[Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies,” a memoir by former Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman being released on February 23. Pre-order it here.]
On a Monday night in March, I went off to a screening of a movie I had to return to the office that night to review, filling up a lead space of just 375 words. (It was shorter than my review of “Three Men and a Baby.”) The film was called “Pretty Woman,” and it was an early entry in the still not completely official revival of the Hollywood screwball comedy—that wisecracking romantic form, by and large uncommercial since the fifties, that back in the studio-system days had given us some of the jauntiest, most casually enchanting big-screen love stories ever made. The genre had been slingshot back into orbit in the summer of 1989 with “When Harry Met Sally,” a comedy I sat through with a fair degree of hostility, because I experienced it as the insidiously watchable version of a fake Woody Allen movie. It was “Annie Hall”: The Sitcom — or, more precisely, “Annie Hall” meets Sam and Diane from “Cheers,” with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan mismatched in such a perfectly diagrammed “Look!! Pastrami on white really works!” sort of way that it drove me a little nuts. I was far from a classic-old-movie nut, but I still didn’t like to see the worm of network television burrowing its way into the magical landscape of Gable and Colbert.
About 20 minutes into “Pretty Woman,” when I realized it was going to be another version of what I thought of as plastic screwball, I turned on it. I had no problem with the “sexist” premise: a rich guy hires a hooker because he’s lonely and wants someone to spend time with. But I had little response to the interplay between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, and when I returned to the office, I let fly with invective. What I’d love to be able to say now is that “Pretty Woman” was a bad movie, and that in issue #6 of Entertainment Weekly I nailed what was wrong with it, and what a dogged fearless straight-shooter of a critic I was!
But that’s not really what happened. My review was churlish and sniping and not very well written. The dazzle of Julia Roberts’ widescreen smile wasn’t lost on me, but her antic sweetness was (although two years before at the Boston Phoenix, I’d raved about her in “Mystic Pizza”), and my lukewarm response turned to angry ice in the scenes set at a Rodeo Drive boutique, where Julia is humiliated and then, armed with a credit card, returns for her indulgently vengeful Cinderella-goes-shopping spree. I watched that scene and thought: Bad! Corrupt! The values of the eighties! Returning from the grave! Reeling in outrage, I slapped “Pretty Woman” with a grade of D.
I should have left my high horse in Boston. There was exactly one line of insight in my review, and that was when I said: “Yet the movie may catch on. With its tough-hooker heroine, it can work as a feminist version of an upscale-princess fantasy.” If I’d written a compelling piece, I would have fleshed out that theme with greater flair, with more understanding of why that fantasy might speak to empowered women. For as it happened, “Pretty Woman” became not just a smash hit but the rare film that marked a paradigm shift in American life. It helped to usher in the rise of princess feminism: a return to the primal notion that the way women look — the clothes, the cosmetics, the high heels, the tattoos, you name it — can operate as an uncompromising enhancement of their intelligence and spiritual power. If you put it that way, it can still sound like a radical notion — or, in the eyes of some (like the corporate-media conspiracy theorist Susan Faludi, author of “Backlash”), a retrograde one. Yet “Sex and the City” helped massage it into respectability, and “Pretty Woman” was close to being its genesis.
But okay. I panned the movie, and it became huge. So what? So this: The executives at Time Inc. wanted my head.
It’s a lucky thing I didn’t learn until later that my nickname, on Time Inc.’s 34th floor, became Owen “He Must Be Fired.” Yet little by little, the spirit of that antipathy came trickling down. It wasn’t just about me, either: The whole magazine was perceived as being too snobbish, too elite, even — God forbid — too “downtown” and “highbrow.” The alarm bells went off from the first issue, which featured a cover image of k.d. lang smirking into the camera, looking not like a luscious entertainment babe — no pretty woman this! — but like the return of Julian Lennon. In terms of what k.d. lang embodied as an entertainer, she was a perfect choice for the debut issue of EW: a symbol of the new rise of country music, and also a symbol of how the new pop culture was different from the old. But to the Time Inc. brass, the magazine’s editors had surveyed the entire galaxy of pop and movie stardom and decided to symbolize their mission by going with…an unknown brush-cut lesbian with razory cheekbones. The cover set off an instant mainstream-vs.- edge culture war, one that EW, to this day, has never shaken off.
That helped to lend my trashing of “Pretty Woman” an aura of controversy, and as I realized before long, that review quickly came to define what people thought about me. Wherever I went, I was “the guy who panned ‘Pretty Woman.'” It became a Symbol Of My Integrity. In general, there was a lot of hostility toward the movie (and still is), much of it for the wrong reasons — it glorified a woman playing a hooker! it fueled “objectification” — and so people welcomed my debunking of it. But more than that, they welcomed the notion that a wannabe showbiz bible like EW would pan it. “Pretty Woman” became the cornerstone of my brand before I even had one.
