Can a longtime film critic survive after panning the latest Tarantino and Coen Brothers oeuvres? 3,435 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Even though he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, Wilson did not care much for movies. He would never admit it, of course, but his experience and interests centered on national politics, foreign policy and sports. Hard news consumed him — local news as well as news from Washington and Baghdad and Moscow and Beijing. The arts pages were left to deputy editors. Of course, he realized the newspaper’s need to cover Hollywood. The Detroit News covered the auto industry. The L.A. Times covered the film industry. That was that.
So Wilson was obliged to deal with Hollywood. Every few months, he dutifully met the studio moguls who said it was a shame that so many movies were filmed in Canada or Louisiana because of the availability of more lucrative tax credits than in California. Couldn’t the newspaper run more articles about that? In turn, Wilson urged the moguls to buy more advertising which had declined severely with the growth of Internet movie sites. Wilson knew it was a losing battle.
He found them all just a little too smug, and he preferred to spend time with the newspaper’s numerous other constituencies. The auto and real estate people who complained that the paper was anti-business, black and Latino leaders who complained that they weren’t covered enough in the paper, the police chief and his deputies who complained they were misunderstood by reporters, the Jewish leaders who complained the paper was unfair to Israel, the Asians who complained that the articles ignored them. It went on and on. But the problems of these people — as different as they were — seemed real.
The movie guys, and they were all guys, walked into his office with the noxious aroma of entitlement. “Spare me,” he told his secretary whenever the moguls wanted a meeting with him.
But Wilson was a smart editor and, whatever his personal tastes, he knew that there were readers out there who consumed the comic pages and horoscopes every day. Just like they read about the movies every day. Don’t mess around with the comic strips and horoscopes. Don’t mess around with the movies. Besides, the edict from the publisher was to boost online readership. And movies, with their appeal to younger demos, were central to that strategy along with television and music. Circulation was falling at every newspaper in the country, including the L.A. Times. More and more readers saw the newspaper only online, the key to survival.
In recent years, Wilson had hired a reporter to cover the music industry, and a critic from Rolling Stone for rock, rap, hip-hop and anything non-classical. He also promoted Sara, a young reporter, to run the Arts section. And Wilson depended on her because Wilson had more important matters on his plate than the movies.
Except for Charles.
Charles was approaching 70 and had been the L.A. Times film critic for what seemed like 200 years. It was time to replace him. Easier said than done.
Charles had been a classmate of the publisher at Princeton. They remained friends. Everyone knew the critic was untouchable as a result. Beyond this, Charles had a base of loyal readers, the older demographic whom the L.A. Times could hardly ignore. So Wilson had avoided dealing with the Charles situation for as long as possible.
Charles was a charming, generous and slightly eccentric fellow. He wore a bowtie and vested suits. His accent was somewhere between Boston and London. His father had been a banker who left Charles a lot of money. The critic bought his shoes on Jermyn Street. He seemed thoroughly out of place in the newsroom. Which was, of course, deliberate.
Charles would periodically invite Wilson and his wife to dinners at his home high in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Bowl and the Westside. On clear days, you could actually see the Pacific. The home had once belonged to Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles loved taking visitors to the cellar where the actress had kept her smuggled liquor supply during prohibition.
Wilson’s wife, Margo, had been an actress who’d played small roles in films and TV before they had children. She was utterly charmed by Charles because she rarely met people like him anymore: men and women who adored Hollywood and embraced the fantasy. Margo and Wilson lived in Pasadena, and so much of their lives revolved around the newspaper except when she dragged him to Disney Hall or the Pasadena Playhouse. Wilson was grateful when Margo found friends to join her at a movie every other week so he could work or watch sports. Charles brought Margo back to a world that she missed.
"I used to have fun when I was young and poor and single and sharing an apartment on Pico and going to auditions,” she once told Wilson, " Now I’s all boring small talk that drives me out of my mind God, I’m a good wife."
What made a visit to Charles’ home special for was not only the cast of characters who showed up there but also the movie memorabilia crammed inside. Photos inscribed to him from Audrey Hepburn ("Darling Charles, Come back to Rome soon!!!”). and Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall and Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds and even Marlon Brando. ("Charles, You’re one of the good ones. Bud.) Framed on the living room wall was the front page of The New York Times headlining the death of Marilyn Monroe. Another framed story covered Judy Garland’s demise. There were two large film posters: one of Citizen Kane signed by Orson Welles ("To Charles, A friend. Always."), and the other a poster of Funny Girl (signed "To Charles. All my love. Barbra.")
