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LAST CRITICS STANDING

by Leonard Maltin
November 15, 2010 5:30 AM
11 Comments
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A wave of memories and mixed emotions came over me as I read the news of Gene Shalit’s retirement from NBC’s Today Show this week. Shalit’s once robust presence had diminished in recent times, but he was still part of the team after 40 years, and his departure marks yet another loss in the world of movie reviews. Although he had a background in journalism, some people never took him seriously, in part because of his flamboyant appearance, but make no mistake: he’s a smart guy who reached an enormous audience. (He also inspired an imitation by SCTV’s Eugene Levy that was sidesplittingly funny.) On a personal level, he has special meaning for me because he changed the course of my life.

In May of 1982, I was lucky enough to be booked as a guest on Today to plug my latest book, The Great Movie Comedians. Then, as now, this was a great showcase for any author and it marked my second appearance on the program. I was pre-interviewed the day before, but the next morning, Shalit came into the makeup room brandishing the printed list of approved questions and asked if we really had to stick to the list. I told him I’d be happy to talk about anything and everything with him. As a result, we had a loose, lively conversation about comedians. That segment was viewed by someone three thousand miles away in—

—Los Angeles at Paramount Television who knew that the studio’s fledgling show Entertainment Tonight was looking for a new film critic. It resulted in my receiving a phone call and an offer to audition; within a week or two, I was on the air. Thank you, Gene.

I doubt that Today will make any effort to replace Shalit. After all, who needs critics, anyway? They only get in the way of promoting new movies and engaging in upbeat interviews with their stars. That’s why, on two separate occasions, Entertainment Tonight decided to dispense with my reviews. Much has been written about the relevance of critics in today’s world of Twitter and YouTube, where everyone is a self-styled or self-appointed reviewer, though I still seek out the opinions of people I trust. I can’t take the word of someone I’ve never met, or read, before when I don’t know their taste in movies. The first step for any critic, amateur or professional, is to earn our trust.

The people who haven’t abandoned critics, ironically enough, are the studios who claim not to care about them. They can’t seem to fashion an ad campaign without the use of review quotes, though these ads have become absurd in recent months as they’ve started quoting anyone who says what the studios want them to say, no matter how obscure the reviewer or their source. Check this Sunday’s newspaper ads or the latest round of TV spots if you don’t believe me. To the studios, critics are simply another cog in their marketing machine. Not long ago I was asked for an advance quote about a movie I liked, and happily provided an excerpt from my enthusiastic review. In return, I received a list of prefabricated phrases which, it was suggested, I might want to adopt; it seems my quote didn’t fit into the studio’s advertising plans. (This isn’t the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.) I let them know as politely as possible that I didn’t care to use their phrases in my review.

A.O. Scott, the New York Times critic who spent one season on the air with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, in what turned out to be the final season of At The Movies, wrote a thoughtful essay after the show’s demise and made a cogent and essential point. (www.nytimes.com) The purpose of criticism is to provoke thought and conversation. I don’t think that will ever be irrelevant.

One final note about Gene Shalit which may help explain why he endeared himself to me, and my spouse, years ago. We were at a screening of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Alice was sitting directly in front of Gene. At one point during the movie she leaned over to whisper a remark in my ear. That’s when he tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Would you please sit up straight again and block my view?”

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11 Comments

  • Deborah Spier | December 25, 2010 11:07 AMReply

    I've recently enjoyed watching both Mr. Shalit's interview regarding the Marx Brothers on a DVD set of their movies, and your comments on another set re: Night At the Opera. You may have heard this already, but just FYI - you mention that the Marx's father, Frenchy, was in that movie as an extra, although you weren't able to see him. In fact he wasn't. He was in the docking scene in "Monkey Business" and can clearly be seen facing the camera during the whole scene while sitting on a crate sandwiched between two pretty girls. He might be in a scene on the boat too, but I wasn't sure about seeing him then.

  • Mr Bohemian | November 19, 2010 2:48 AMReply

    Mr S. introduced me to Rafferty and the gold dust twins and
    the review Aint Misbehaving. gee it seems like yesterday.
    oh yeah any more Disney tins coming out

  • Kaleberg | November 18, 2010 7:41 AMReply

    People want and need film critics. Hollywood has co-opted the system. That leaves an opening for an entrepreneur who can provide a suitable platform. The passing of the old generation creates an opening. As an old timer, I can hardly wait.

