Not Everyone’s a Critic, but He Is
Posted January 10, 2018 6:15 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — “That’s me with Larry Olivier,” said Rex Reed, reaching for a black-and-white photo in a silver frame in his eighth-floor apartment in the Dakota on a recent chilly Tuesday afternoon.
The photo was taken on the set of “Inchon,” a 1981 Korean War thriller. Looking dashing with his raven hair and Elvis cheekbones, Reed, then at the height of his fame as a journalist and television personality, played a music critic stuck in a war zone. Olivier — Laurence to most of us — played Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“My gofers on that picture were Audrey Hepburn’s son, Sean Ferrer, and two of Marlon Brando’s kids,” Reed, 79, said with evident satisfaction.
Old photos of Reed in his younger days with dear friends (Liza Minnelli, Angela Lansbury), some now departed (Natalie Wood, Liz Smith), line the antique tabletops and hunter-green walls of his home of 48 years. The handsome two-bedroom apartment functions as a shrine to a different New York, a different Hollywood: when movies were about silver screens, not touch-screens; when those who peopled them were stars, not celebrities. When not everyone was a critic, posting their opinions free on Twitter.
On a red wingback chair sat a white needlepoint pillow. “It’s not a pretty pillow,” Reed said, “but it’s a pillow that was done for me by Jean Simmons.” The actress, his “dearest, dearest friend,” cheekily emblazoned it with the letters “FTA.” The T stands for “them,” the A for “all.”
It’s a fitting motto for a man who became a star himself on the strength of his dandyish style, sharp wit and drive to enrage. To paraphrase “Sunset Boulevard,” he used to be big, and maybe he is still big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small. (Really small.)
That dark hair is white now. The face it frames is less dashing than droll. And that trim physique shown off in houndstooth check jackets and ascots back in the 1960s has softened somewhat under a scarlet sweater vest.
But Reed still has those eyebrows — impish, irascible, just like in the framed Al Hirschfeld caricature of him in his den from 1970. They were arched in defiance as he sank into a beige suede sofa to talk about the state of film criticism today.
“Some of these young critics have never seen a black-and-white movie,” he said. “Have they even seen ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’?”
Generation iPhone might not realize the power and prestige that Reed once enjoyed. For decades, he has reviewed for The New York Observer, a once-influential peach-colored broadsheet newspaper for Manhattan elites that, after shape-shifting several times during a decade of ownership by Jared Kushner, is a web-only property, Observer.com.
In the spring, headlines announced that Reed was included in a round of layoffs there. In fact, the there was no formal termination, because Reed is a freelancer, and when a new editor, Merin Curotto, took over shortly afterward, bringing him back was a top priority. “He isn’t for everyone,” Curotto said. “Great talents usually aren’t.”
Indeed, Reed prides himself on bucking the tide of popularity, decreeing “The Shape of Water,” which got a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “a loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.” (In the kind of error that used to be fish wrap but now lives forever on the internet, he also misidentified Mexican director Guillermo del Toro as the Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro, misspelling his name “Benecio” as a bonus).
A onetime host of “At the Movies,” the popular 1980s movie-review program, and a judge on, OK, the “The Gong Show,” Reed sees himself more as a guardian of Hollywood standards than as a hatchet man.
“I like just as many films as I dislike,” Reed said. “But I think we’re drowning in mediocrity. I just try as hard as I can to raise the level of consciousness. It’s so hard to get people to see good films.”
They’re too busy “lining up to see to see ‘Star Wars 93’ or whatever it is,” he said.
This Oscar season he has heaped praise on “I, Tonya,” with Margot Robbie as the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, and Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age drama, “Lady Bird,” which he called “a stray emerald in a pile of discarded rhinestones.”
Young movie buffs who consider him an over-the-hill crank likely do not realize he was always an old soul, even at his telegenic apex as a young man. In an appearance from Dick Cavett’s talk show in 1969, Reed elicited whistles of approval when he sauntered in front of the cameras wearing a matching argyle jacket and vest — “a little Bill Blass number” — and explaining to the host, with an air of Wildean disaffection, that “all the great ‘30s and ‘40s things are coming back.”
“June Preisser used to wear argyle socks in all the MGM musicals when she would swing right into Mickey Rooney’s arms,” Reed said on the show.
“Oh, you’re older than I am,” Cavett joked.
“I think I’m older than everybody,” Reed said with a sigh. He was 30.
The gap — in sensibility as well as age — between Reed and his critical brethren and sistren has only grown since then.
“When I was first admitted to the New York Film Critics Circle, you would go to a conference room and you would intelligently debate film with Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Vincent Canby,” he said. “You go now, and honestly, if you have white hair, you’re over the hill. They don’t believe that you can even understand the kind of movies that they like. It’s very true. I don’t understand. I mean, they’re voting for James Franco. How more absurd can life get than that?”
