Mr. Simon also wrote for publications including Bloomberg News, Esquire, the New York Times and the National Review and said that his aim was to elevate the art of criticism, as well as art itself, regardless of how far he strayed from the critical consensus — or how much he offended playwrights, filmmakers and his own friends in the business.
“The critic may make some allowances, but he cannot forget that there once was a Molière, a Chekhov, a Wilde, a Tennessee Williams,” he wrote in a 2011 blog post. “Is there any reason why Rodgers and Hart shouldn’t be able to stand up to Gilbert and Sullivan?”
Mr. Simon was praised by figures including Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian, and poet W.H. Auden, who once called him “lucid, learned, witty and, even when he is most savage, just and in good taste.” But to detractors, he was less a refined and perceptive authority on art than a mean-spirited curmudgeon — “the most poisonous pen on Broadway,” as Time magazine dubbed him in 1973.
In his essays and reviews, Mr. Simon sparred with figures such as producer and director Joseph Papp, who called for his dismissal, and playwright David Mamet, who once christened Mr. Simon and the powerful Times critic Frank Rich “the syphilis and gonorrhea of the theater.” In response, Mr. Simon quipped, “I don’t know about the syph, but what would the theater be without a clap or two?”
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Mr. Simon championed filmmakers such as Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman, composers including Benjamin Britten and Leos Janacek, and theatrical works ranging from Harold Pinter’s play “Betrayal” to the Broadway musical “42nd Street,” which grabs you “by the heart,” he wrote, “and carries you beyond razzmatazz, beyond even pizzazz, into elation.”
But his pans far outnumbered his raves, with one reviewer calculating that out of the 245 movies discussed in Mr. Simon’s collection “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films,” he recommended only 15. Nonetheless, he said, he never let imperfection dampen his enthusiasm.
“One goes hoping that the theater is still alive and that this will be a good show,” he told the Paris Review in 1997. “Nine times out of ten, one goes home with one’s tail between one’s legs, beaten again, and the only compensation is to sit down and write a vitriolic review. That’s the only satisfaction left one.”
Mr. Simon could be dense and even obscure, gilding his essays with discussions of Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Serbian poetry, and with terms such as “tonitruous,” “caducity” and “parataxis.” But he was also witty, eviscerating one Broadway play — a sex farce starring English comedian Norman Wisdom — with the line, “If this is Norman Wisdom, I’ll take Saxon folly.”
He became especially known for his insulting descriptions of performers’ physical appearances and was frequently accused of crossing the line into sexist personal attacks. Mr. Simon likened Liza Minnelli’s face to that of a beagle, called Kathleen Turner “a braying mantis” and wrote that Barbra Streisand’s nose “zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning.”
“I believe that unless a major part on stage or screen explicitly calls for an unsightly person,” Mr. Simon once wrote in New York magazine, “it is better filled by a performer who is, besides being talented, prepossessing.”
In 1981, 300 artists reportedly signed an ad in Variety magazine calling Mr. Simon “racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, vicious and derisive” — charges that resulted from his review of “Richard III,” in which he wrote that one actress “should never be cast as anything but an itinerant gefilte-fish vendor with a serious nervous disorder.”
Perhaps most notoriously, he had a nasty encounter with actress Sylvia Miles in 1973 after reviewing her performance in the play “Nellie Toole & Co.” and describing her as “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers.” At a New York Film Festival after-party, Miles filled a plate with steak tartare and dumped it on Mr. Simon’s head.
“You called me a gate-crasher, now you can call me a plate-crasher,” she said, according to a report in Newsday. Mr. Simon replied that he would send her the cleaning bill.
John Simmon was born in Subotica, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), on May 12, 1925. His family moved to Belgrade when he was 2; he later dropped an “m” from his last name and said that his businessman father gave him a middle name, Ivan, around 1941, when they immigrated to the United States.
Mr. Simon spent one year at a prep school in England and developed an early love of American movies, once urging his parents to bring actress and singer Jeanette MacDonald to his bedside when he was sick with the flu. After making his way to New York City, he studied at the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx and served in the Army Air Forces.
He studied comparative literature at Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1946, a master’s in 1948 and a doctorate in 1959, and taught at schools including Harvard, the University of Washington and MIT.
But he soon abandoned academia, writing theater criticism for the Hudson Review beginning in 1959. He also did reviews for WNET (Channel 13) in New York before being forced out in 1967, reportedly because the station considered his criticism “misanthropic.”
He encountered similar controversy with the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, which voted in 1969 to refuse him membership, only to reverse its decision the next year. More recently, he made headlines after accusing Times theater critic Ben Brantley of bias, telling interviewer Charlie Rose in 2001 that Brantley favored certain plays because he was gay. “To my misfortune, I’m not homosexual,” Mr. Simon said. “And, therefore, I’m a kind of odd man out in the theatrical world.”
Mr. Simon could be similarly pugnacious with film critics, battling with Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, Vincent Canby of the Times, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, who once called him “the Count Dracula of critics.”
He received honors including the George Polk Award for film criticism and published his first book, “Acid Test,” in 1963. He later released a three-volume, 2,000-page edition of his collected reviews and in recent years published his essays to a blog, writing in his final entry last month, “One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot.”
Mr. Simon’s marriage to Cheryle Brown ended in divorce, and in 1992, he married Patricia Hoag, a theater arts professor at Marymount Manhattan College. She is his only immediate survivor.
“My greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the truth,” Mr. Simon told the Paris Review. He went on to note that it was “wonderful to be hated by idiots,” and recalled a poem by German writer Erich Kästner, who “says, in essence, ‘All right, the world is full of idiots and they’re in control of everything. You fool, stay alive to annoy them!’ And that, in a sense, is my function in life, and my consolation. If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that.”
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