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Movie Answer Man (04/02/1995)

Q. Help me settle something. If Writer A and Writer B both wrote their opinions on a film--both with diligence and pride in their work--what difference in the two pieces would identify Writer A as a Film Critic and Writer B as someone just offering an opinion? Take the weekly feature you see in some papers, where kids review films. At what point do they cross the line, and can be called Critics as opposed to Reviewers? Is there some sort of certification program, like taking the Sally Struthers correspondence course in gun repair? (Andy Ihnatko, Westwood, Mass.)

A. This is a fascinating question, not unrelated to, "at what point do we know Swift doesn't really intend for the starving Irish to eat their babies?" The non-critic Reviewer will often betray himself by these mistakes: (1) Pretense of objectivity; (2) reluctance to introduce extraneous knowledge; (3) predictions of which audiences will or will not enjoy the film; (4) bashfulness about writing in the first person; (5) distancing self from actual experience of viewing the film; (7) an over-written first paragraph. The genuine Critic will write in such a way as to acknowledge that he had a subjective personal experience which he wants to share with you, and which reminded him of other films or other subjects. He will wear his knowledge lightly and never presume to speak for other than himself.

Q. Would you agree that America has not produced a great actor since 1980? No one has emerged to unseat De Niro, Pacino, Hackman, Duvall, Newman, etc., the way they took the mantle from Brando, Clift, Tracy etc. None among the new breed of American actors has shown the ability or the inclination to extend themselves beyond plot-based drivel. De Niro was doing "Taxi Driver" and "Mean Streets" when he was in his early 30s, and his choice of roles in the 1970's was strikingly unpredictable. Contrast that with Tom Cruise, who is regarded by some as the finest actor of this generation. He has accepted only one truly challenging role (that of Ron Kovic in "Born on the Fourth of July") amidst the numerous films of the "Top Gun" ilk. The few actors that have shown a willingness to tackle tough roles (like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) seem to sell out. Blaming the Hollywood establishment or the poor quality of screenwriters is the easy way out. Hollywood does seem to have room for young actors who push the envelope. It just so happens that most of them are from the U.K., such as Day-Lewis, Fiennes, Oldman, Branagh. (Madhu Krishnaswamy, Edmonton, Canada)

A. Great actors are produced by great films. The early 1970s were the last "golden age" in American cinema. The careers of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and others were on the rise. Young directors wanted to make The Great American Film. Then came the blockbuster mentality of the post-"Jaws" and "Star Wars" era, and the newer directors all wanted to make The Great American Hit. Studios in the meantime fell under the influence of marketing "experts," who are the single most negative influence on quality because they can only recommend refinements of what has been done before. (By definition, marketing cannot discover original ideas.) Who knows what Tom Cruise might have done in the 1970s? Could De Niro have even gotten started as an actor in the 1980s? Yet we do have some strong contenders today: Not only Cruise, but such names as Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon, Val Kilmer, John Cusack and Laurence Fishburne come to mind. And older actors like Morgan Freeman, James Woods and Joe Mantegna all emerged in the 1980s.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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