“Most film critics make a huge mistake — they don’t factor in what people’s intentions were from the beginning. All they look at is the finished product and they reward or punish people for what the result of the movie was. The actors are included when the actors actually have the least amount of responsibility for the film. The movie business is a director’s medium, and it’s really incumbent on critics to understand who is responsible for what’s on screen.”
Obviously, Baldwin has some strong feelings about how critics should do their job — and he made that even more obvious yesterday when he published an essay on The Huffington Post about how Broadway has changed in recent years. The biggest change he perceives is at the theater department of The New York Times, whose reviews are so influential that they can literally make or break a show at the box office. As it so happens, Baldwin’s current play, “Orphans” was just broken by the Times; after a pan from critic Ben Brantley, the production announced it was closing on May 19th, more than a month ahead of schedule. Baldwin was, understandably, a little miffed, and he expressed his miffeditude in this portion of his essay:
“Ben Brantley, who I must state up front is no fan of mine (every John Simon must have his Amanda Plummer, I suppose), is not a good writer… Brantley carries the Times into the performance and little else. Beyond the obvious impact that a weak or scathing review in the Times has on sales, particularly with booking agents for tourists, no one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an x-ray to determine if you have cancer. Brantley doesn’t offer criticism, per se, as much as he seeks to signal to some that they are actually unwelcome on Broadway. If you aren’t Brantley’s type, why bother? And it is this very ‘Why Bother’ approach of Brantley’s that I think is the most troubling.”
It’s easy to see why we might disagree on this, but I’m not sure I see Brantley’s “Orphans” review as particularly damning or cruel. It offers a great deal of praise, for example, for Baldwin’s co-star, Tom Sturridge. He even praises Baldwin’s work on “30 Rock.” If Baldwin hadn’t said so, I would have gotten no sense that this review was written to tell people they were “unwelcome on Broadway.” Brantley certainly says this particular production isn’t fantastic, but that was his opinion.
After striking back at the Times, Baldwin offered more advice on the role of a critic:
“A critic’s job is to evaluate two things: what you are attempting to do and how close do you come to pulling it off. Highbrow, lowbrow, Shakespeare, Williams, movies like ‘The Hangover,’ movies like ‘Lincoln,’ they all deserve the same fate. If it’s trash, then call it. But is it good trash or is the bar too low? Then call it. Is the piece ambitious and groundbreaking? Factor that in. But never say ‘why bother?'”
As he did in 2011, Baldwin really wants critics to factor in an artist’s intentions — “what you are attempting to do” — in their reviews. This is generally an unwise decision. Certainly, a critic should judge a movie on its own merits; “The Hangover” doesn’t have to be as “moving” or as “important” as “Lincoln” to be successful on its own terms. But considering the director’s hopes and dreams is very dangerous. Good motives don’t equal good movies, no matter how pure of heart the artist is. If they did, then Sight & Sound‘s Greatest Films Poll would be filled with earnest after school specials about the dangers of drug use.
I will leave you with one more quote from Baldwin from that earlier USA Today interview, one which I’m now a wee bit skeptical of. It’s his response to a question about whether he reads reviews of his work:
“Sometimes, if it’s there. I haven’t made that many movies for the last few years. If I’m reading the New Yorker and it’s in front of me, I might read it, but I don’t really seek out reviews of films anymore.”