A veteran movie reviewer recalls her first vote as a member of the Gotham Film Critics during awards season. 2,540 words. Illustration by Thomas Warning.
"Nose punched," Rhoda said.
"Eye blackened," said her 20-year-old son.
"Technically, the black eye happened before the narrative’s frame," she pointed out.
"Technically, scalded with chicken stew," he countered.
"Shot in the toe. The gut. Bathed in bloody barf. Brain matter splattered. Never have I so wanted to wash the chunks out of a woman’s hair," Rhoda said. "That level of misogyny, well, it’s really straight-out misanthropy. So does that make Tarantino’s treatment of women less revolting? He needs therapy, not another big budget. "
After seeing Quentin Tarantino’s master-jerk The Hateful Eight, mother and son were driving home and listing the horrors heaped on the movie’s primary female character.
"I love Jennifer Jason Leigh,” she continued, “but perhaps her performance would have been better in 70mm Panavision."
Right then, in the middle of a right turn, Rhoda flashed back to 1995, the year she first voted with the Gotham Film Critics. That awards season, she influenced her peers to award Jennifer the Best Actress for her portrayal of the twisted little sister in Georgia.
It was Rhoda’s first Fraternal Order Voting Meeting and she carried this son in her belly. She felt 16 months pregnant that winter morning leaving the old New York Ledger building on South Street to go to the old Newspaper Guild offices. She was living her own His Girl Friday fantasy: Rosalind Russell wearing lipstick and shoulder pads, not makeup-free and in an ugly empire-waist maternity dress from Loehmann’s.
Rhoda entered full of hope and fear. Her hyper-pregnant sense of smell recoiled at the decades-old aroma of stale sweat and staler cigars and paper dust. She waddled up the narrow scuffed steps to the second floor where the heat had pooled.
She heard voices — overwhelmingly male.
Rhoda stumbled into a shabby conference room that held 20 men and two other women seated on butt-battered wooden chairs. She stood at the threshold, timidly looking around. Yes, she was feeling timid then. But she also was feeling the need to prove her intelligence (Berkeley, Columbia) and about to start prattling out of nervousness. Because she faced the Mount Rushmore of Gotham film criticism with its opinionated seven.
There was the gracious auteur theorist. The misanthropic Middle European right winger. His nemesis, the flamboyant TV and print critic with a love for all things Merchant Ivory. Their mutual nemesis, the lefty anarchist alternative weekly kingmaker. The Godard-loving African American film theorist. The august gay gentleman from the men’s nudie magazine. And the eminently quotable critic from a popular rock magazine.
There were other men, to be sure. Not only was Rhoda the elephant in the room — literally, twice everyone else’s size – but also in the female minority. At one end of the long pencil-scarred table was the finicky mother of a future filmmaker who represented Rhoda’s tabloid rival, The Daily Star. The petite woman with monk-cut hair emitted an aura of unhappiness that Rhoda was there. She neither looked nor spoke to the pregnant critic, choosing to whisper conspiratorially to her male colleagues. At the opposite end sat an openly hostile female Queens native from the legendary lefty alt-weekly. Single and clearly the wolf pack’s alpha bitch, she and Rhoda had history: the more senior critic had once pinched Rhoda’s sandwich in a darkened theater during a morning screening of Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses and denied it. Rhoda heard her own lettuce crunch behind her throughout the movie’s erotic gymnastics. No sister solidarity there, either.
As Rhoda hesitated at the threshold, an ink-stained wretch jerked his head to one of the few remaining open seats as far from him as possible. She wedged herself in and watched as several men tore up big sheets of yellow legal pad paper into littler squares. Droopy eyes looked her way, accompanied by yawning and grumbling. It was still morning after all, and critics tend to be out late watching movies. And, yet, she loved her battered chair that had withstood a thousand union battles and countless angry screeds against the bosses. It was proof Rhoda had made it into the room and had conquered her profession so that, indeed, she could have this child and get on with the process of film reviewing.
Rhoda’s Brooklyn-born father and movie-loving mother had introduced her to Federico Fellini and Vittoria De Sica, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman in the discount art houses of suburbia where she grew up. And now she was finally part of the inner circle, had a place at the table, no matter how much time she spent peeing in the women’s room that day.
She quickly discovered the voting meetings were not as outsiders might think – great minds debating the year’s movies, arguing bitterly over the auteur theory versus the craft, pontificating about what makes a great screenplay and a great performance. Nor were there fists waving, voices booming, or snappy dialogue.
