With the continued revival of the “Star Wars” movies, I’m wondering if a particular “fact” I heard is true. Was a Washington Post film critic fired after panning the first “Star Wars” movie?
— Tom Martin, Dumfries, Va.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that particular whopper,” said Gary Arnold, who reviewed movies for The Post from 1969 to 1984. “No, it’s pretty clear from the outset that that was a movie I was crazy about.”
Indeed. When “Star Wars” premiered in May 1977, Gary gave it a rave, calling it a “delightful science-fiction adventure fantasy” and “a new classic in a rousing movie tradition: a space swashbuckler.” He wrote: “The movie’s irresistible stylistic charm derives from the fact that [George] Lucas can draw upon a variety of action-movie sources with unfailing deftness and humor. He is in superlative command of his own movie-nurtured fantasy life.”
Arnold was quite prescient when it came to how “Star Wars” would be remembered, predicting that the film was “virtually certain of overwhelming popular and critical success. It has a real shot at approaching the phenomenal popularity of ‘Jaws.’ ”
Although Arnold never heard the rumor that his “Star Wars” review cost him his job, he has heard another urban myth: that a top Post editor ordered his dismissal after his negative review of Robert Duvall’s “Tender Mercies.”
That’s not true, either. Well, it is true that Arnold didn’t like 1983’s “Tender Mercies.” Duvall played a glum country-western singer by the name of Mac Sledge — “more like Mac Sludge,” Gary wrote.
Duvall went on to win a best actor Oscar for “Tender Mercies,” but Arnold preferred the performance of co-star Betty Buckley, who, he wrote, “keeps threatening to supply this incorrigibly sluggish, anticlimactic scenario with a reliable and electrifying energy source.”
Arnold can’t remember when he first heard the rumor that his tough take on “Tender Mercies” had gotten him canned, supposedly for irritating executive editor Ben Bradlee, who — in the apocryphal tale — loved the movie. But it’s not true. And Gary doesn’t think it had any internal logic, anyway.
“It never seemed to me a good fit with Bradlee, who cultivated a steely and tough-minded sort of personality,” he said. “I don’t know how it would flatter him particularly to say he was a softy for any particularly sentimental movie.”
Arnold was let go by the paper not for a negative review, but in one of those “we’re going in another direction” moves. He stopped reviewing movies, then wrote book reviews and advance obituaries for a year before leaving The Post and moving to the Washington Times. He is retired and lives in Arlington.
The “Tender Mercies” rumor cropped up again in 2014 in an online comment that former Post TV critic Tom Shales left on a blog post by Jack Limpert , former editor of Washingtonian magazine. Ironically, Limpert’s blog was about a critic who had been fired — or decided to resign — but over a positive review, not a negative one.
In 1991, Washingtonian’s Pat Dowell turned in a brief review lauding Oliver Stone’s “JFK” as “a brilliantly crafted indictment of history as an official story.”
Limpert disagreed, telling the Associated Press — after he’d shown Dowell the door (or she’d found it on her own) — that he considered the film, “The dumbest movie about Washington ever made.”
Answer Man asked Arnold whether critics ever write with their boss’s tastes in mind. “You couldn’t really do it,” he said. It would undermine the whole notion of a critic, who, after all, is paid to have an opinion.
“You are in a privileged position in that your opinions have a public forum and they get out and about,” he said. “I think almost all the people I’ve ever known who have been critics never thought there was any reason not to express themselves as forcefully and amusingly as they could.”
Still, it can get a bit awkward when reviewing a film connected to a friend or colleague. Arnold remembers that around the spring of 1976 he detected anxiety over what he might write about a certain highly anticipated upcoming film.
“I wrote a mixed review which was quite judicious in every respect,” he said. “It’s not a movie I was crazy about. It was well made, and had good sequences and stuff in it. I think there were certainly papers that went for it more than I did. . . . Nobody from management said anything about what line should be taken. I never had the feeling it had to be treated more tenderly than any other major release.”
That movie that left Arnold feeling a bit meh? It was “All the President’s Men.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.