Margo always told Charles, in all honesty, "Your home is fabulous." Even Wilson agreed. At Charles’ home, the subject of the L.A. Times never came up. Thank God. The guests — retired actors and producers and agents — spent the entire evening drinking and laughing and exchanging biting gossip about the old moguls and Bette and Joan and Cary and Jimmy and Kate and Spencer. It was funny. It was shocking. "Oh my God, I’m dying," Margo would say, choking with laughter, after a story about Daryl F. Zanuck that she could never repeat. One time, Charles invited Margo to accompany him to the Academy Awards. It was the high point of her year.
Hollywood was Charles’ life. He had found his soul there. It was not just the movies and the star actors and famous directors and big studios that had infatuated him since age 15. He’d moved from New York at 18, went to USC and came to live in Los Angeles and never left. There was no other possible place for him.
The problem now was that Charles’ reviews had turned leaden, stuck in some time warp of the 1960s. No, the 1950s. Maybe even decades older. His critiques were mocked by mean-spirited Hollywood bloggers. Even Wilson’s daughter Ally, a Yale Drama School senior, said she looked at the L.A. Times online every day out of loyalty to her father, and found Charles an embarrassment. Let’s face it, she told her father, no one she knew even read movie critics anymore,
Wilson knew that Charles’ taste was out of fashion and didn’t need his daughter to tell him what was painfully obvious. Wilson saw for himself how the critic loathed all these new and often pretentious and sometimes violent films welcomed by the younger audiences. Yet the idea of gently easing Charles into retirement was almost unacceptable.
Almost. Until Wilson read Charles’ scathing review of the newest Quentin Tarantino film. That’s when Wilson knew that Charles had gone too far. Sara, the Arts editor, walked into Wilson’s office with the newspaper folded to Charles’ review and simply said, "This is awful." Wilson had seen some of Tarantino’s films with Margo and had actually enjoyed the Brad Pitt film about the Nazis and the movie about slavery with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx. But Charles had loathed both films causing online ridicule from bloggers who, Wilson told Sara, were vile and self-promoting pricks.
But the savagery towards Charles escalated when he excoriated Tarantino and the Coen Brothers both of whose new films were being touted for Academy Award nominations. Which meant advertising.
As if that weren’t enough, Charles had trashed the comedy with Nathan Lane and Channing Tatum about a transgender couple in an Alabama town. It was one of the year’s biggest hits. Sara’s voice trembled when she spoke to Wilson. "I’m sorry, sir, but Charles is an embarrassment."
It was time to gently ease Charles out of the job with the agreement of the publisher. So Charles was named "critic-at-large," which meant critic of nothing. Charles waited a few weeks and then decided to take a buyout and leave the paper. "It’s time," he told Wilson with a smile. Wilson detected a sadness in the smile, which made him feel miserable.
There were several farewell dinners for Charles, some of them attended by older studio chiefs and agents and even Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine and Kirk Douglas. Charles was a tradition. And there weren’t too many traditions left in Hollywood. "A class act," said one of the studio chiefs. "The L.A. Times will not be the same without Charles," said another.
Driving home from the fancy party at Spago that night, Wilson told Margo. "This can be a shitty job.". Margo was furious. "Why the hell don’t you just get rid of everyone over the age of 40," she said. They drove the rest of the way in silence.
But now the newspaper had to find a new critic.
Wilson and Sara read the reviews of newspaper critics in Boston, Atlanta and Seattle. They scoured Salon and Slate and Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the critics were terrible writers. Others opined like petulant children. The few good ones refused to leave their jobs. Wilson even thought of moving the theater critic to the movie side, but then rejected that idea. "I want to get rid of him next," Wilson told Sara. Finally, Sara suggested the critic from the Village Voice. But Wilson was reluctant to hire from one of the alternative papers where self-importance and pomposity usually reigned among reviewers. Nevertheless, the paper flew the Voice film critic Sean to L.A. because he also had his own blog and wrote frequently for Slate and other national sites. He was in his early 30s, slim, humorless and almost unbearably confident. His eyes darted when he spoke.
