We all like to think we’re right, and think we are all the time. This especially goes for us critics, who are paid to lay down our views convincingly and with authority. As carping readers are always ready to point out, there’s no reason our opinions should count more than theirs, and in the world of movies — more than in any other field — everyone’s an expert.
Most critics like to think that their wasted youths and countless hours in movie houses count for something when it comes to pronouncing verdicts on cinematic accomplishments. We rarely care to admit that we were once wrong or didn’t know what we were talking about.
Still, few of us would deny that many films look different when we see them again years later. There is always that fear that a childhood favorite, a film that looked dreamy when seen on a special date in college, a film that had a profound effect for whatever reason at an early age, isn’t going to hold up on repeat viewing. Sometimes, too, we might have been in a grouchy mood, tired, hung over or otherwise not responsive to what was onscreen. The worst possibility of all is that maybe we were just stupid way back when.
For a critic, these are all excuses. After all, a surgeon, pilot or ballplayer has to perform regardless of what happened the night before, and a critic should have no reason to play the lapsed-judgment card.
All of which is by way of saying that we all — critics and casual viewers alike — can, in fact, be wrong, and that even the bible of showbiz, Variety, and yours truly, who has been dispensing opinions in these pages for more than one-quarter of the paper’s existence, has experienced days when a call for a rewrite would have been in order.
In the history of film reviewing, perhaps the most famous about-face was the one performed in 1967 by Joe Morgenstern, then of Newsweek, when he followed his initial pan of “Bonnie and Clyde” with a mea culpa rave that contributed to the groundswell of support that eventually turned what looked like a flop into a cultural phenomenon. There were some in the journalism community who considered this admission of personal fallibility heretical, but that didn’t prevent Joe from establishing himself as one of our best critics and winning the Pulitzer Prize.
The most amusing example of mixed minds at Variety came on the TV side. For many years, Variety and Daily Variety ran separate reviews of television shows, one by a New York critic, the other from Los Angeles. When “All in the Family” debuted, the show got a rave on one coast and a pan on the other, which prompted producer Norman Lear to take an ad in the paper that included both reviews and asked which was correct.
Most film reviews advance opinions that can be agreed with or not. At Variety, we have always had the added challenge of predicting the box office futures of all pictures. This little add-on means that, quite apart from the merits of our views, the eventual commercial performance of a film provides a quantifiable means of determining whether our reviews were “right” or “wrong,” a standard to which other reviewers cannot be held.
When we are right, such as when I declared that ” ‘E.T.’=B.O.,” no one attributes any special clairvoyance to the prognostication. But when we are wrong, as I was this year in guessing that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s” “B.O. legs won’t be as long as those of the leading lady,” the mistakes are there for all to see forever and ever.
Not that commercial predictions should be the standard by which our reviews should be judged. Years ago, the late Stuart Byron, an outstanding Variety critic and box office analyst of the late ’60s, calculated that A.D. Murphy, one of the most famous and respected reviewers and industry experts in the paper’s history, was “right” 75% of the time, which Stuart judged the highest batting average it was possible for any mortal to achieve. It’s certainly a standard that gives the rest of us something to aim for.
All the same, even Murf. was capable of major blunders. To my mind, there were few more obviously commercial films of the l970s than “The Way We Were” and “Saturday Night Fever.” Still, Murphy felt the former would have “weak legs” because “word of mouth may be a problem,” and described the latter as “a fast playoff item in an undiscriminating youth market.”
The review of my own that most makes me cringe was not for Variety, but one I wrote for another paper near the very beginning of my professional reviewing career: of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” A major fan of Kubrick’s, I was desperately looking forward to the film, no doubt too much so, to the extent that on first viewing at a virtually empty private screening at the cavernous Cinerama Dome, I simply didn’t “get” what the director was up to in this radical departure from his two previous films, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
I snidely wrote something to the effect that the film would look lovely hanging in the Louvre but was otherwise stillborn, a view that began altering in my mind within days and was completely upended the second time I saw the film. I have gone out of my way in print since to assert the film’s greatness, to insist that it represents the most coherent and comprehensive expression of the filmmaker’s take on the human condition, his Stroheim-worthy assessment of mankind’s vanity and folly. But the thorn of my original critique sticks in my side.
I have been reserved, at best, about several Oscar winners — “Platoon,” “The Last Emperor” and “The English Patient” among them — and never saw any reason to change my mind despite prevailing sentiments. But I probably took more heat for my nonplussed assessment of the first “Matrix” than any for any other review I can remember. After its publication, the geeks and fanboys were relentless: I was an uncomprehending idiot, a nonbeliever, a cranky old-timer who couldn’t get with the program, hopelessly uncool. Inundated with emails like this, I couldn’t help but begin to think that I was perilously out of step with trendy tastes (not that this had ever bothered me before).
But then, last year, after having tried — and I mean really tried — to synch up with “The Matrix” on DVD and after reviewing the two sequels, I was astonished to be invited by Warner Bros. and the Wachowski brothers to contribute to the critical commentary on the three-pack “Matrix” special-edition DVD, evidently because of, and not despite, my rather jaundiced view of the entire series.
And while I’m prepared to admit that perhaps the first one was, in fact, cooler than I was originally willing to admit, I still see nothing wrong with my initial judgment that the film was “a shrewdly packaged head trip” that would appeal to young guys “for whom the script’s pretentious mumbo-jumbo of undergraduate mythology, religious mysticism and technobabble could even be a plus rather than a dramatic liability.”
The next time I’m “wrong,” I’m sure I’ll hear about it again. Probably tomorrow.