Rex Reed has just come from a screening of a new movie, looking like someone who spent the last two hours in the dentist’s chair. “It was the wo-o-o-orst film of the year,” he explains in his tart Southern drawl, the voice of a grouchy cat on a hot tin roof. “And that’s saying something, considering the films I see these days.” Reed hasn’t put pen to paper yet, but as he prepared to chow down at a cozy Upper Side eatery here (“If the L. A. Times is buying, then I’m having a steak!”) it would be safe to say that no one should expect a thumbs up.
“It stars Nick Nolte and was directed by someone I’ve never heard of,” he says. “It has six men in black suits walking in the desert, with Nolte as a bumbling priest and a little boy who says he’s an angel and James Woods and Peter Coyote -- people famous for being in bad movies -- are being evacuated, though of course we have no idea why they’re being evacuated.”
Reed pauses for a gulp of air. “Oh! Did I mention that Darryl Hannah is in the movie too? Does that give you some idea of how bad the movie is, that Darryl Hannah is in it?”
It’s no secret that Hollywood hasn’t been kind to critics lately. But even after nearly 40 years of writing about Hollywood, first as a boy wonder celebrity interviewer for the New York Times and Esquire, more recently as a film critic for the New York Observer, Reed hasn’t thrown in the towel. Although many younger critics see Reed as a camp curiosity piece, there’s a reason why he’s a fixture at the respected Observer. The pioneer of the skewering star profile has a bitchy integrity that has remained constant through decades of shifting critical fashion.
“He may not have that big of an audience, but Rex is writing as well as ever,” says James Brady, the veteran New York editor and columnist who long ago hired -- and later fired -- Reed when Brady was running Women’s Wear Daily. “If he hates a movie, you really know it, but if he likes it, he can really make you understand what’s great about it.”
Hearing Reed glumly recount some of the disasters he’s seen lately, it’s obvious he’s retained his gift of barbed gab. On “People I Know,” the latest Al Pacino film: “Pacino looks like 40 miles of bad road. He’s really starting to look like a troll under a drawbridge!” On the new thriller “Confidence”: “Has anyone ever seen Ed Burns and Ben Affleck in the same room? They both have that same vacant, pretty face!”
It’s as if Reed has silver-screen Tourette’s. Instead of barking obscenities, he’ll crow, apropos of Madonna’s collaboration with husband-director Guy Ritchie on “Swept Away”: “Imagine! The most incompetent actress marries the most incompetent director -- and then they make a movie together!”
Perhaps wary that I’ll give him the Rex Treatment -- I could say that at 64, with a puffy face and a swollen right eye, Reed looks like 40 miles of bad road himself -- he immediately recounts a recent misadventure in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where he stumbled over a hole in the street, cracked his head open on the curb and was in a coma for 13 hours. Weeks later, his right eye still has a greenish hue.
“When I woke up, it looked like I’d been in a Tong War,” he says. “I’ve never been unconscious that long in my life, not even during the longest Otto Preminger movie!”
There are some movies Reed likes. He was an unabashed fan of “Chicago,” “Far From Heaven,” “Auto Focus” and “In the Bedroom.” And he has his pet directors, who include Anthony Minghella, Steve Kloves and Jonathan Demme (“well, until that disaster, ‘The Truth About Charlie’ ”). But today’s Young Turks leave him cold -- ice cold. When I ran my personal favorites by him, I struck out.
Paul Thomas Anderson? “The worst! He’s dreadful! ‘Punch Drunk Love’ was one of the most pointless movies ever -- and ‘Magnolia’ was actually worse. He’s more self-indulgent than Orson Welles ever dreamed of!” Spike Jonze? “I don’t like him but I really loathe Charlie Kaufman. I hated ‘Being John Malkovich’! Then again, I can’t stand the real John Malkovich, just for his voice alone. He sounds worse than Truman Capote!”
