The Hazel-Eyed Hatchet Man: Former critic Rex Reed is as sharp as ever

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- It’s been a little more than 42 years since Time reporter Carey Winfrey gave Rex Reed the moniker, “The Hazel-Eyed Hatchet Man” while writing an article about Reed’s rise to fame (or infamy, as the case may be, depending on who you speak to) in the late 60’s. And while his dark locks may have turned silver with the passage of time, his rapier wit, biting commentary and sparkling eyes haven’t dulled in the slightest over the years.

The feisty and prolific Reed has become, dare I say, a critical institution – one look at his impressive bio says it all. He has been a film or arts critic for numerous publications including GQ, Vogue, New York Daily News, New York Post, Holiday, Women’s Wear Daily and currently reviews films for the New York Observer. He has written eight books about movies as well as several novels and has penned numerous articles and essays that have appeared in almost every national magazine and newspaper in the United States and abroad.

Reed has also appeared on the other side of the lens as an actor in several films: Myra Breckinridge with John Huston, Mae West and Raquel Welch, Inchon! with Sir Laurence Olivier and Superman with Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando.

But all the superlatives, all the anecdotes, all the biographical backstory in the world could never properly convey Rex Reed, the man. To truly get a measure of this unique American you’d have to see him up close and personal – something the residents of Palm Springs will soon have the opportunity to do thanks to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

On Sunday, Jan. 30, at 5 pm, Reed will take to the Annenberg stage as part of the Annenberg Theater Council Speaker Series, generously sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank. Rex Reed: My Life in Movies promises to be a fascinating lecture wherein Mr. Reed will share with the audience “how he started in the movie business, crashed into big-time journalism, becoming a movie star and critic. Reed will reminisce about the famous people he has known, including, Truman Capote, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Tennessee Williams, among others.”

Best of all, the last 15 minutes of his talk will include a Q&A session with the famed critic.

So in an effort to whet your whistle somewhat towards the witty repartee you can look forward to when Mr. Reed comes to visit Palm Springs, I had the opportunity to submit a few questions via email to the famed critic. True to form, his provocative answers have me counting down the days until I get to see him in person on January 30th – it promises to be an extremely entertaining lecture!

The BottomLine: You once said in a Time article that you thought Hitler would be a great interview. So what question would you have asked the infamous German dictator first and why?

Rex Reed: “After conquering the world, turning everyone into cookie-cutter conformity, and erasing diversity, what do you plan to do to avoid boring yourself to death, besides wearing human lampshades to parties humming Wagner?”

You pull no punches with your movie critiques; have you ever reviewed a film and regretted your acerbic tone towards it years later?

As Edith Piaf said, “Je regrette rien.”

Not to sound histrionic, but have you ever received death threats (or at least a slap in the face from one of the principles involved in a film) from giving a movie a poor review?

Nothing dramatic, although Richard Harris did stumble drunkenly onto the Dick Cavett Show one night and announce, to an audience of groans, that he sent me a naked picture of himself.

I went on the next night and told the audience, to tumultuous applause, the photo must have been lost in the mail because I never got it, but any man who sends naked pictures of himself to other men says a lot more about himself than the people he's trying to insult. He later apologized publicly on the Tonight Show with me sitting in the next chair.

How would you categorize LGBT Cinema: is it niche filmmaking or a bona fide genre?

For the most part it lacks the kind of originality that might lead to universal appeal. So far it has mainly simulated the worst of bad mainstream filmmaking, sadly proving there are as many gay hacks as straight.

There’s no such thing as gay films and straight films—just good films and bad films.

Has anyone ever said something bad about you that pierced your well-developed critical armor?

Only when they say “I remember you when you had black hair. What happened?”

What is the biggest Achilles heel for modern Hollywood filmmaking?

The ignorance of youth. Kids today think they know everything, but the first movie they ever saw is Star Wars. They have energy but they've lost their most appealing characteristic—vulnerability. They know nothing about movies, they have no life experience, they don't know Clark Gable from Betty Grable, and they won't even look at anything in black and white. Just look at the sophomoric junk they turn out and you know they are perfectly off self-destructing all by themselves without any help from me.

If you could alter any aspect of the movie making industry – what would that be?

Teach wannabes how to trash their computers and go back to the basics of how to tell a story with a healthy respect for plot, character development, human emotion and entertainment value, and narrative coherence.

Who is the most underrated actor (male or female) working in Hollywood today and why? The most overrated and why?

Too many sacred cows on both sides to list, but times change, fans are fickle, and eventually they all go away anyway.

I recently read a post in The Toronto Star about the critical schism over Black Swan. It claimed that there seemed to be a generational split regarding the reviews and that younger critics embraced it while more established older critics panned it. It concluded by hypothesizing that the younger moviegoer (50 and under) is better designed to tolerate ambiguity. What’s your take: Does ambiguity belong in films and is there a generation gap when it comes to movie critiques?

First mistake: reading The Toronto Star.

Second mistake: assuming The Black Swan is a movie worth debating. The production values are lavish, I enjoyed the Dali-inspired surrealism, and when it comes to movie music, Tchaikovsky is better, in my opinion, than T-Bone.

But everyone I know in the serious dance world considers this preposterous, overrated and over-hyped exercise in hysteria a joke, and everyone else sees it as nothing more than Polanski’s Repulsion in toe shoes.

But younger audiences who will sit through anything as long as the projector keeps running don’t mind ambiguity. The same young people, in college auditoriums and performing arts centers where I often speak, seem to regard what I have to say from an older perspective and viewpoint with interest, respect, and rapt attention.

But there’s no denying the existence of a generation gap when it comes to everything else these days. Music sounds like a garbage strike in downtown Newark, while art, films and literature have never seemed more lacking in originality and inspiration.

Kids drag around e-readers and fight over the Barnes and Noble Nook vs. Amazon’s Kindle, while I prefer the feel, smell and typeface of real bookshelves. I still own thousands of LPs, 45s and 78s that cannot be purchased on CD, and go find me the complete works of Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman (all personally autographed to me) on an e-book.

Care to share with us a quick, funny anecdote about any of the famous people you have known?

It’s all in my talk at the Annenberg, so be there and laugh while you learn something.

I read somewhere that you singlehandedly made ad hominem attacks chic in movie reviews and in critiques in general. What is your response to that statement?

You give me too much credit. Pauline Kael and John Simon got there first, but she wore herself out by running out of gas too early with diarrhea of the typewriter, and he turned ad hominem attacks into a tirade of tedium. I just pruned away the clutter and added Tabasco.

What do you hope people remember you most for when you are gone?

That I had good taste and tried to spread it around like marmalade, sometimes to people with no appetite.

Finally, any last words for our readers regarding what they can expect when they come to see you at the Annenberg Theater on January 30th?

You will not be bored.

If you go

Rex Reed: My Life in Movies

Sunday, Jan. 30, at 5 pm at the Annenberg Theater

$15 ATC members, $20 nonmembers

Tickets may be purchased at the Annenberg Theater Box Office by calling 760.325.4490 or by logging onto the Palm Spring Museum website