Over the course of half a century, Molly Haskell has stayed the course. “I always call myself a film critic first and a feminist second, because my first allegiance is to movies,” the long-time critic and author recently told IndieWire, a status she’s happily asserted during her enviable run as a critic for publications like The Village Voice, New York Magazine, and Vogue. As Haskell gears up to accept a Special Award for Career Achievement from the New York Film Critics Circle, she’s more secure in her beliefs than ever. It’s about time everyone else joined in, too.
While Haskell doesn’t currently have a “regular berth,” as she terms it, her writings regularly appear in a variety of publications, and she mixes those pieces up with interesting one-offs. Recently, she finished penning an essay for an upcoming release of Leo McCarey’s “The Awful Truth” for Criterion, one that allowed her to dig into the evolution of Cary Grant’s comedy. That kind of work – lovingly and meticulously steeped in history and context – that still gets her going.
“It’s a kind of mission or responsibility I feel to keep the past alive, because I’m closer to it than most people,” she said. “I think it’s hard for young people now to even be interested in it. They’re just so overwhelmed by the present and keeping up with the present, but to me, it’s always so interesting to know where movies come from and what leads to what, and finding links that you didn’t know were there. If I have a purpose, that’s what it feels like it is to me.”
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Haskell’s other big mission hasn’t changed over the years, and now seems as necessary and vibrant as it did in the ’70s. Haskell established herself early on as a feminist film critic, an alignment and way of thinking that permeated much of her work, particularly her 1974 book “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies” (still in print).
Asked about the current climate of women – many of them in the entertainment industry – speaking out against sexual abuse and harassment, and Haskell is suitably awed by the burgeoning #MeToo movement. “I’m exhilarated by this moment of feminist resistance on such a large scale,” she said. “It’s a groundswell leading to a reckoning and exposure that seems to me it was a long time coming, and needed to come.”
For Haskell, even the basic semantics of these necessary discussions are exciting. “Just the idea of women speaking in this collective voice and not afraid to use the word ‘feminism.’ When I came along, and for the longest time after that, people would just shrink from using the word feminism,” Haskell said.
She added, “There’s something exciting about this sort of coming out as feminists and that this issue is before brought to the fore. I think it’s absolutely crucial to keep it going.”
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Still, Haskell is cautious about how idealogical revolutions might impact the way people consume their entertainment. That’s nothing new for her.
“My major interest is in movies and looking at movies and how movies are looked at and written about and thought about. And I worry, as I always have, about a sort of ideological prism through which people look at movies,” Haskell said. “I worried about that in the ’70s, and I still do.”
While Haskell understands the necessity for certain metrics when it comes to evaluating art – the Bechdel Test was the first one that came to mind – she remains wary of using such notes to size up movies and their merit. “This kind of ideological thinking tends to have a sort of one-size-fits-all approach to art, and art is just too varied and contradictory for that,” Haskell said.
Haskell is still actively confronting those issues in her writing. In 2009, in support of her book “Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited,” she penned a piece for The Guardian about the film’s “so-called rape scene.” “There’s something wonderfully contradictory and interesting about that scene,” Haskell said. “I wouldn’t put it in a movie today, but I would never take it out. I wouldn’t tear it down with the monuments on Monument Ave. in Richmond.”
She added, “We look at the films differently now. That’s fine. We can look at them differently, but try to understand how things were in the context in which they were made.”
Haskell is still looking, even if the landscape has changed since the early years of her career.
“I would say the main thing is the disappearance of print reviewing, which was such an exciting time. It’s exciting now in different ways,” Haskell said. “The late ’60s and early ’70s, there was this new breed of critics. People call it the golden age of cinema. I don’t think so, there are great golden films in every age. It was really the golden age of film criticism.” (Asked about the rise of Rotten Tomatoes, Haskell was characteristically blunt: “Most people think it’s lovely to hear from ordinary people. I’m not that interested in what ordinary people think. I’m more interested in the critics.”)
Yet Haskell remains keen on diving deep into the world of film, a quest aided by the immense availability of so many options, a big change from when she and husband and fellow critic Andrew Sarris (who passed away in 2012) were working during that so-called golden age.
“In those days, if you’re writing about film, there was no way to see something unless you had it on 16 millimeter, and we did,” Haskell said. “There were obviously no DVDs and no Criterion Collection, and all of that, the abundance is just staggering now. The problem is how to wade through it all and how to find people and keep the conversation going.”
But even such abundance comes with a practical requirement: realizing you just can’t see everything. “I was looking over some things that had come out after NYFF, and films had just disappeared. If you didn’t see them there, you don’t see them,” she said. “Now it’s just there are so many different cinemas that you just have to decide which ones you’re just gonna not ever know anything about.” (If Haskell can’t see everything, what hope is there for the rest of us?)
Despite worrying about the wealth of entertainment options available to consumers these days, Haskell’s own interests are varied and voracious. She doesn’t consider herself a binge-watcher, but she can’t say enough about catching up with an overlooked series like “Getting On.” She’s also big into audio books, and is particularly enamored with Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” which she deems “so brilliant and so funny and so eerily and scarily resonant of today.”
As for movies, there’s plenty of those, too. Asked about her favorite films of the year, and Haskell offers a number of hearty recommendations. “Last year, one of the ones I loved was ’20th Century Women,’ and I never could find anybody that loved it as much as I did, and I feel the same way with ‘I, Tonya’ this year,” she said. “I thought it was just wild and exhilarating and tough, and also feminist. It’s the women that do all the work, or at least all the competent work, and the men are off just doing horrible things and nothing.”
She also loved Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” especially its message about the bonds between women: “Saoirse goes through these sort of flaky boyfriends and ends up back with her best friend. There’s something wonderful about that, the two girlfriends are dancing together at the prom. I love that.”
The Robert Pattinson-starring “Good Time” served as her first introduction to the Safdie brothers, and she was swept up by their flashy style. Other standouts for Haskell include “Get Out,” “The Florida Project,” “Marjorie Prime,” and “A Fantastic Woman,” and she’s eager to give “Phantom Thread” a second look. (And, yes, the avowed Spielberg fan liked “The Post,” which she termed “a celebration of the First Amendment.”)
In any case, Haskell doesn’t sound too frustrated with an overabundance of options. “I feel one of the horrible things about being old is you’re just old, and you don’t have the energy. You’re on your way out,” she said with a laugh. “But there’s something liberating in that you just don’t have to try to keep up.”
The NYFCC will hold its annual Gala Awards dinner on Wednesday, January 3, 2018.