“Unfortunately, we have me, who lived through all that good stuff, and remembers it,” he said. “So kill me already, you know?”
Rex Taylor Reed was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 2, 1938, and spent his childhood bouncing around the South because his father, Jimmy Reed, worked as drilling supervisor on oil rigs in and around the Gulf of Mexico. “We lived in everything from a motel near a Tabasco sauce factory to a crumbling Southern mansion near Natchez — anywhere there was an oil boom,” he wrote in the introduction of “Do You Sleep in the Nude?,” his 1968 collection of celebrity profiles. That crumbling mansion, he wrote, was “covered with bougainvillea vines, red as pomegranates,” and had a cook with a glass eye “who used to make Creole gumbo in the kitchen while I sat around the table reading Nancy Drew mysteries.”
Reed’s family tree, he said, is filled with notables. “My mother came from a family of 10 in Oklahoma, her second cousins were the Dalton Gang,” he said. “And when my grandfather was a little boy, he was rocked by Jesse James on his knee.”
Reed chafed at his elementary-school curriculum. “Don’t even try asking me anything about ‘if Farmer Brown has six acres of land, how much fencing does he need?'” he said.
What he loved was words, and he learned their power early.
“When I was in the eighth grade, my whole career as a controversial writer began, because I wrote the gossip column for the school paper,” he said. “All anonymous: ‘Who was Betsy Boudreaux seen passing a note to in study hall?’ The school was up in arms.”
He was already plotting his escape. “I used to sit in the Greyhound bus terminal reading Town & Country and think, ‘Oh God, if only I could go somewhere where people know things.'”
Movies provided a glimpse of a world beyond the oil patch. “I went every single solitary day after school to the movies,” Reed said. “My father got very upset. ‘What are you going to do when you grow up and have to get an honest job?’ I told him, ‘I’m never going to get an honest job. I’m going to be a movie critic.'” In college, he tried to sneak off in his father’s car to New Orleans to see Bette Davis onstage, but the car got stuck in the mud during a storm.
“Fade out, fade in: Years later, I’m sitting in Bette Davis’ living room in Westport, Connecticut, interviewing her, and I told her the story,” Reed said. “Her eyes got bigger and bigger, and she says, ‘Hmm, if I had known who you would be, I would have sent a limo.'”
At Louisiana State University, Reed said he drew howls of protest with a seething editorial for the student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, called “The Price of Prejudice.” “They burned a cross on my father’s lawn,” he said.
At one point, Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of The New York Times, visited a journalism class and offhandedly remarked that any of the students should visit him at the office if they happened to find themselves in New York. “I was the one who did,” Reed said. “I told him that I was really interested in a job, something on the order of what Walter Kerr did.” Kerr was the eminent middle-aged theater critic. Reed was 20.
He eventually landed a job in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox, where he had to go into the steam room — “in my starched shirt” — and read gossip items to the studio head, Spyros Skouras, emerging soaking wet and disillusioned.
The studio “was spending millions of dollars to sink Elizabeth Taylor in the Nile in ‘Cleopatra,’ but at the home office, they were saving on rubber bands,” Reed recalled. He made $57.50 a week, he said, survived on 35-cent ham salad sandwiches from Woolworth’s and lived in an actress cousin’s apartment on 23rd Street while she was in upstate New York doing stock theater.
“It was a one-room apartment over a Chinese restaurant, where all the roaches came up to visit at night,” he said. “You would turn on the lights, they were so brazen they would just stare at you, they wouldn’t even run. I thought, ‘This is horrible, but it’s New York.'”
The studio eventually laid him off after budget cutbacks, and in 1965 he fled the city to knock around Europe with friends in a rented red Volkswagen. He ended up at the Venice Film Festival just as his money was running out. “I didn’t know how I was going to get home,” he said.
Reed decided to pose as a journalist and bluff his way into an interviews with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Buster Keaton, the aging silent film star who was promoting “Film,” a 22-minute experimental silent movie written by Samuel Beckett. Reed sold both articles, making enough to buy a return ticket to the United States.
The Keaton article, which appeared in The Times, was hammered out on film-festival stationery. (“Buster Keaton was there, looking for all the world like the kind of man dogs kick. ...”)
Settling in New York, Reed soon became an in-demand magazine writer, then a hot job: churning out swashbuckling profiles of Tennessee Williams, Warren Beatty and many others. His unflinching Ava Gardner profile for Esquire in 1966 portrayed an embittered former screen siren two-fisting Dom Pérignon and cognac, complaining about her tenure at MGM as “17 years of slavery” in which the studio “tried to sell me like a prize hog.” The article wound up in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, “The New Journalism.”
Reed was also becoming a regular on “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. “He developed his own fan club on the show,” Cavett said in a phone interview. “I remember on one show, he said about Nancy Sinatra that she looked like a ‘pizza waitress.’ I actually began to worry. One of the musicians said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Frank doesn’t have a temper, ha ha ha.’ I think I went home and ordered a fallout shelter.”
