John Simon, the theater, movie and music critic who died last night at 94, took erudition to another level.
Never mind that English was his fifth language — after German, Hungarian, French and Serbo-Croatian, the language of his native Yugoslavia — every review sent you to the dictionary. He could be cruel, famously so when reviewing actresses’ looks, but also loyal. Betty Buckley wrote on Facebook this morning about her “abiding gratitude for his support of my work through all of these years and his friendship.”
When Bloomberg News hired Simon as its theater critic, in 2005, after 36 years at New York magazine, arts editor Manuela Hoelterhoff assigned me the fun task of interviewing him in the book-lined Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife, Patricia Hoag Simon. I found him to be soft-spoken, thoughtful and unapologetic, except regarding his early assessments of Stephen Sondheim and Adam Guettel. Excerpts follow.
When you started, was theater more vibrant? People tend to idealize their past and decry their present. Television siphoned off a lot of talent on one hand and audience interest on the other. The theater was beleaguered, which forced it to do some interesting things. I never had the feeling of a strong decline. But I always felt that in any art form there isn’t enough good in a given moment.
What was your intention when you started? The thing I flattered myself on was honesty. I said what I believed. I did not compromise.
That isn’t true of all reviewers? I think a lot of people who write criticism are really journalists. They have opinions but they’re not passionately involved with the arts. They could just as well be writing obituaries or business reports. They just happened to stumble upon theater or film.
Why write about actors’ appearances? I strongly believe in beauty. I consider myself an aesthetician. We’re entitled in theater and in film as in painting to enjoy the beauties of the human form. If you’re playing a leading man or a leading lady, with whom men fall madly in love — that usually means this character was conceived by the author as being alluring. If this is played by an actress whom I find terrible looking, that is as much of a flaw as if a set meant to be beautiful is not. Then I go on the attack. It’s fairly ruthless, but what can I do about it?
Do you still do it? I may do it less. I’m married to a woman who was a singer and actress and who is very sensitive to such things and gets upset when I do such reviewing. But in principle I still stand for that.
What performances stick out? Mary-Louise Parker has done some wonderful work. Laura Linney has done terrific things. To go back in time, Fredric March and Jason Robards did some terrific things. George C. Scott was an amazing actor. Alexis Smith in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies was remarkable.
You were tough on Sondheim and got more enthusiastic. What happened? Sondheim was ahead of his time. I just wasn’t as far ahead as he was. As the shows were revived, I realized I was wrong.
You also became more enthusiastic about [Adam Guettel’s] The Light in the Piazza. There’s too much to deal with in a musical: the music, lyrics, directing, all the other aspects of theater. One hearing probably isn’t enough. But you’re expected to review things upon one hearing. You sometimes come up with judgments that do not hold up after a while. You have to be brave and honest enough to admit the errors of your ways.
Do you still enjoy going to shows? I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t enjoy. That has been the reason I’ve made the kind of income that my wife deplores. I’ve only done things I’ve enjoyed.