  • Kevin S.Butler | November 18, 2010 12:38 AMReply

    Dear Lenny,

    While I'm not a big fan of Mr.Shallert's movie reviews..it's sad that he is being forced out of his job at"The Today Show".

    And that movie critics are no longer essental to tv news shows.

    I'm also sorry that"Entertainment Tonight"decided not to use your film reviews

    on"Entertainment Tonight" and that at time..the powers that be,tried to force you to use pre-written,phoney quoates on the show.

    The studios no longer have respect for your work as a movie critic..and I doubt that they even know about or respect your work as a film historian.

    I'm hoping that the producers of"Entertainment Tonight" and the heads of Paramount/TV will not force you to leave the show.

    You're the only true and decent personality left on that show that I can watch.

    If you leave"Entertainment Tonight"..then I'm not going to watch the show at all.

    Kevin S.Butler.

  • Andy | November 18, 2010 12:23 AMReply

    TV critic Tom Shales is also being forced into retirement by The Washington Post at the end of this year.

  • Jarod Rebuck | November 17, 2010 5:20 AMReply

    I'm 21-years-old and remember those fond memories of flipping through Leonard's 1994 Movie Guide, which my uncle gave me after we watched a taped VHS of An American Werewolf in London. So whenever I think of An American Werewolf in London, I can't help but think of Leonard and that 1994 Movie Guide. Especially that eye-burning acidity fuming from the book after a couple of years.

    It's rather depressing to see people you like come and go, like the leaves of Autumn. At least we still have Leonard to count on: Our sole leader of movie history and analysis.

  • Charles Garrison | November 16, 2010 5:56 AMReply

    It's sad to see Gene go. Some of my earliest memories was waking up and hearing him on the Today show. As I got older I listened to him and though I didn't always agree with his opinion it gave me more about the movies I wanted to see.

    Another reason it's sad is that no one is replacing the older critics like Gene, Leonard, or Siskel & Ebert. They are more than just critics but historians of film. I have the Collector's Edition DVD of the “Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O'hara. Leonard Maltin gives a great history of the film, the actors, and a behind the scenes look of the classic film that you no longer get on the new movies or in a blog from some critics online pandering to the younger generation. Knowledge that is lost with the retirement and passing of these legends of the film industry.

    “Good riddance!”????? Believe me it's a dream job you'd love to have. Watching movies, sometimes before even the trailer hits the theaters, meeting the actors, being part of the movie making process then having the guts to give your honest opinion about a film by saying “I didn't really like the film” and saying why while everyone else is raving about how good it is. Being a historian of film and how it relates to the country and the world at the time for future generations to enjoy just as much as you did like “Citizen Kane”, “Clockwork Orange”, “To Kill A Mocking Bird”; why these are classics rather than just an odd little film. If they ever go back to the old way of doing things in Hollywood and Leonard is looking for an apprentice to carry-on, someone to pass the torch to, count me in.

  • Jason | November 16, 2010 5:48 AMReply

    Wonderful article, Leonard. Gene Shalit was always an enjoyable personality in movie criticism. His reviews will be missed

    I'll admit I'm one of the many who self-appoint themselves for a little ego-boosting as a reviewer on youtube and amazon.com (and any other site that'll let me type something). As said this does in no way eliminate the need for professional movie critics. It's like saying someone's opinion is more important simply because they saw the film first.

  • Geoff Gardner | November 16, 2010 12:26 AMReply

    I think critics are still very relevant today, at least to me. If well written, I find reviews most informative - particularly if the subject matter is of special interest to me. And if you find a critic who time and time again seems to be "in sync" with your tastes - so much the better. Keep up the good work Leonard - I will certainly keep reading.

  • Dan Olson | November 15, 2010 10:05 AMReply

    Nice review -- i always enjoyed Gene and he was part of a great group of compatriots who rattled the filmmakers' cage during the 1970s and 80s with such aplomb. You never doubted that he loved his job.
    Just one correction - Joe Flaherty was hilarious on SCTV, but it was Eugene Levy who was tasked with and did the laugh-out-loud tribute to Shalit.

  • Royal S. Brown | November 15, 2010 9:27 AMReply

    Good riddance! Shalit didn't know a damn thing about movies, and his moronic reviews, if you want to call them that, probably discouraged more people from trying out good but offbeat movies than anything else I can think of at the moment.

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