Reed continues to consider physical appearance of public figures fair game. In 2013 he was denounced for calling actress Melissa McCarthy “tractor-sized” and a “female hippo” in his review of the comedy “Identity Thief.”
“I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate,” she told The Times then.
“She went nuts because all her fans came out of the woodwork and were mad at me,” Reed said. “But what did she do? She lost 50 pounds. She started doing her own fashion designs. She looks terrific now, and is getting roles that don’t require her to fall down in mud puddles.”
Reed knows firsthand the mercilessness of the camera, and the critics.
In 1969, he edged out George Hamilton, he said, for a prominent role in “Myra Breckinridge,” the big-budget film adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel whose protagonist undergoes a sex change — a scandalous notion then.
In the film, the sex change was reduced to dream sequence. Reed played the pre-transition Myron to Raquel Welch’s Myra. At the outset, the film, which also starred Mae West and Farrah Fawcett, looked like a blockbuster. It quickly became a very different sort of disaster movie. The original director, George Cukor, fell out, along with Bette Davis and Burl Ives, Reed said. West, then in her late 70s, was entrusted to write key scenes, in which Reed and Welch refused to appear. “She didn’t understand the movie at all,” Reed said.
Nothing made any sense. In one scene Reed sashayed through an orgy scene “with a bottle of Champagne, and my jacket over my shoulder, like William Holden in ‘Sabrina.'” But it was, he said, “a completely ridiculous orgy, everybody was fully clothed.”
“When this picture ended, it was $30 million over budget and they had filmed half of it.”
If nothing else, the project established him socially among the Hollywood A-list. He recalled dinner parties at Ruth Gordon’s house. “On my right would be Jean Renoir, and on my left would be Orson Welles,” he said.
Other dinner parties, he was glad to miss. Like Steve McQueen, John Phillips and seemingly half of Hollywood, Reed claims to have turned down an invitation to dine — along with Jacqueline Susann, the “Valley of the Dolls” author — at Sharon Tate’s house the night of the Manson family murders.
“I said, ‘Jackie, I want to stay home and eat lemon meringue pie in my pajamas, in front of the TV at the Beverly Hills Hotel,'” Reed recalled.
He was back in New York by the time the devastating reviews for “Myra Breckinridge” rolled in. Howard Thompson of The Times seemed to be channeling Rex Reed himself when he described the film as a “grim grotesquerie” that “collapses like a tired, smirking elephant with no place to go.”
While there would be other scattered roles — “Inchon,” “Superman” — Reed’s destiny would be to write about movies, not star in them.
“I just never had the luck,” he said. “I was never handed a good script. I just think that one of the reasons that movies are so profoundly screwed up today is because the last person who gets any credit for anything is the writer.”
Reed may not have made a fortune in the film business, but he is sitting on millions of dollars of Manhattan real estate. “It’s an awfully comfortable bachelor pad,” he said of the book-filled Dakota apartment he has lived in since 1969, which he bought for $30,000.
He found the apartment through his friendship with Ruth Ford, the Broadway actress who lived there with her husband, actor Zachary Scott, whose family “owned half of Texas,” Reed said. The playwright William Inge, Judy Garland, Judy Holliday and saxophone player Gerry Mulligan were all neighbors at various points. “I moved into this apartment with an A&P shopping cart, some books and whatever I could drag over from my little walk-up on 73rd Street,” Reed said. His only furniture was a corduroy Queen Anne chair and a sleeping bag. The night he moved in, film star Robert Ryan, who was president of the Dakota’s board, rang the doorbell to welcome him, and the two shared instant coffee, Reed on the sleeping bag, Ryan in the chair. “Do you think that happens today?” he asked.
Boris Karloff was another neighbor. Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein and Rosemary Clooney lived in the building. “Betty” Bacall, whose spacious three-bedroom apartment sold for $21 million in 2015 after her death the previous year, and Reed used to eat together regularly, he said.
He once signed a petition supporting John Lennon when the government was trying to deport Lennon because of his drug use and political activism. Lennon thanked him with a one-year subscription to TV Guide, Reed said, adding, “That was his bible. All he did was lie around stoned watching television.”
If Lennon famously sang “All You Need Is Love,” Reed appears to disagree.
“I don’t have ‘relationships,’ except friends,” he said. “I don’t know, love is not something that I’ve been really good at. I think people are intimidated by people with opinions.”
He sighed, as if resigned. “I think it’s all over as far as that goes. How do you go start looking for a wife or a boyfriend or a significant other? It’s too late. It would be nice, though, to find somebody who’s really handy with a wheelchair, because that day is coming.”
But even if his mobility is impaired, Reed will remain a bucking bull in the china shop of current sensibilities.
“If I had to give the greatest dinner party of my own choosing in the world, the only person I would invite that I have never met was Adolf Hitler,” he said. “Everybody else, I’ve met.”