When the critic John Simon died last weekend, at 94, virtually every piece written about him — one usually calls these pieces “tributes,” though in Simon’s case I’m not sure the word applies — dealt front and center with the quality that had made him a legend: his famous vitriol, the gleeful and reflexive nastiness that sloshed through the cartridge of his poison pen. (It really was a pen, too — he wrote in longhand and loathed computers.)
For Simon, toxic negativity wasn‘t a tool for reviewing an art form; it was the art form. At New York magazine, where he was ensconced as the theater critic from 1968 to 2005, and at the National Review, where he reviewed movies for decades (often favoring the sort of decorous art films, like “The Lacemaker,” that were markedly inferior to many of the things he excoriated), he pushed the role of critical hanging judge as far as it could go, to the point that it was the driving force of his identity. In 1967, he was fired from New York’s Channel 13 for writing reviews that were deemed too “misanthropic,” but misanthropy was already becoming his eternal guitar solo.
John Simon used the writer’s equivalent of weapons of war because, in his own mind, he was engaged in a larger battle: the fight to uphold “standards,” to defend the timeless quality of certain art forms against the scourge of mealy modernity. By his logic, if a black actor played Hamlet, civilization would crumble. But with Simon, the tail of highbrow valor and “erudition” was always wagging an angry (and bigoted) junkyard dog. The truth is that Simon never felt more alive than when he was drawing blood.
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Simon was most infamous as a theater reviewer, but I got to know him, as a writer and colleague, in the role of film critic, and something that strikes me about his passing is that he was one of the last of the formative tidal wave of mainstream film-critic titans who came up in the ’60s and ’70s — i.e., the mythic glory days of movie reviewing. Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Corliss, Richard Schickel, and now Simon: They’re all gone. And with them, perhaps, a way of looking at the world is gone. What these feisty, prickly, stubborn, and passionate critical behemoths had in common was that they were all voices of ruthless individuality. The phrase “hive mind” hadn’t been invented yet, but with every sentence they wrote they stood against it. That’s why you could value their voices even when you disagreed with them.
Simon was the elitist bad boy of the club, and in that sense he was an extremist and an outlier. He was a scaldingly witty and elegant man, yet the vitriol, at its worst, was ugly. The unreal way that he slagged off on Barbra Streisand’s looks (her nose “cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning”) was thinly veiled anti-Semitism. And when, during some intermission chatter in the 1980s, he said, “Fags in the theater — I hope AIDS gets them all”…well, there’s no walking back or rationalizing a remark like that. It’s noxious, it’s hateful, it’s homophobic, it’s homicidal. (It also, incidentally, demonstrates a supreme lack of judgment about what good art is.)
Yet in the caustic compulsiveness with which he judged and condemned, John Simon, in his way, came closer than any critic I can name to incarnating the 20th-century cliché mythology of what a critic is: the haughty snob, the tastemaker who is really, deep down, a twisted person, one who flaunts his “superiority” to vent his own distemper. It’s the image of the critic you inevitably see in movies, stretching back to George Sanders in “All About Eve” (though compared to Simon, Sanders’ Addison Dewitt is a pussycat) and right up through Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” and Tabitha Dickinson, the vindictive New York Times critic played by Lindsay Duncan in “Birdman.” In the movies, these people always guzzle martinis and treat the people they’re reviewing like olives they’d like to smoosh the life out of. They’re parasites — a barely necessary evil. H.L. Mencken probably paved the way for the image of the critic-as-viper, and Rex Reed gave it some bitchy juice, but Simon was the figure of the postwar era who, more than any other, sustained that image and made it larger-than-life.
I seldom agreed with John, and the truth is that apart from his acid one-liners, I never found him to be all that interesting a writer. He knew a lot about a lot of things, but then a lot of critics do; it was the venom that made him a celebrity, a character. Despite his reputation for trashing things, he did have many voluble enthusiasms, and I witnessed one right before a 1992 awards-season voting meeting that, for some reason, has always stuck with me. As Simon flashed his alligator grin, he said to a colleague, “I hear you share my passion for ‘Passion Fish’!” It was vintage Simon (he was proud of his pun), but all I could think of was how surprised I was that after all the movies he’d despised, he fixated on a perfectly decent John Sayles version of a TV-movie-of-the-week, no more and no less, and held it up as a paragon of cinematic art. It’s almost as if, after all his cutthroat carping, the real dark side of John Simon was what a terminal middlebrow he was. He was as arbitrary in what he loved as what he hated.
In a one-on-one situation, he was disarmingly amusing to talk to — a charming rapscallion, with an ironic quality of warmth that had something to do with his Hungarian heritage, who so relished performing the role of John Simon that you waited with suspense to see what hellacious thing he’d say next. There are two moments I’ll always remember him by. I went to a weekday matinee show of Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” at New York’s Film Forum, and Simon was one of the dozen or so people in the audience. I only learned this when one of the other patrons started talking, and from a few rows back came John’s unmistakable voice (dour in a reptilian Euro way, like Dracula with a touch of Fearless Leader from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”), as he hissed, “Be quiet!” But the person wouldn’t stop talking, so Simon, in a somewhat louder voice, snapped “Shut up,” which had no effect at all, at which point Simon, having reached the end of his rope, said at full shouting volume, “Shut UP, you idiot!” The talker was instantly silenced. I half expected to turn around and see Simon holding a Luger.
The other incident I’ll remember came during a meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle in 1994. The members had been drawn into one of those endless bureaucratic discussions that people who don’t go to enough office meetings secretly relish — in this case, the topic was whether Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, consisting of “Blue,” “White,” and “Red,” could be voted on for Best Foreign Language Film as a single work, or whether they should be treated as three separate films. A worthy subject, but the debate dragged on, and Simon, furious with impatience, at one point spat out, “Let’s get on with it! It’s a piece of shit, and he is a piece of shit!” There was a Simonesque worldliness to that final phrase, his way of saying, “Of course I know him personally.”
If you were going to make a movie about a critic, one that played off the image of the critic that most people have, you could probably draw a lot from the life of John Simon. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that image effectively dies with Simon. Because what it stands for is the idea that the critic is alone — cut off, in some way, from the rest of the human race. It might be considered an advance that critics are no longer like this. But Simon wouldn’t agree with that, and a small part of me doesn’t either. I have no nostalgia for toxic criticism, but I do have nostalgia for an age when critics had the gumption to stand apart, when they weren’t expected to be part of the hive.