At the social media watercooler during the holidays, a flare-up erupted over Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s allegorical disaster film that, despite an all-star cast, earned less than stellar reviews from critics. McKay’s corner rushed in to dispute the call from what they deemed pretentious elites. “It’s our Dr. Strangelove for today!” gushed director Frank Oz. “An instant classic!” blurbed Oscar winner Al Gore. The director himself and co-writer David Sirota joined the discourse, as they say, lambasting critics for failing to appreciate prophetic art.
The unequal three-way donnybrook — film critics on one side, the vox populi and aggrieved artists on the other — is a digital-era twist on a perennial Hollywood story. Being neither fans in the bleachers nor players on the field, film critics get incoming from both directions. Of course, critics have long been undeservedly cast as a bunch of elite intellectuals. Hollywood helpfully provided a vivid embodiment of the type in the acidic performance of George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). He can’t do, or teach, so he heckles from his comp seat in the third row.
Significantly, though, DeWitt was a Broadway theater critic writing for a major New York newspaper (a thinly disguised version of the drama critic George Jean Nathan, though it was Brooks Atkinson at the New York Times who could, with a single review, make or break a Broadway show). By contrast, for most of Hollywood history, film critics were not considered high value enough targets to concentrate firepower on. Sure, the ad-pub departments of the major studios ballyhooed the good reviews in the pressbooks, and filmmakers enjoyed the ego-strokes of printed approval, but no one was under any illusions about the power of the film critic to put butts in the seats. “Neither pans nor raves have much impact on the average moviegoer,” Variety observed in 1937. A decade later, little had changed. Looking over the godawful reviews and great returns for David O. Selznick’s lust in the dust western Duel in the Sun (1946) and the great reviews and godawful returns for Fred Zinnemann’s neorealist melodrama The Search (1948), Hollywood Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman concluded that “no critic extant is playing Svengali to the cash customer’s Trilby.” (In today’s titles, substitute Spider Man: No Way Home and Nightmare Alley.)
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the most significant influencers were not film critics at all but gossip columnists, none more catered to than Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, the twin queen bees of syndicated entertainment news. Both forged long-term symbiotic relationships with the studios built on mutual back scratching rather than impartial evaluations of a film’s aesthetic merits. They plugged more than they panned, but when they delivered a body blow — usually over an off-screen sex scandal or communist affiliation — it could be the kiss of death. Little wonder that they made out like bandits swag-wise. Producer Hal Wallis once gifted Hopper with a mink coat so she wouldn’t scorch September Affair (1950) after Joan Fontaine snubbed her on set.
Among motion picture exhibitors, conventional wisdom held that moviegoers could always “smell ‘em out for themselves” without need of a critical birddog. All a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford acolyte really wanted to know was when and where the film was playing. If a (male) New York Times critic didn’t care for Now, Voyager (“a prudish fantasy,” sniffed Theodore Strauss) or Mildred Pierce (“Miss Crawford’s gallant suffering left this spectator strangely unmoved,” shrugged Thomas Pryor), she was not deterred. (Pryor had the good grace to acknowledge his gendered reaction, noticing that at the screening he attended “there were not a few ladies in the Strand Theatre who were frequently blotting tears with evident enjoyment.”)
It was not until the postwar era that film critics began to accrue measurable impact on the box office of a niche but burgeoning market — foreign cinema. The flood of strange new films pouring in from overseas featured actors with no marquee value and directors with unknown names. The audience in waiting required knowledgeable ushers to be led to the arthouse seats. “In the key cities, it’s the crix, first and last, who call the tune,” declared Variety in 1946, heralding the near “dictatorial powers” that film critics held over subtitled cinema. A choice blurb from the right critic — that would be Bosley Crowther at the New York Times — guaranteed a line at the ticket window, and not just in Manhattan but throughout the nation’s arthouse archipelago. “Rashomon is a rare piece of film art,” Crowther decreed in his over-the-top review of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
Another kind of foreign import also exponentially expanded the power of the film critic. In Paris in the 1950s, a gang of critics and future filmmakers writing for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma conjured up a game-changing gambit they dubbed la politiques des auteurs. With remarkable speed, “the auteur theory” crossed the Atlantic and transformed the way critics and audiences alike looked at Hollywood cinema. Henceforth, the collaborative creations that rolled off the Hollywood assembly line would be credited mainly to the labors of one worker, the director. In 1967, the class-conscious New Journalist Tom Wolfe speculated that film critics embraced the auteur theory “because it seems to give them an expertise and therefore a status that sets them apart from literary and drama critics.”
Indeed, to talk the auteur theory talk, film critics needed a facility in film technique and a solid grounding in motion picture history. Earlier generations of film critics had often stumbled into the role by chance, recruited to the beat from the sports or copy desk. The new breed of film critics were dedicated cinephiles. Some even had undergraduate degrees.
Admittedly, the lofty auteur-mongering led to a lot of pretention but it also nurtured the first and maybe last great age of American film criticism (the story is lovingly chronicled in Gerry Peary’s documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism ). The brand name bylines from the era continue to shape the perceptions of moviegoers: Andrew Sarris, whose The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, published in 1968, became the auteurist Bible; Pauline Kael, the brilliant, quick-on-the-draw gunslinger at the New Yorker; and, not to be overlooked, the television stars Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose opposable thumbs, first on PBS and then in syndication, rendered binary verdicts on the week’s releases from 1977 to 1991. (When they gave an imperious “thumbs down” to Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues (1988), the film’s producer Ray Stark, not having access to social media, fired off an angry letter calling the duo the “critical version of Laurel and Hardy.”)
Riding high for nearly two decades, the American auteurists held enormous sway over moviegoers. They couldn’t make or break a film — that would always be true — but they could give life support to pet directors and tailwind to marginal releases. A well-aimed kill shot could also be devastatingly effective. Rob Garver’s docu-biopic What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018) gives an extraordinary example. Director David Lean — he of The Bridge over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, etc. — was so shaken by a verbal beat down Kael delivered at a gathering of the New York Film Critics Circle that he stopped making films. Repeat: David Lean stopped making films.
In 1996, the cozy print-and-video-based hierarchies were upended when a little known fanboy named Harry Knowles launched a website called Ain’t It Cool News. Knowles showed that all an aspiring film critic needed to do was put up a shingle on the web and draw traffic. You know the rest: a free-for-all matrix of websites, blogs, YouTube channels, Substacks, and Twitter threads, wrangled by film critics untethered to a print berth and needing no credentials to mouth off. Big plus: the multiplicity of voices in the conversation, voices that can include, as with Don’t Look Up, backtalk from the filmmakers themselves. Big minus: not all the voices have a film background that extends before middle-period Tarantino.
In fact, the sheer number of film critic options now rivals the number of streaming options they guide us through. In 1954, Variety estimated there were 350 film critics hitting newspaper deadlines around the U.S. Today, Rotten Tomatoes tallies around 3,000 freshly certified film critics to deliver its metrics, but not as many of them cash a weekly paycheck with a living wage. (Film critics who hustle for freelance piece work are entitled to bristle at the word “elite.”)
Perhaps a meta-site that rates individual film critics with a percentile next to a tomato or popcorn bucket icon would provide some useful guidance to the quality of their work. In the meantime, I can always judge the penetrating intelligence and sparkling erudition of a film critic by how often they agree with me.