David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes

Shawn Edwards, a movie reviewer for Fox-TV in Kansas City, loved movies from an early age. When he was in the seventh grade, he and some friends used a room at their school as a movie studio. Mr. Edwards calls the studio “the claymation joint,” and he remembers, “We convinced the science teacher we were working on a science project, built these sets out of papier-mâché and started shooting our epic. It was about a group of cavemen who hunt for a dinosaur for a big celebration and [to] please the volcano before it gets mad.” When Mr. Edwards was attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, Spike Lee filmed School Daze there. Mr. Edwards had broken his ankle during football practice, but he showed up at an audition for small parts and extras. He remembers that the people casting the movie looked at him as if they were thinking, “Baby, there’s not a part in this movie where you can be walking around with a cast.” But Mr. Edwards said, “I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I can’t act. And I’m not that funny. I just want to be in the movie.” He got lucky and appeared in a scene in which “Da Butt” was played. Mr. Edwards says, “I totally hate that song now because that’s all I heard all spring. It took three freaking days to shoot” that scene.

A bad review can give birth to a good joke. David Woods and Jon Haynes make up the anarchic theatrical group known as Ridiculusmus, although it used to have more members. In 1993, critic John O’Mahony was very impressed with Mr. Woods, and he wrote about him, “He transforms every bit-part into a central character, while showing up the paucity of talent in the rest of the group.” For years after the review appeared, whenever Mr. O’Mahony saw the group, Mr. Woods would be genial—but nervous—and the other members of the group would glower at Mr. O’Mahony and hiss at him. By the way, that the group now consists of just two people has nothing to do with Mr. O’Mahony’s review. The two remaining members do work well together. Mr. Woods says, “I think we complement each other.” Mr. Haynes adds, “Some like his exuberance. Others prefer my intensity. And a lot don’t like either of us.” At the very beginning of their careers, they had a comedy venue called the Tomato Club. They invited bad comedians to perform, and they gave audience members overripe tomatoes to throw at the bad comedians. With good reason, Mr. Haynes is concerned about critical notices, “Critical success would upset our equilibrium. Who can we bribe at the [British newspaper] Guardian to give us a one-star review?”

After William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote a memoir titled Overdrive, University of Chicago student David Brooks satirized him for the college newspaper. Because Mr. Buckley was widely important and knew everybody and had an ego, Mr. Brooks wrote that Mr. Buckley had written three volumes of memoirs before he had begun to talk: 1) The World Before Buckley “traced the history of the world prior to his conception,” 2) The Seeds of Utopia “outlined his effect on world events during the nine months of his gestation,” and 3) The Glorious Dawn “described the profound ramifications of his birth on the social order.” And so the satire continued, including Mr. Buckley becoming popular at school because he could turn water into wine. Soon afterward, Mr. Buckley gave a lecture at the University of Chicago, and at the end of the lecture he said, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to offer you a job.” This was, of course, Mr. Brooks’ big break, and he ended up working at Mr. Buckley’s conservative magazine The National Review, where he learned much about writing from Mr. Buckley, who would often cover Mr. Brooks’ short editorials with red ink, and who would occasionally write on an egregiously bad piece of writing, “Come on, David!”

Marjane Satrapi, the author of the graphic memoir Persepolis, which became an Oscar-nominated animated film, has sold over a million copies of that book, but even she had to deal with rejection. Early in her career, before creating Persepolis, she showed a graphic manuscript to a French publishing company’s art director who rejected it because “you don’t have any style—it goes in all different directions.” Ms. Satrapi says, “I came home depressed and cried for a whole week.” But a couple of years after the successful Persepolis was published and had won awards, she was invited to show this same art director a manuscript, so she showed him the same manuscript that he had earlier rejected. This time he said, “What courage! You have tried all these different styles!” Ms. Satrapi explains what happened: “I said that’s not what you told me three years ago. And he said, ‘Did I see you three years ago?’ And I said, ‘You don’t have a very good memory, but I do.’ We ended up working together. I’m not a revenger kind of person.”

As you would expect, critic Roger Ebert is a rich source of anecdotes in his writings about movies. For example, his review of What Ever Ever Happened to Baby Jane?contains two excellent anecdotes: 1) In Bette Davis’ next-to-last film, The Whales of August, Ms. Davis co-starred with silent-film (and beyond) star Lillian Gish. At one point, the film’s director, Lindsay Anderson, said, “Miss Gish, you have just given me a perfect close-up.” Ms. Davis overheard, and she said, “She should. The bitch invented ’em.” 2) Victor Buono never married, and people occasionally wondered about his sexuality. Mr. Buono, a man of wit and intelligence and excess poundage, said, “I’ve heard about actors being asked ‘Why have you never married?’ They answer with the immortal excuse ‘I just haven’t found the right girl.’ No one’s asked me yet. If they do, that’s the answer I’ll give. After all, it was good enough for Monty Clift or Sal Mineo.” (Both Mr. Clift and Mr. Mineo were gay actors.)

Winston Churchill once criticized New York by saying, “Newspapers too thick; lavatory paper too thin.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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