John Simon Put the ‘Bully’ in Bully Pulpit. But At Least He Signed His Name.
John Simon, the theater, film and music critic whose primary delight seemed to lie in eviscerating a production or a performer, stood among those writers whose work often said as much about themselves as their subjects.
More specifically in Simon’s case, it said he saw infliction of verbal cruelty as entertainment.
He was a bully.
But with Simon’s death last week, at the age of 94, this at least also should be said.
Unlike tens of millions of today’s verbal bullies, he put his name on everything he wrote.
Routine as that may sound, it was a gesture of honesty that becomes noteworthy in an age when the dark shadows of the Internet allow bullies to also be cowards.
Trolls, they’re mostly called in cyberspeak, and while their work too speaks little or nothing about their targets and volumes about themselves, that doesn’t make it any less loathsome.
John Simon, for those who never encountered him in print, parlayed strong opinions about artistic merit and a gift for language into decades of high-profile criticism for, among other publications, the New York Times, New York magazine, National Review, Commonweal, Opera News and The Weekly Standard.
He had a way with a sentence, and he harvested the fruits of that skill. He consorted with respected artists, he collected his writings into multiple books, he appeared as himself in a Saturday Night Live skit. He declared himself a guardian of artistic purity, defending high culture against a world where incompetents and vulgarians were as unavoidable and lethal as the zombie hordes on The Walking Dead.
He underscored that brand with the ferocity of his attacks on those who displeased him. In many of his most noted reviews, Simon seemed to declare a play or movie flawed primarily as a pretext to set up his real pleasure, which was shredding those involved.
A couple of examples.
On Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew:
“Just how garish her commonplace accent, squeakily shrill voice, and the childish petulance with which she delivers her lines are, my pen is neither scratchy nor leaky enough to convey. The once pretty face has become coarse. . . . Only the bosom keeps implacably marching on — or down, as the case may be.”
On Angela Lansbury in Something for Everyone:
“God only knows where the notion that Miss Lansbury has class originated; perhaps her vestigial lower-middle-class English accent passes for that in our informed show-biz circles. She is, in fact, common; and her mugging, rattling-off or steam-rollering across her lines, and camping around merely make her into that most degraded thing an outré actress can decline into: a fag hag.”
On Vanessa Redgrave and Jill Bennett in The Charge of the Light Brigade:
“It is regrettable to have both leading ladies in such a dashing film seemingly vie with each other for this year’s Homeliness Award.”
On Liza Minnelli’s Broadway show:
“the now chubby Betty Boop face, the tubby torso that Bob Mackie’s artful, and sometimes even tasteful, costumes toil to disguise.”
On Faith Prince in The Bells Are Ringing:
“Miss Prince, regrettably, has some twenty extra years and an equal number of extra pounds under her belt.”
On Anjelica Huston in A Walk With Love and Death:
“[She] has the face of an exhausted gnu, the voice of an unstrung tennis racket, and a figure of no describable shape.”
On the film Last Summer:
“Barbara Hershey (Sandy) looks, regrettably, much better with her bikini top on than off. [Cathy] Burns, on the other hand, is an extremely accomplished little actress, but also insuperably homely — she looks, in fact, like a pink beach ball with a few limbs and features painted on it. There is no excuse for Rhoda’s being a positive freak, and making us feel she is damned lucky to have been raped at all.”
Gulp. But you get the idea.
Simon argued, not unreasonably, that it is the critic’s job to explain why a particular work does or does not deserve attention or patronage. He also declared, less persuasively, that he was merely delivering the honest assessment that most other critics — whom he scorned — were too timid, compromised, incompetent or dishonest to spell out.
The counterview, which the preceding examples support, is that Simon often came across as the chap holding court at the end of the bar, determined to impress his friends with his catty wit.
To be honest, that’s a pastime in which many people indulge. Privately. Published, broadcast or posted commentary has traditionally observed stricter decorum, for the simple reason that cattiness adds nothing to serious critical assessment.
It’s rarely more than a vanity exercise, showcasing the speaker’s immersion in his or her own cleverness.
John Simon was hardly the first writer enamored of a facility for ridicule, nor the first to parlay that skill into modest fame and fortune.
History has a pantheon of great insult artists, the likes of Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. John Simon will not be in that number, because great insults skewer the core of their targets’ works or beliefs, not superficial matters like their silhouettes.
History has a way of sorting that out. Our more urgent immediate concern is that people who want to do just what John Simon wanted to do — impress their friends with their clever insults, regardless of how cruel and unfair it can be to the target — today comprise an international nation. On the Internet, they are virtually inescapable.
Just last week, the hugely successful South Korean K-Pop singer Goo Hara committed suicide, the second K-Pop star to do that this year. While the K-Pop world is saturated with disturbing aspects, both these women had been plagued by cyberbullies smugly lobbing Simon-style personal attacks from behind the veil of the web.
Add in the millions of non-famous people who find themselves mocked daily on social media and we’re reminded again that for all the wonderful things the Internet has done, it has also enabled humanity’s most reprehensible side.
John Simon didn’t hate everything he wrote about. He wasn’t wrong when he insisted art needs standards for superior work to be recognized and rewarded. He was a skilled writer, and we can always use more of those.
Too often, though, he used that skill not to enhance our understanding and appreciation of art, but to personally demean artists he felt were professionally deficient.
Unlike the Internet trolls, he showed his face when he spoke. Like the trolls, however, he left the world a little meaner and unhappier than he found it.