Instead, on a sea of paper ballots, the group negotiated which was the better film that year: Safe or Sense And Sensibility; Leaving Las Vegas or Braveheart? Could the critics achieve consensus? Their goal was to determine which entry would represent the Gotham intelligentsia’s take on Best Film and simultaneously damn Hollywood and its pitiful gold statuettes. This, of course, was before the Gotham Film Critics began to crow that their awards were a predictor of the Oscars.
That year’s Chairman was a Harvard man — an affiliation he tended to drop in the first five minutes of any conversation — who presided over the organizational housekeeping, distributed the tickets for the awards dinner at the Rainbow Room in January and launched the voting. He called the meeting to order without a gavel.
Now that Rhoda was inside the room, she expected to be schooled by the other critics with loud and raucous debates, the auteur theorist denouncing the bland commercial tastes of a Westchester daily reviewer, the conservative at the established metropolitan glossy scoffing at the politically correct partisan of the alternative weekly. At the very least, she anticipated a moment where the upstart populist reviewer of a New Jersey newspaper tossed a yellow legal pad at a public university educated daily critic ruled by the power of the three-act structure and Aristotle’s Poetics, screaming that he’d rather watch Elvis in Viva Las Vegas than Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Instead, she discovered a numbing bureaucracy, an arcane voting pattern and multiple ballots. The meeting stretched from breakfast until well after lunch, adding to the general grumpiness of the assembled critics.
The Chairman took each hand-marked paper ballot from a green metal garbage bin and recited their contents in a nasal voice as several scriveners tallied the results. Occasionally, the Chairman would count them twice. Or some half-slumbering member would forget his proxies. And away they’d go again.
The first ballot for each category rarely netted a clear winner, which required a majority of the votes and a place on over half the ballots, or some such algorithm embedded in the group’s by-laws. As they entered the second ballot, Rhoda was called upon to have three favorites listed in order, each with a weighted point value. She scrambled. She had carefully considered her top picks but not chosen three per category.
And then the critics were off to ballot three, where the proxies fell out and no new names could be added. And then, yes, on to ballot four. This was when members began to sense the frontrunners and dropped their esoteric first choices and shifted their votes to either support a film they could tolerate, or used their vote to block a film which they could not stomach.
The tension in the room grew as the scriveners tallied, tallied, tallied, tallied. At no time did anybody admit that Safe put them to sleep – even though witnesses at the private screening heard the status-weekly reviewer snore. Or that at the core of Leaving Las Vegas was yet another hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story. From time to time, a joke ballot cracked the tension: a vote for Showgirls or Waterworld or Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter.
There was, however, ample passive-aggressive grumbling: less a vision of virile rams butting horns than timorous Galapagos tortoises rattling their shells. One peevish critic with a matinee-idol face shook his full head of russet hair disconsolately, as he derided a film in sotto voice: "That toxic slop had all the drama of a cat hocking a fur ball.” The Kenyon College alum seated adjacent looked away nervously. Would he be tainted by association? He wrote madly on a pad instead of screaming. Meanwhile, the CUNY PhD from The Catholic Informer glared but also said nothing, saving his strength for the backbiting that followed the formal meeting.
Rhoda learned it wasn’t uncommon to need a fifth and final ballot. But Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds pummeled Abbas Kiarostami’s Through The Olive Trees on the fourth ballot. That’s when the bookishly handsome alt-weekly academic stared at the African American traditionalist with all the love that Pauline Kael had for Andrew Sarris. Which is to say none.
Still, the win pleased Rhoda. She remembered Through The Olive Trees only gauzily. She’d fallen asleep when she watched it at the Gotham Film Fest, blaming the early hour and her second trimester. Out of professional courtesy, she saw it again — and drowsed. This time, she credited the director.
When it came time for the Best Actress choice, Rhoda did more than simply add another woman’s voice to the room. She wanted more than anything for Jennifer Jason Leigh to win for Georgia, a female-driven drama written by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner. To Rhoda, Leigh was an original artist in an industry that rewarded cookie cutter cuties – and, new to the process, Rhoda believed the Gotham Critics should hold themselves to a higher standard outside of the Industry machine. She championed Leigh in ballot after ballot without speaking a word, and slowly watched her choice struggle to the top of the voting as alliances shifted. And Leigh won! Rhoda felt triumph as Leigh conquered Elisabeth Shue, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Emma Thompson.