Wilson found Sean’s reviews not only angry and snide but cluttered with references to arcane films. Worse, he never stopped writing about himself. At their luncheon interview, Wilson grew uncomfortable when he realized that Sean couldn’t help giving the impression that, if he took the job, he was doing the LA Times a favor and not the other way around. Unfortunately, a terrorist attack in London cut short the interview. Wilson was consumed with that story, and then the sudden retirement of a U.S. Supreme Court justice two days later and a police shooting of an unarmed black kid that week. The newsroom felt like a war zone. Wilson passed Sara in the hallway. "I have no time to spend on finding the fucking film critic," he said. "Just bring on Sean.".
Weeks later, Wilson told his wife that making a decision — any decision — in the midst of breaking news chaos had been a dumb mistake. Wasn’t it one of the first rules of management that decisions should be made calmly and not in the midst of crisis?
Sean’s first review was a takedown of Clint Eastwood, a living legend who had just directed a film with Matt Damon and Emma Stone about veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film’s strong reviews in The New York Times and online sites made Wilson and Sara uncomfortable. "Does this guy realize he’s writing for a large audience and not the Greenwich Village crowd?” Wilson chided.
Sara winced because a NYC friend of hers had just confided to her, "Even people in the Village don’t read the Village Voice anymore." Sara told this to Wilson and said she felt like an idiot for hiring Sean.
"Don’t," replied Wilson. "He’s only a movie critic."
Sean’s next few film reviews were harmless. But then he went after, of all people, Steven Spielberg. It took guts. It took arrogance. It took stupidity. Spielberg had stretched himself and made a modern-day version of Macbeth with Daniel Day-Lewis and Clare Danes. The film had made the cover of Vanity Fair and stirred huge publicity. The stars and Spielberg appeared on Charlie Rose. When the online reviews trickled in, some were respectful while others were raves. It only worsened for Wilson and Sara when The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker as well as reviewers in London and Paris deemed it one of Spielberg’s best and perhaps his most inventive film. Even Wilson and Margo went to see the Spielberg film and found it mesmerizing. So did Sara.
The head of Universal called Wilson after Sean’s review panned the film. "Who is this fucking putz?" were the movie executive’s first words. "Not that anyone gives a shit what this asshole says. We used to read Charles, who by the way told me Steven’s movie was great. We don’t read this moron." Then the mogul abruptly hung up.
Sean had his fans. KCRW began a weekly program featuring his film commentary. He began an intimate weekly series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art interviewing "promising" – meaning unknown — filmmakers. He became a persona in the tiny world within the tiny world of indie and festival films, most of which disappeared after one or two public screenings.
That Thanksgiving, Wilson’s daughter Ally came home from Yale. Wilson went into her bedroom and sat down as she was unpacking. "I have a question for you, sweetheart. A few months ago, you complained to me about Charles. But you said something else to me: that no one you know reads newspaper reviews. Is that true?"
Wilson’s wife walked in and heard the last part of her husband’s question.
Ally said, "No one over the age of 40 reads reviews anymore."
Margo said, "Make that 60. I don’t read reviews anymore — especially this new guy’s."
"What do they read? How do they get their information whether a new movie is good or not?" asked Wilson.
"Social media. Facebook,” replied Ally. “You look at the TV ads. You watch the trailers on YouTube. You just get a vibe. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes publishes a percentage figure of positive reviews for each major film. But I doubt that kids go to see a new movie simply because it received a high score there. But it’s an influencer."
“It’s not like the old days,” added Margo, “when you read Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and decided then and there whether to see the film based on what she wrote.”
Ally had never heard of Pauline Kael. Margo couldn’t believe it.
“Well, go to Amazon right now and order her books. Pauline Kael had clout.” Margo then proceeded to tell her daughter the Bonnie And Clyde story. How newspapers and magazines had dismissed the movie when it first came out, dooming it to die in oblivion. But Pauline Kael wrote a 7,000-word article for The New Yorker calling the film brilliant and revolutionary. The movie was re-released, and lines formed around the block in New York and L.A. The New York Times fired its long-time film critic over it, and the Newsweek critic rushed back to see it again and wrote that his first review was wrong and the film was, indeed, a classic. Time magazine put the movie on its cover, which in those days was a publicity pinnacle.
