The fact that film critics are losing their jobs is no longer considered breaking news; rather, it’s become a protracted process of mourning over the last few years. But when Variety, the trade journal once known as “the Bible of show business,” fired Todd McCarthy on Monday, after thirty-one years, it sent shock waves through the film industry. Civilians who don’t read “the trades” may wonder what the fuss is all about. Todd was usually the first critic to voice his opinion of new movies in print (along with his counterpart at the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt). His opinion had weight; it mattered.
Variety has played a big role in my life. I started reading the weekly edition of Variety when I was ten or eleven years old, because my father subscribed to it, and I found it fascinating. I didn’t care about overseas box-office grosses, but I was mesmerized by such exotica as its nightclub reviews and travel logs (“NY to LA,” “London to NY,” et al) that tracked the comings and goings of the show biz elite. I dwelled on the obit pages, which not only commemorated the passing of industry veterans but even the fathers and mothers of prominent people. I especially liked the self-promotional ads many entertainers placed in its pages. My most tactile memory of reading Variety in those days was how black my hands would get from its inky newsprint. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic about something so annoying.
In time, as my interest in movies solidified, I started reading the film reviews. For many years the paper’s critiques were dispassionate, focusing mainly on a new release’s commercial prospects. This began to change in the 1960s and 70s with the acquisition of younger staffers who cared about the medium of film and knew their oats. Some of those writers moved on (voluntarily or otherwise) over the years, but Todd McCarthy remained, and became not only the paper’s senior film critic but its film review editor, assigning more than 1,000 reviews every year to a staff of savvy stringers who attended far-flung film festivals around the world.
People often ask me which film critics I read and admire. Todd McCarthy is at the top of that list. Because he writes for an industry journal he isn’t known to a wide readership, but his reviews are knowledgeable, balanced, and broad-ranging. He reads fiction and can often compare a film to its source material; he knows the work of most directors and can place a film into a career context. He has a daunting vocabulary, and absorbs so much from one viewing of a picture that I find it humbling.
That doesn’t mean I always agree with his opinions, but when I read one of his reviews I know I can count on a well-reasoned assessment, a decent synopsis, and a singling out of all the crucial contributors (from supporting actors to the cinematographer and production designer).
Variety has been struggling to survive in recent years, like all businesses, and it has grappled with the challenge of the Internet. (Until recently one could read the paper for free online and access its database of past reviews. Now there is a “pay wall.”) But its current management seems to feel that the paper’s best bet is to jettison key writers like Todd, his British counterpart Derek Elley, and theater critic David Rooney, and make up the slack with freelancers. I’m no businessman, but as a longtime reader I am shocked and dismayed.
It reminds me of the climactic scene in Go West (1940) in which the Marx Brothers break up a railroad train and feed its contents into the boiler in order to keep the train going.
On a personal basis, I like Todd very much and feel confident he will land on his feet. But I also know how frustrating—and alarming—it must be to lose a job you’ve counted on, through no fault of your own. He and his wife are still raising a family, and the task of making a living isn’t easy these days, especially in the field of journalism. (One of my favorite moviegoing experiences of last year was sitting through—or rather, suffering through—Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—with Todd’s young son at my side. Nick was having such a great time that it almost took my mind off the awfulness of the film. And I didn’t fear for his growing mind because I know that Todd has been showing him classic movies at home.)
The world is changing too fast for my taste, and while I’m trying to keep apace, there are some traditions and mainstays I cling to. I look forward to reading Todd again in whatever new home he may choose. But Variety will never be the same, and that’s a loss for the paper and its many avid readers.
One of the most eloquent reactions to Todd’s firing was filed by Roger Ebert earlier this week, but that should come as no surprise. Although Roger has been unable to broadcast for several years, he has redoubled his already-impressive efforts online at rogerebert.com, and his work has never been more incisive, readable, or relevant.
If you haven’t read the profile of Roger (and his amazing wife Chaz) in last month’s Esquire magazine, please do. It’s honest, candid, though compassionate. Then read Roger’s reaction to the story and you’ll see why he is one of the best writers of any kind in America.
I saw Roger and Chaz at last week’s Independent Spirit Awards, where they sponsored a cash prize for a young documentary filmmaker. At the end of the rather long evening, I sought them out to say hello, and just as I started to speak, the heavy metal band Anvil began playing—at a decibel level that made conversation impossible. In an instant, Roger grabbed his notepad and wrote, “It sounds like eleven.”
He’s always been known as a fast writer; now I can verify that nothing has slowed him down.