In a brief ecstatic moment, swept away by her new power to praise Leigh’s overlooked performance, plus a tidal wave of happy hormones, Rhoda crossed the line by saying aloud, "Imagine if we’d handed Best Actress to Elisabeth Shue for Leaving Las Vegas after giving Best Supporting Actress to Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite. How many selfless sluts could we honor in a single year?" Glares and stony silence met Rhoda’s question. Was she going to be one of those critics that needed to talk after every vote like a post-coital Chatty Cathy? This behavior was as taboo as disclosing opinions in the public elevator after a screening. The assembled critics that weren’t looking into their laps peered at her like animated jackals.
A middle-aged man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Wally Shawn roared: "Would you deny Giulietta Masina just because she played a whore? Does the fact that Fellini’s muse turned tricks diminish the power of that performance? Would you censor Fellini? Would you abort Nights of Cabiria?"
Rhoda choked. Abort? Never! She flushed, and rested her hand on her belly for reassurance. She loved Fellini, didn’t they know? She just thought it was time to expand the roles available to women in movies and among critics. Was that too much to ask? She looked briefly and foolishly for some support to the mother-of-the-future-filmmaker, her tabloid rival. That woman blinked in Rhoda’s direction, whispering in a way that made the assembled lean in: "I suppose then Jane Fonda’s performance as a call girl in Klute should be tossed with the trash? Or Barbara Sukowa’s in Lola? Anna Magnani in Mamma Rosa?" The floodgates opened. The discussion became a round-robin of famous tarts: Catherine Deneuve in Belle Du Jour, Julie Christie in McCabe And Mrs. Miller, the women in Mizoguchi’s StreetOof Shame, even Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit To Brooklyn.
Rhoda slumped back in her chair. Meanwhile, the Chairman attempted to herd cats by clearing his throat and then declaring, "Now we’re voting on Best Actor unless you want to be here all night until the streetwalkers come out in Time Square." The group responded with hearty laughter.
There had been a time, in the not so distant but distant enough past, when the group had discussed films in agitated depth around the battered table. Glorious hatreds and petty revenges. Even an apocryphal story that Pauline Kael, after a contentious vote for Best Actor went to a candidate she disdained, halted the process and called for a recount — then spent thirty minutes carefully outlining why anyone who believed that man was superior to her choice was ignorant to the nth degree. In the next vote after the tongue-lashing, Kael’s pick won. It was assumed that, because of this, bylaws had been changed while Kael was away dabbling in Hollywood producing. The new rules smothered discussion in an attempt to suppress Kael.
Rhoda’s flashback to 1995 ended when she pulled her Subaru into her suburban driveway after The Hateful Eight screening with her grown son. That night she’d seen Leigh not with her kohl-rimmed eyes and punk Jean Seberg hairdo in Georgia but defiled repeatedly and horridly by Tarantino’s brutality. In the world according to Quentin, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue in a room of male cutthroats and liars is being equally reprehensible.
Then again Rhoda recalled the words said to her by a female film critic newly inducted into the Fraternal Order of the Gotham Film Critics at a recent studio awards party: "I’m used to being the only woman in the room." It saddened Rhoda that two decades had passed but female film reviewers still were sisterhood-challenged. That they’re still grateful to be members. And that men still outnumber women critics four to one. Rhoda welcomed the younger woman but tried to warn her that bias remains. The younger dismissed the caution with a laugh, content with the rise in her status. Her attitude bummed Rhoda. Daisy Domergue had been the only woman in the room – really and truly — and look where it got her?
Rhoda had mellowed as a film critic only the tiniest bit with age and motherhood. Over the years, she became Chair of the Gotham Films Critics. Twice. She joked with Clint Eastwood over the way Al Franken wouldn’t surrender the podium while Harvey Weinstein waited in the wings. She saw her colleagues salivate over Julie Christie when she received her Best Actress for Afterglow with Rhoda’s hero Robert Altman in the house. She watched bald spots appear on her colleagues, layoffs and closures thin the herd, and the rise of the internet expand it again. She had been raised up and slapped down, a piñata in a group that remains a walled circle.
And yet Rhoda still holds that bittersweet memory of her first meeting. When it concluded and the group descended the narrow stairs to the street, the courtly auteur humanist — then 67 — took Rhoda’s arm and accompanied the pregnant woman. He said, "You are as beautiful as your prose."
In other words, welcome to the club.
This short story first posted here on February 9, 2016. Hollywood Dementia - Film Critics package.