"That’s when critics meant something," concluded Margo.
"Those days are over," Wilson said. "No more."
That December, Wilson asked Sara to find out the online traffic for the music critic, the art critic, the dance critic, the drama critic and the movie critic. The music and art critics, both of them fine writers who had separately won Pulitzer Prizes, had gained in readership in recent months. The dance critic had a selective readership, relatively small but growing a bit over the last year. The drama critic’s traffic had dropped in recent months. But the clicks on the movie critic told Wilson everything he needed to know. In the first two weeks after Sean was hired, his traffic had soared considerably higher than Charles’. But the readers turned away after the first few paragraphs. By contrast, Charles’ readers stayed with the reviews until the end. In the last two weeks, Sean’s clicks had dropped precipitously. Now his traffic was the same as Charles’. And probably it would keep falling.
Two days later, Sara walked into Wilson’s and placed a printout on his desk. She was nervous. She avoided looking at her boss. "I wouldn’t bother you with this, but I think you should know. Let me read it to you,” she said. It was Sean’s Ten Best Movies list.
"The first film is ‘a futuristic and often stunningly beautiful Japanese film where sex dolls commit virtual hari-kari against a swirl of film noir intrigue, philosophical speculation, eye-popping images and science fiction cool.’ The second film is ‘a moving comedy turned tragedy from an Icelandic director that centers on two sheep-herding brothers who break their 40-year-silence when their herds descend into crisis.’ The third one is a Chinese film that’s ‘a hypnotically beautiful dream which opens with curls of smoke, eddies of water and men soaring across the frame as effortlessly as silk ribbons.’"
"I get it," said Wilson in a tight voice.
"The Chinese film is supposed to open in two weeks only at that art theatre in Santa Monica. I’ll skip the Nigerian film," Sara continued. "Fifth on the list is the Denzel Washington movie. Sixth is the Jodie Foster film directed by David Fincher. Then comes Spielberg. Then a Bulgarian film about – I kid you not — a struggling farm family.”
Wilson interrupted Sara. "This is his Ten Best Movies list? Mostly obscure foreign films that no one sees?"
She nodded. “He says The New York Times does it.”
"Well, tell him I don’t give a fuck about the pretensions of The New York Times film critics," Wilson said, nearly shouting. "I want the Ten Best American films."
Wilson was breathing heavily now. He picked up the phone and called the publisher as Sara left, Then Wilson put on his jacket and asked the paper’s deputy editor to take over the daily afternoon news meeting. That done, Wilson left the building.
It took him 30 minutes in rush hour traffic to drive from downtown to the Hollywood Hills. He pressed the buzzer. He heard Charles’ voice.
"It’s me, Wilson."
"Charles, it’s me. Wilson. Let me in."
Wilson heard the buzzer. The gate opened. He parked in the driveway and walked up the steps. The front door was open. Charles stood there. Wilson realized he had never once seen Charles without his uniform — the vested suit and expensive shoes and perfectly groomed hair. Or ever seen Charles without a smile or a morsel of gossip. Charles always left a trail of laughter wherever he went. But now he wore loose sweatpants, a flannel shirt and slippers. He was unshaven. Wilson realized that Charles had worn a hair piece all these years.
Charles was somber. "This is the real me," he said very quietly.
"No," Wilson said, "the real you comes to the office every day.”
Wilson awkwardly hugged him. Then the executive editor walked into the living room and sat on the sofa.
"Can I get you a drink?" Charles asked.
"Sure," said Wilson. "Vodka. No ice." Pause. "So what have you been doing?"
Charles lifted a large framed photo of Gloria Swanson walking down the steps of her mansion in Sunset Boulevard. Wilson looked at the inscription: “To Charles, my darling. I’m big. It’s the pictures that got small. Isn’t that the truth, my sweet. Love, Gloria." Charles said he was redecorating and placing the photo in his bedroom. Wilson watched him pour two glasses of vodka. Charles handed Wilson one of the glasses and kept the other for himself.
Wilson took a drink then asked, "Can you send me a list of the Ten Best Movies of the year? Sara needs it by tomorrow."