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?”