Rex is, well, a traditionalist. Unlike the rest of us, who pine for the glory days of ‘70s classics like “The Godfather” and “Chinatown,” his idea of Hollywood’s heyday harks back to an era of films populated with wise-cracking maids and cynical house detectives. “For me, it ended in the ‘40s,” he says, with something close to a sigh. “I have more fun watching Vincente Minnelli musicals and Michael Curtiz crime thrillers than anything I see today. If J Lo is the new Rita Hayworth, then let me off uptown.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Reed, an only child, grew up watching movies. When he came home from an afternoon at the cinema, he’d deliver his reviews to his mother’s bridge club. Reed studied journalism at Louisiana State University, where he was a columnist for the school paper. In 1960, fresh out of college, he headed for New York. Unable to land a job as a New York Times copy boy, he worked a series of odd jobs, ranging from a sandhog on the Lincoln Tunnel to an in-house publicist at 20th Century Fox.
In 1965, bumming around Europe in a battered VW, he showed up at the Venice Film Festival. Cornering Buster Keaton, he said, “I’m from the New York Times, would you do an interview?” After he finished with Keaton, he did an impromptu interview with Jean-Paul Belmondo, the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” It was impromptu in the sense that Reed spoke no French and Belmondo spoke no English and there was no interpreter in sight. “I really made a lot of it up,” Rex admits, “figuring he’d never see what I wrote anyway.”
The rest of the world hardly saw it either. Reed wrote up the stories on the back of hotel stationery, sending the Belmondo piece off to the Sunday section of the old Herald Tribune, the Keaton piece to the New York Times. Reed had no idea what the Times’ address was, so he simply put down 42nd Street, betting the paper was somewhere nearby. As luck would have it, Keaton died, making Reed’s piece his last interview.
“When I got back to New York, I had two stories in the same Sunday, and I was the talk of the town,” Reed recalls.
From then on, he was a star. In the mid-'60s, show-biz journalism was formulaic and fawning. Rex let it rip. When the gangly young Barbra Streisand shows up 3 1/2 hours late for an interview, Reed describes her thusly: “She plotzes into a chair with her legs spread out, bites into a green banana and says, ‘OK, ya got 20 minutes, whaddya want to know?’ ”
After spending days being dodged by Warren Beatty just before the release of “Bonnie and Clyde,” Reed concluded in Esquire: “Interviewing Warren is like asking a hemophiliac for a pint of blood.” Disarmed by Reed’s boyish charm -- most of his best profiles were written before he was 30 -- most celebs found themselves blurting out things they’d never imagine saying in public. When Reed asked Ava Gardner about her ex, Frank Sinatra, and his marriage to Mia Farrow, she said with regal delight, “Hah! I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy.”
For a while Reed was a fixture on late-night TV shows. He also played Myron in the legendary 1970 flop “Myra Breckinridge”; the Hollywood money helped him buy a country house in Connecticut and his apartment in the Dakota (“I paid $30,000,” he says. “Now it’s worth $4 million.”) He left the Times for the Daily News, where he was syndicated around the country for years.
After a brief stint at the New York Post, he joined the Observer when it launched in 1987. He even survived a Village Voice expose that revealed he was sending out assistants to do his interviews. “It was a tempest in a teapot,” he says. “They tried to make me look like Saddam Hussein sending out look-alikes!” He sighs again. “I wish I had a substitute to review all these awful movies for me. Let them suffer!”
He knows he’s in eclipse today. “If you don’t like some far-out anarchic incoherent pretentious film, then you’re a fuddy-duddy.” In the old days, Reed was a regular on Johnny Carson. Now, he says, “I mostly find myself speaking to women’s clubs -- and on ships!”
But he can still raise hackles. After writing a withering review of “Vanilla Sky,” he was banned from Paramount screenings. The studio recently relented, inviting him to see “The Hours.” He panned it. “Now they’ve washed their hands of me,” he says. “Considering the movies they make, it’s a relief.”
So why not pack it in? “I still love movies,” he says. “After you’ve sat through all the brain-numbing schlock, and then you see ‘American Beauty,’ it makes it all worthwhile. When you’re a critic, you really do want movies to be great. You want ... “
Reed is on the verge of saying something possibly even more profound when the waitress catches his eye. “You know,” he says brightly. “What I really want is a chocolate sundae!”
“The Big Picture” runs every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions, ideas or criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org.