhaps it exists only in my head! or my head has overemphasized the mild anguish it caused me) is just the finest vitriol a fella, or gal, could ever ask for! This essay in a way proves that Mr. Simon is so passionate and true to that passion, for art and truth, etc., that he doesn't even know he is, once in a while, vitriolic. He is so passionate that he gets carried away, like an innocent animal whinnying in front of a smelly, rotting, murdered body or something else unwholesome! That being said, his review of Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' is more than a bit much. Just read it, haha, and I think one will know what I mean. I also think he would, and could have, done well to be better able to enjoy marvelous trash like, for example, Brian De Palma's delicious film The Fury, and not say things like what he said about John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic--to the effect that the first film (which he deplored and wrote a brilliant, succinct, and entirely appropriate and civilized, firm takedown of) was nonetheless superior to Boorman's because, well, "At least that piece of boring, morally distasteful garbage was superficially straightforward and not whacky like this film!". Now, this is absurd. In the context of utterly disreputable, sleazy trash (which I say with no negative emotion - its just what these films are), he STILL upholds the values of "responsible" thrillers, believability, credibility, psychology, whatever. It's just a little strange, and needless to say, pointless, and perhaps counterintuitive and backwards. I wish he could enjoy a film like The Fury.

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  16. Salon! That center of pestilence. Your work will live on, sir, long after their inane rubbish has vanished into the digital ether.