Lacerating, withering critic John Simon dead at 94

NEW YORK (AP) — John Simon, a theater and film critic known for his lacerating reviews and often withering assessment of performers’ physical appearance, has died. He was 94.

Patricia Hoag Simon, Simon’s wife, said her husband died Sunday night at Westchester Medical Center. She said the couple was having lunch at a local dinner theater when he fell ill.

Simon served as the chief theater critic at New York magazine for nearly 40 years before being dismissed in 2005. He then worked at Bloomberg for five years before being fired in 2010. In his later years he worked for several newspapers outside the city.

Some might call him tart and unsentimental. Others might say curmudgeonly or belittling. Either way, it was a rite-of-passage in the theater community to find your work butchered by Simon. Time magazine called Simon “the most poisonous pen on Broadway.”

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He called 2000’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” “a production so stillborn I defy God himself to resurrect it.” In another bit of snark, Simon attacked the lead in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 1999: “Hard as it is to define charm, I can define its opposite in two words: Anthony Rapp.”

Few got a pass. In a 1998 production of “Twelfth Night,” he wrote of Helen Hunt: “She wears a permanently befuddled expression, scrunches up her eyes as though under a barrage of grapefruits, and always leads with her head as if to butt her lines into an enemy goal.” He once compared Liza Minnelli’s face to a beagle’s, and Kathleen Turner to “a braying mantis.”

At least one actor fought back. Actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of pasta on his head when she encountered him in a restaurant in 1973 — retaliation for comments he had made about her body.

He angered the powerful, including legendary producer and director Joseph Papp — who once asked in a 1972 letter to New York magazine “why the hell doesn’t he grow up?” — and playwright Edward Albee, who wrote in The New York Times that “Mr. Simon’s disapproval of my plays has been a source of comfort to me over the years.”

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In 1981, an ad in Variety appeared accusing Simon of being “racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, vicious, and derisive.” It was signed by 300 artists, apparently upset that Simon’s review of “Richard III” complained that an actress in the show “should never be cast as anything but an itinerant gefilte fish with a nervous condition.”

In response to his death, many in the theater community posted memories of run-ins with Simon, including Brent Spiner who on Twitter recalled being described by the critic “like a good high school actor in a bad college production.”

Simon defended his sharp elbows, arguing that the theater was becoming dumbed down and that critics needed to have a sense of humor. He said he was unwilling to hold his tongue if the audience lost out.

“A critic has to be as good as any writer,” Simon told the American Theatre Critics Association. “A critic has to be as good as any good teacher,” and a “critic should be a thinker, to know as much about the world as possible. You should think about what’s going on in the world and reflect on it as it pertains to a play.”

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But Simon also stood for the rule of law. When other professional critics reviewed “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” in 2011 before it had officially opened, he called their move “unfair” and “discourteous to other critics.” Reviewing before being invited to the show, he argued, is “like grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked.”

Even other critics sometimes found him distasteful. In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted to refuse him membership. The following fall, the body relented and allowed him in. (The circle also voted to keep him in the group in 2010 when he technically was no longer working for a publication published in New York City, part of the group’s bylaws.)

The death of film critic Roger Ebert in 2013 prompted Simon to push back at the accolades Ebert got for believing that a common man’s opinion of art was as valid as a highfalutin critic.

“I firmly believe that the film critic should have a special expertise, like any kind of art critic. Like a physician, he should know more about medicine than a layman who picks an over-the-counter drug for a cold,” Simon wrote. “The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance.”

From 1950-1955, Simon taught at Harvard, the University of Washington and M.I.T. He also taught at Bard College and the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. His articles appeared in everything from Town and Country to Esquire and the Weekly Standard.

He was the author or editor of over a dozen books, including “Uneasy Stages,” a collection of his reviews from 1963 through 1973, and “John Simon on Theatre,” which included the next three decades. Other books include “John Simon on Music” and “John Simon on Film.”

Simon was born in Yugoslavia in 1925 and received his B.A. in English, as well as his master’s and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University. He was a George Polk Award winner and was a Fulbright Fellow. In his last post just before Halloween, he wrote: “One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot.”

He began by writing critiques for Commonweal and the Hudson Review. He also reviewed for New York’s Channel 13, but was forced out in 1967 because the station considered his notices misanthropic.

After being fired by Bloomberg, he found employment at The Westchester Guardian and Yonkers Tribune, and continued to file reviews. On his blog, he also continued to annoy.

In one post in July 2014, he said, “One of the worst things a person can be is stupid.” He followed that thought up with “Right next to it, as far as I’m concerned, is obesity” and then wrote a screed defending slimness that was insulting and used phrases like “a walking tub of lard.”

He was accused of many things over his career — elitism, objectification and insensitivity. But never about not caring. In one of his blog posts in 2013, he defended his toughness because he cared.

“A critical sting is not like a slight flesh wound, treatable with ointment. If intentionally negative, it has to sting. This is the only way it is noticeable, the only way it could make a difference. That is to say if any criticism makes a difference.”

His wife, after his death, suggested some ways to celebrate her husband’s life: “Go see a play or read a great book or poem or watch some tennis in his honor — he loved all those things.”