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Simon took critical condition to extremes

No one, to my knowledge, has ever kept official records of the amount of blood shed by performers at the hands of pitiless critics. But if such a thing could ever be quantified, here assuredly would be a candidate for the most savage review of the past half-century.

John Simon is writing about Liza Minnelli in an otherwise forgettable "supposed Broadway musical" called "The Act":

"I always thought Miss Minnelli's face deserving of first place in the beagle category. Less aphoristically speaking, it is a face going off in three directions simultaneously: the nose always en route to becoming a trunk, blubber lips unable to resist the pull of gravity, and a chin trying its damndest to withdraw into the neck, apparently to avoid responsibility for what goes on above it. It is, like any face, one that could be redeemed by genuine talent, but Miss Minnelli has only brashness, pathos and energy."

Her fans being as dedicated as they were (and her late mother's, too), the critic was understandably beset by a small avalanche of wounded protest. He subsequently wrote defending himself: "I go to the theater to see beauty -- in costumes, scenery, walks, faces -- unless the situation calls for something else. And if we are allowed to invoke aesthetic criteria where other things presented onstage are concerned, why should faces be taboo?"

Why should naked breasts be either, by that logic. So, sure enough, there was that poor aging actress who, constrained to go topless for dramatic reasons, found her breasts pronounced "tuberous" and unacceptable by John Simon in the pages of New York magazine.

It was not for nothing that actress Sylvia Miles -- in one of the fabled moments in the annals of American theater -- dumped a plate of pasta on John Simon's head.

Gore Vidal, with typically slanderous good cheer, once compared John Simon to historical slaughterer Gilles Des Rais. (John Simon on Angela Lansbury in "Gypsy": "As for Miss Lansbury's facial play, it consists mostly of turning down the corners of her mouth like a trained nurse making hospital corners on a bedsheet and letting her eyes go either bulgily whirling (which because of their closeness to each other, makes you wonder when they'll start caroming) or so narrowly slitty that you couldn't slip a calling card through their openings.")

Then there was the time he was reputedly overheard exiting a theater and saying "I can't wait until they all get AIDS."

Lest one think that those moments, from decades long ago, are savageries in total repudiation by a mellower critic pushing 80 so hard it finally pushed back (he was fired from his long gig at New York magazine), Simon wrote in our new century, of a "hefty" actress in "Seussical" that she is "the least of the red-hot mamas as the Sour Kangaroo whose credibility requires a quantum leap of faith. Her baby is a hand puppet, for which she is totally unable to ventriloquize a voice."

He was the Erich Von Stroheim of American drama and film reviewing, the "man you love to hate." No American critic of his time ever came close to inspiring the antipathy John Simon did.

To be a critic and to share a last name with him all these decades has not been a particularly pleasant happenstance -- especially if one has, up to a point anyway, shared a discomfort or two with him over the years, not to mention the occasional effort to write vivid physical description.

Time to get personal (unavoidably). To be damned with the same brush as the one reserved for the man who elevated high school locker room mockery to an aesthetic principle (to his way of thinking, no doubt, the duty of all beauty lovers) has often been excruciating. The world is full of unrelated Simons, just as CBS News' John Roberts and George Bush's Supreme Court nominee have nothing in common but a name, a gender and current celebrity.

As brilliant as John Simon has so often been, how on earth can one trust a sensibility that takes such pleasure in cruel physical description? (What earthly "refinement" could survive such high-voltage meanness?)

But then, in the first decade of John Simon's most reckless and extreme utterances (he has indeed seemed to mellow over time), I asked that great American critic Dwight Macdonald (an idol of mine) what living critic gave him the most pleasure to read and he answered instantly that it was John Simon. No one else had his purity. Or his standards. Or his willingness to go to such verbal extremes in their defense. Then Macdonald chortled with mysterious conspiracy.

Well, no one is really Erich Von Stroheim -- not even Erich Von Stroheim (his real name was Erich Oswald Stroheim -- no aristocratic "von").

In celebration of John Simon's 80th year, Applause Books has brought out three glorious volumes -- almost 2,000 pages total -- of John Simon's criticism from the mid-'70s to the New Millennium. The deposed theater critic may now triumph as the man you hate to love -- but have no choice, not if you care about culture in America.

He is irresisitibly readable. And this is, no matter how you look at it, a major American publishing occasion, a celebration of a grand and glorious career whose glory and grandeur can all too easily be washed away by floodtides of blood under the bridge.

The shock in the three volumes is the 500 pages of music criticism, most of which is devoted to opera. Unless one regularly reads the Hudson Review, Opera News, the National Review and the New Leader, one would have no idea so much cogent and brilliant music criticism was written over the decades by John Simon.

Can we trust that composer Samuel Barber, in refusing Simon's reported barrage of opening conversational gambits at a party, was "a cold fish" and standoffish? Or is it just as likely that Simon's reputation preceded him making all of his interlocutory gestures moot? One could, after all, infer that Barber's significant reluctance to deepen acquaintance with John Simon was the perfectly logical reluctance of a great composer to avoid having pasta flung in his direction.

The theater volume -- much the longest of the three -- quite pointedly comes without an index of names, preferring only an index of plays reviewed. It is thereby impossible to look up major and minor actors and actresses by name for the "pleasure" of encountering their physical renderings in bile and vitriol.

That is, unequivocally, a good thing. There is, as he admits on his dedication page, change here.

"I must warn the reader that some of my present views have evolved in different directions." As the decades march by to the sound of a middle-European military band, the staggering erudition and savagely protracted evisceration subsides, while an increasing economy of means makes for an air of sniffish Olympian dismissal (on Patrick Stewart, in a play by Arthur Miller, "he reminds me of those Englishwomen whose accents get them telephone answering jobs with snobbish American firms. He seems to shout and growl even on the rare occasions when he speaks softly, his beady eyes and clotted voice contributing to the shiftiness of his acting. . . . But, of course, 'Star Trek' can confer greatness on anyone."

Three decades later, he merely takes note of Liza Minelli's "Betty Boop Face" and "tubby torso" and the probable dentures interfering with her song delivery. Wanton cruelty has devolved to mere pitilessness. Stunningly, though, one seldom, if ever, suspects John Simon of lying or gilding any lillies.

His general lack of sympathy with the last half-century's pop culture (television, rock and roll) makes his film reviewing, frankly, the least interesting and valuable volume for many pages at a time. He begins a review of "In the Line of Fire" thus: "thrillers seem to proliferate in the summer, perhaps on the assumption that in hot weather chills are welcome," a corny and foolish sentence for which a reviewer for a college newspaper would doubtless be thoroughly chided.

He is, as always, far more reliable and valuable writing about European films than American films, espeically in the last two decades. It's as if some crucial computer chips are missing from his aesthetic guidance system. Even so, there's something impressive about having a maverick around who can so extravagantly admire "Schindler's List" on one page and excoriate "Philadelphia" on the next.

He even admits not being able to get past page 50 of Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and not understanding the dialogue because of the accents in "The Full Monty." It's as though the lack of Broadway's deadlines brings out a secret dullard who isn't merely given to Teutonic dogmatism but plain old-fashioned frumpery and grumpiness -- former Czechoslovakian version of a Dutch uncle, for whom Hollywood pizzazz scarcely exists.

On the subject of film, he is all-too-easy to neither love nor hate but simply to ignore.

"On Theater: Criticism 1974-2003"

836 pages, $32.95

"On Music: Criticism 1979-2005"

504 pages, $27.95

"On Film: Criticism 1982-2001"

662 pages, $29.95

The controversial American critic's work of the past 30 years is collected in editions published by Applause books

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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