I guess I wasn’t all that nervous about it, because exactly one week later, I wrote three reviews —of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the Dana Carvey comedy “Opportunity Knocks,” and a pair of lambada movies, “Lambada” and “The Forbidden Dance” — and handed every one of those films a grade of F. I had not, to put it mildly, mastered the nuances of the grading system. The F, make no mistake, is a wonderful grade to give: It attracts readers like a heat-seeking missile, and coming at the end of a review, it’s like a little exclamation point of hate. But while it’s not as if four Fs in a single issue wasn’t allowed, there was a lack of perspective there. To me, the F means, and always has: could not possibly be more excruciating to sit through. I was bored by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (“They’re certainly fun to look at. They would have been even more fun had someone bothered to give them personalities”), but before handing it the ultimate damning grade, I should have taken into account a little bit that it was action fodder for 4-year-olds.
The editors at Time Inc. didn’t like me or the other critics; they didn’t like the k.d. lang cover; they didn’t like EW ‘s Tinkertoy version of a modular design; they didn’t like the magazine, period. But they weren’t the only ones. Industry analysts and advertisers hated the magazine. At one point, a couple of people from the publishing side took Jeff Jarvis to lunch along with a prominent advertiser, and after Jeff explained with breathless enthusiasm that he was planning to run business articles in EW just like the ones they did in Fortune, the advertiser leaned over and said, “I don’t think you understand the problem, Jeff. Your baby is ugly.” It was. That’s why the readers didn’t like it either. And the shit all came raining down after issue #13.
On a sunny day in May, the magazine’s editors, along with a handful of writers, were summoned to a meeting in the Time & Life building with the company’s three editorial top dogs. We had no idea what it was about. During the minutes of meet and greet, I noticed there was a bar, and though I never drank during the day, I was still so mindlessly exuberant about my new circumstances that I thought, Why not! This looks like fun! I’ll have myself a bloody Mary! The trio of Time bosses all gathered around me, and I thought they were just being nice, but really they were checking me out, like mafiosi. They wanted to know, up close and personal: Who is this critic loser who’s been ruining our investment?
We all sat down at a circular table that sprawled around the conference room, and Jason McManus, the editorial director, said in his dry avuncular way, “Let’s not waste any time; this is a serious lunch,” and then, after eyeing the rather fancy-looking hamburger on his plate, he picked up a copy of EW and said, “We have a serious problem with this magazine.” A chill went through me, as I presume it did through everyone in the room. He explained that EW was failing, big time. It was generating terrible newsstand sales, but more than that, it was alienating readers.
“The problem,” he said, “is that people aren’t connecting to the magazine. It’s not a club they want to belong to. It doesn’t make them feel good when they hold it in their hands.” I had to admit, right there, that McManus did nail what bonding with a magazine is all about. And it occurred to me that he might be right.
The other two Time bigwigs spoke their piece. Gil Rogin, who had the rather ominous title of corporate editor, looked like a leathery carp, with a gluttonous gleam and longish salt-and-pepper hair slicked back from his forehead. He was the most sardonic of the three, and he made the point, more harshly than McManus had, that the magazine was simply not “mainstream” enough. (I thought to myself: Really? We’re covering everything that’s out there.) Rogin took pains to let us know that he did get pop culture, recalling a highway drive during which he felt compelled to pull over to the side of the road because it was the first time he’d ever heard Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited,” and he knew that he was witnessing the rebirth of soul music. I found the fact that he told us that a little pathetic, and also a little touching. Joan Feeney, the EW editor who was Jarvis’ number two (whenever she passed two of the critics talking in the hallways, she made a point of saying, in a fifties-robot drone voice, “critical mass”), wound up posing the key question of the day: “We were told to put out a magazine for smart connoisseurs of pop culture. We thought we were doing that. Isn’t that what you asked for?”
That’s when McManus’ second-in-command, Richard Stolley, piped up. Stolley, the founding editor of People magazine, was visibly older than the other two, with a crown of grayish hair, but still impressively handsome, and he spoke in a tone of slightly wavery aging authority that conveyed deep power. To me, he seemed like a veteran Republican senator, the sort that even Democrats feel compelled to respect (or did back in the Nixon era). “The problem, Joan,” he said, “is that that universe isn’t large enough to support this magazine.” So what exactly does that mean, I thought. Are we now supposed to aim for a bigger, broader, lesser demo?
EW did, in fact, have a major problem, but the problem had been misdiagnosed. In actuality, the magazine wasn’t snobby at all. (Jeff Jarvis, who thought “thirtysomething” was too intellectual, hated snobs.) Just about every article and cover story was thoroughly mainstream. But if the magazine wasn’t snobby, it wasn’t sexy, either. And Jason McManus had put his finger on why: Entertainment Weekly was supposed to be a magazine that celebrated pop culture — but it wasn’t channeling the joy of pop culture. It was too stodgy, too earnestly wonkish; you couldn’t feel the joy on its pages. The covers looked like covers of Popular Mechanics. And Jarvis, in his critic-centric naïveté, had spread the reviews throughout the book, which actually made the critics too central; it robbed the structure of any flow. The magazine had no center. As a basic recipe, Entertainment Weekly was close to perfect, but it needed a new chef.