Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Opinion Piece

As those of you who follow this blog know, I’ve been acting in a play for the past few weeks. Theatre, more than any other medium, is dependent on good reviews. Fortunately our reviews have, for the most part, been very good. God knows you can’t please everybody, and there's always some snarky bastard out there who can’t wait to dig out the thesaurus and come up with some evil, archaic adjective to stab you in the heart with. It’s odd how even now (when we should all know better) seeing something in print can still cast the impression that this particular person’s opinion has weight; that what they’ve expressed is somehow at least a little “true.”

Just recently, I saw a film that I really enjoyed and was shocked to find out afterward that it hadn’t been particularly well-reviewed. I’m embarrassed to say that had I read the reviews beforehand I probably wouldn't have darkened the door and would've missed out on a wonderfully quirky little film. On some level, I suppose the whole purpose of reviews is to help us save our time and money; to not be duped by glossy advertising into spending our hard-earned cash on something that’s poorly made or totally ill-conceived.

The worst review I ever got was for my first stage play. After a highly successful tryout in Connecticut, the show had made the jump to off-Broadway. The majority of the reviews were favorable and I thought, quite fair; essentially saying that although the play was no masterpiece, it was a funny and lighthearted piece of entertainment. The only paper that was dragging its heels in attending was the mighty and all-powerful New York Times. Finally, about ten days into the run, the dour Times critic arrived to take in a matinee. Again, we waited several days for the review which, when it arrived, was scathing beyond belief. All hopes of a commercial run were dashed and adding irony to insult, the review came out on Christmas Eve.

When my first Hollywood film was produced, I suspected that it wouldn’t fare too well with the critics. The project simply hadn’t gelled; largely due to the fact that all parties involved seemed to be making a different movie. The final product was a bit of a mess. The only review I was sincerely dreading was the Los Angeles Times. This was the review that would be read by my friends, neighbors and colleagues. This was the one that I would have to discuss with the people at my gym or at my church. This was only review I’d have to actually “live” with.

I remember getting up that Friday morning and trudging to my front door. I retrieved my copy of the Times from the shrubs where the delivery guy always seemed to lodge it and padded into my kitchen. After pouring myself a strong cup of coffee to steady my nerves, I opened the paper to the Calendar section. To my utter shock and amazement, the review was a complete rave. The critic made it sound like I had penned an African-American version of “Citizen Kane.” On one level, I felt a certain sense of relief, but I was also struck with a new and totally unexpected wave of dread. I didn’t agree with this review. Not a single word of it. I knew that my friends would now be showering me with congratulations and would soon be rushing out to see my film with high expectations – only to discover that the movie was mediocre at best.

These days, the role of the critic has been largely diminished. In fact, a lot of print media outlets have laid off their reviewers. In the new world order, most of the ticket-buying public gets their entertainment recommendations from Twitter and Facebook. The ability to “comment” on a movie, play or product has turned the whole concept of “reviewing” into a bizarrely democratic process. Apparently there’s a new generation of people out there who are more interested in what their friends thought of a movie than what some cranky guy who’s been to too many press screenings has to say.

Obviously, it’s great when people like what you do, but the annals of show business are filled with stories of hugely successful people who at some point in their careers took a beating in the public arena. The worst feeling (speaking from personal experience) is that somehow if your reviews aren’t good, it means that you are not good; that what you’ve put out into the world is a big, stinky mess and now whatever mean-spirited adjective was used against you will be seared onto your identity for life. That's rarely true since, at least in Hollywood, most people can’t remember what happened last week, much less last year. It’s just one of the realities of the business. No matter what you do, someone will love it while someone else will say it was a big piece of shit. In the end, the most important opinion will be your own.

My favorite story about this subject comes from a book I read many years ago by William Redfield, an actor who played “Guildenstern” in Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway production of “Hamlet.” At the time, Mr. Burton was at the peak of his film stardom and it was a risky choice to take on the most revered role in all of Shakespeare. In the book, Mr. Redfield recounts how one evening, during the show’s out-of-town tryout in Toronto, a disgruntled theatergoer booed Mr. Burton from the balcony during one of his character’s more famous soliloquies. Enraged, Mr. Burton stormed back to his hotel after the performance to find his lovely new wife, Elizabeth Taylor with her feet propped up watching TV. When Ms. Taylor didn’t immediately grasp why her husband was so upset, he screamed “Don’t you understand?! I was playing ‘Hamlet’ and I was BOOED!!” To which Ms. Taylor supposedly replied, “So? Who the hell cares?” Mr. Burton then kicked in the screen of the TV, cutting his foot so badly that it required several stitches. Mr. Redfield finishes the story by observing that Ms. Taylor, who had literally grown up in the public spotlight and was at the time on her fifth husband, was “not particularly concerned with the opinions of people she did not personally know.” Oh, that we could all be so wise.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at

"Moving...Leaves us with renewed appreciation for the sad, doomed man who preserved the Union.
-- Los Angeles Times



sarah p. miller said...

I enjoyed your post, as always, and I think your comments about extinct reviewers are apt.

"When my first Hollywood film was produced,..."

But why do you decline to mention its name and force me to look it up on imdb? Is that a Hollywood rule?

Karen Hutson said...

Jeez, David! It will be a total bummer if I travel 3600 miles to see your play and it sucks. No pressure, though...