Canada's Media Magazine

Critical decision

Former Toronto Star film critic Catherine Dunphy shares the stories that made her say goodbye to movie reviewing.

FADE IN: HOLLYWOOD. There’s a surly publicist working her Saturday night in a hotel suite I later learned was modest, if not downright shabby, by standards I would come to expect. In the next room, bending low to reduce the food delivery time from heaping plate to gaping mouth, are six of the fattest people I have ever seen: My fellow critics.

Yes, they are from publications in Podunk and the like, and yes, they come there often. Every weekend in fact. They are the junket hounds, the reviewers who work for papers in small towns they can’t wait to get out of. Some of them bring their dirty laundry to the hotels where the movie production companies are paying all their bills (including the ones from the bar).

Where I work, we pay our own way. All of it. Plane fare, hotel room, the works. No movie studio can buy me. I am proud of that. I’m also pissed that the flacks and other hacks there don’t know that I’m not one of those writers at the trough.

And the movie we are all there to see? Something terrible starring Willem Dafoe.

I am so new to this game of flying across the country to watch a movie a couple of weeks before it hits the multiplex that I didn’t know enough to expect, or ask for, the free T-shirt, sweatshirt and tote bag. So I don’t ask and I don’t receive. (I later learn the loot for this film is reserved for the people who mattered — the television types.)

CUT TO: Another Hollywood hotel, another junket (Far and Away — the movie, not the locale). I’m waiting for the elevator. When it comes, the door opens and there’s Tom Cruise. And yes he is short. And yes we talked — about his shoes, I think. (A month or so later, a slick Hollywood book writer calls to interview me about my private off-the-record time with Cruise.)

FADE TO: NEW ORLEANS. We have come to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Kevin Costner flick that’s been the subject of much talk. He’s about to lose his nice-guy image — he fired the director who until then had been his best friend and he may be shedding the wife and three kids. He’s been getting some off-screen action on set, it seems. More to the point, the pic’s a bust — he knows it and we know it. The movie they tacked on just to see what we thought? It’s something called City Slickers and we’re loving that one. At our round table, Billy Crystal asks me (I’m the only female journalist there) if I thought he was right to cut the love scene between his (married) character and the girl. I decide I love Billy Crystal.

A MONTAGE. The film is Hook, Steven Spielberg’s homage to mid-life crisis. Gloom settles over the hundreds of journalists in town. We’ve had a midnight screening, with cake and champagne. I watch the shoulders of the critics sag — they had really wanted to like this film, but they don’t. They can’t. They won’t. It’s like an epiphany for me — maybe the soul of a movie critic is worth more than room service.

NEXT DAY: INT. HOTEL CORRIDORS. Studio executives are suddenly everywhere. Our reviews are embargoed. Anyone filing copy before the movie opens will not be allowed into the hotel ballroom to interview Robin Williams, Julia Roberts and their ilk. And we are forbidden — forbidden — to ask Julia Roberts about her recent break up with ex-fiancé Kiefer Sutherland.

INT. BALLROOM. Robin Williams morphs into a manic, sweaty, stand-up comedy riff. He’s brilliant — he’s also determined not to talk about the movie. Fine by us. What a show. All Julia Roberts wants to talk about is how she hated working on the film, how she never acted with one other person and how they put her all by herself in the blue room. And she’s perfectly willing to talk about her love gone badly and Kiefer’s propensity to shoot way too much pool in hooker hangouts.

CUT TO: NEW YORK. There are 300 journalists in a hotel room with Robert De Niro at the microphone and not one of them can get one single quotable sentence out of the lug. Amazing. But the movie, Cape Fear, is a winner and Juliette Lewis is being discovered right before our approving eyes.

CUT TO: CHICAGO. As sequels go, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York has box office hit written all over it. Macaulay Culkin comes to our table carrying a volume from a children’s encyclopedia. He’s got his finger in it, bookmarking a page. He’s 12 and he wants us to ask him about the book. Instead, one of the journalists asks him about his girlfriend. They broke up, he says. Who broke up with whom, he’s asked. Suddenly 12 becomes 20. “I did,” he says emphatically. “She was always phoning, always wanting to know what I was doing.” (Turns out the publicist thought we would want to know that Macaulay had a new dog; hence the finger in the encyclopedia at the page where the breed was featured. I don’t know what kind of dog; none of us asked.)

FINALLY. Barbra Streisand looks fabulous, decked out in Donna Karan, hair sleek and streaked. She is all Upper East Side, no more second-hand Rose from the Bronx. The film is The Prince of Tides, the first of a run of films she will direct, star in and cast some hunk to play the guy who falls for her. This time it’s a (relatively) young, clean and sober Nick Nolte. When Streisand approaches our round table, the others leap up from their seats as if greeting royalty. She feigns discomfort, girlish embarrassment. The ensuing questions are of the “How do you account for your great talent?” variety. When she is about to leave, these journalists, these reporters, these critics whom people will read before deciding whether or not to pay to see the film, thrust their press kits at her. They want her to sign the black-and-white stills of her from the film. Head tilted fetchingly to one side, she obliges, gracious as one always is — or should be — to her fans.

Right then, right there. I decide to get out of this business.

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