Once-feared Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke’s foray into industry-subtweeting fiction hasn’t been a huge success, but the week the site’s devoting to stories by, and apparently about, film critics has produced some tangily intriguing results. Longtime New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub’s tale of the Los Angeles Times pushing out a staid older critic in favor of a hot young (and ultimately disastrous) alt-weekly writer is sufficiently remixed that its targets stay hidden; the Times did hire Manohla Dargis away from the Village Voice, but that actually turned out well for them, at least until she left for that Times on the country’s other coast. But former Boston Herald critic Nat Segaloff’s story of a theater chain forcing a newspaper to compromise its journalistic integrity rings a lot of familiar bells, and two-time New York Film Critics Circle chair Thelma Adams’ account of institutional sexism within the “Gotham Film Critics” (wink) is a riot of thinly veiled jabs.
Take this description of “the Mount Rushmore of Gotham film criticism with its opinionated seven”:
“There was the gracious auteur theorist. The misanthropic Middle European right winger. His nemesis, the flamboyant TV and print critic with a love for all things Merchant Ivory. Their mutual nemesis, the lefty anarchist alternative weekly kingmaker. The Godard-loving African American film theorist. The august gay gentleman from the men’s nudie magazine. And the eminently quotable critic from a popular rock magazine.”
It doesn’t take a profound knowledge of the history of American film criticism to identify Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Rex Reed, J. Hoberman, Armond White, Bruce Williamson and Peter Travers. There’s more where that came from, too. “The finicky mother of a future filmmaker” has to be Voice critic Georgia Brown, the mother of Noah Baumbach, although she didn’t write for a “rival tabloid.” But then it gets murkier: Who’s “the upstart populist reviewer of a New Jersey newspaper” who throws a legal pad at “a public university educated daily critic ruled by the power of the three-act structure”?
But more important than naming names is Adams’ — sorry, “Rhoda’s” — recollection of the gender politics at play, spurred by a present-tense reaction to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s punching-bag performance in “The Hateful Eight.” “Rhoda” recalls agitating, successfully, for Leigh’s performance in “Georgia” at the annual voting meeting, after which she suggested that the male-dominated organization just might have a thing for a hooker with a heart of gold:
“In a brief ecstatic moment, swept away by her new power to praise Leigh’s overlooked performance, plus a tidal wave of happy hormones, Rhoda crossed the line by saying aloud, “Imagine if we’d handed Best Actress to Elisabeth Shue for Leaving Las Vegas after giving Best Supporting Actress to Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite. How many selfless sluts could we honor in a single year?” Glares and stony silence met Rhoda’s question. Was she going to be one of those critics that needed to talk after every vote like a post-coital Chatty Cathy? This behavior was as taboo as disclosing opinions in the public elevator after a screening. The assembled critics that weren’t looking into their laps peered at her like animated jackals.”
But though Leigh won for “Georgia,” she’s still getting pummeled in movies 20 years hence, and Adams suggests things haven’t changed much for female critics, either:
“Rhoda’s flashback to 1995 ended when she pulled her Subaru into her suburban driveway after The Hateful Eight screening with her grown son. That night she’d seen Leigh not with her kohl-rimmed eyes and punk Jean Seberg hairdo in Georgia but defiled repeatedly and horridly by Tarantino’s brutality. In the world according to Quentin, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue in a room of male cutthroats and liars is being equally reprehensible.
Then again Rhoda recalled the words said to her by a female film critic newly inducted into the Fraternal Order of the Gotham Film Critics at a recent studio awards party: “I’m used to being the only woman in the room.” It saddened Rhoda that two decades had passed but female film reviewers still were sisterhood-challenged. That they’re still grateful to be members. And that men still outnumber women critics four to one. Rhoda welcomed the younger woman but tried to warn her that bias remains. The younger dismissed the caution with a laugh, content with the rise in her status. Her attitude bummed Rhoda. Daisy Domergue had been the only woman in the room – really and truly — and look where it got her?”
It’s only been a few months since Meryl Streep singled out the NYFCC’s lopsided roster as evidence of institutional bias in the film criticism industry. Adams suggests it’s been that way for a long, long time.