Answering The Critics: When Filmmakers Strike Back!

September 25, 2019
Film critics are used to lambasting movies from afar, but rarely have to suffer any slings and arrows themselves. But sometimes, filmmakers and actors fire back…

GEOFFREY WRIGHT VERSUS DAVID STRATTON

When it was released in 1995, Australian director Geoffrey Wright’s incendiary skinhead drama Romper Stomper (check out our feature story on the making of the film here) wrought instant critical havoc. Hailed in some corners as a masterpiece of gutter poetry and social provocation, and derided in others as a soulless slice of racist trash, Romper Stomper rode a wave of controversy to a box office killing. One of the film’s greatest detractors was esteemed Australian critic, David Stratton, who wrote in Variety that Romper Stomper was “A Clockwork Orange without the intellect…a disturbing, essentially misconceived pic.” On The Movie Show, Stratton declined to give the film a score on the grounds that it was racist and undeserving of even a minor critical laurel. “I’ve rarely seen a film that troubled me as much as that film did,” Stratton told FilmInk many years later. “Geoffrey, who I’d never met, took it very personally and very badly. It seems that he’s a volatile guy. He attacked me physically by throwing wine over me at The Venice Film Festival a couple of years later, where ironically I actually liked his film, Metal Skin.” Said David Stratton’s The Movie Show co-host, Margaret Pomeranz, in The Weekly Review: “Geoffrey chooses to gloat about this now, but he gets all his facts wrong. He threw a glass of white wine right down the front of David Stratton. A piggish act. Now he maintains that it was red wine, so he doesn’t remember very well.” In a final pinch of tasty irony, Margaret Pomeranz was one of Romper Stomper’s biggest supporters. “David and I had a big falling out over Romper Stomper,” she told The Weekly Review. “I gave it five stars and he gave it none. He thought it was racist, and I couldn’t see it. It caused some grief between us because I think he felt that I should have stood up for him, but I really thought that it was such a good film.”

GEOFFREY WRIGHT VERSUS JIM SCHEMBRI

Since his wine-splattered altercation with The Movie Show’s David Stratton at The Venice Film Festival, director Geoffrey Wright has seemingly enjoyed his subsequent reputation as a wild iconoclast, and has never, ever hesitated in speaking his mind. When his modernised retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – starring Sam Worthington as the titular character, now reconfigured as a Melbourne crime boss – was released in 2006, the reviews were far from positive. Most scathing was the notoriously outspoken Jim Schembri, who biliously heaved in The Age, “This is one of those films where, twenty minutes in, you turn to your friend and ask, ‘What were they thinking?’, only to discover that your friend has slipped into a deep coma. Performances are positively dreadful throughout, with [the actors] reciting their lines as if learnt by rote.” He also called it “a film without a brain.” Though he didn’t get the chance to lacquer Jim Schembri with chardonnay or claret, Geoffrey Wright didn’t hesitate in publicly ripping the Melbourne critic to shreds at every given opportunity. “The Age, with its slipping circulation, chooses to go with Jim Schembri [who eventually left the publication in 2012 in somewhat controversial circumstances],” Wright said of the reviewer to FilmInk, with little to no provocation. “They put Jim’s name on the front of the paper because you know that it’s going to be a turkey shoot. They’re building Jim up as a confounding, ignorant, wretched figure that you love to hate. This is all very well, but in an era where we’re struggling to get information about a film out there, the distributors resort to the conventional means, and all they’ve got in Melbourne is a stooge like Jim. He’s just going to attack the film. There are a lot of pumped up egos in that critical fraternity that need sorting out, but it’ll never happen, and that’s too bad. They get by through being these respectable figures, while in fact they are foul mouthed, vicious, atrophied individuals.”

QUENTIN TARANTINO VERSUS JAN WAHL

“I respect criticism, but I know more about film than most of the people writing about me,” writer, director and noted movie obsessive Quentin Tarantino once said. “Not only that, but I’m a better writer than most of the people writing about me. And I can write film criticism better than most of the people writing about me.” With strong words such as these, it’s no surprise that the always outspoken Tarantino wouldn’t exactly stand still and cop a barrage of criticism on the chin. Perhaps acutely aware of this, San Francisco movie reviewer and TV personality Jan Wahl – apparently famous for her sharp tongue and fondness for elaborate hats – decided to rile QT up while doing a quick live cross from the studio for television station KRON 4 after reviewing his film, Kill Bill. Following a relatively warm welcome, Wahl suggested that QT only looked good on camera because the station’s producers had utilised a coloured gel “like the one that they used for Lucille Ball on Mame” for the cross. A noted family-friendly film critic, Wahl questioned the director about his claims that children should see Kill Bill. When Tarantino suggested that teens of twelve and up would love the film, and that girls would feel empowered by its kick-arse female characters, Wahl went into a conservative frenzy. “Why the need for so much gruesome violence?,” she wailed, to which Tarantino shouted, “Because it’s so much fun, Jan!” She then suggested that Tarantino’s blood-soaked film would quickly turn the nation’s youth into a horde of crazed killers, and that she’d like to see him “get attacked on the street by some kids who’ve just seen your movie.” Increasingly amused and agitated, Tarantino finally let fly. “You’re all messed up, Jan. You’re talking about real life, and not the movie. Kids go to a movie theatre, and they can tell the difference. Maybe you couldn’t, but I could.”

VINCENT GALLO VERSUS ROGER EBERT

When actor/writer/director Vincent Gallo allegedly agreed to have an unfinished, roughly edited version of his 2003 film The Brown Bunny screen at The Cannes Film Festival at the behest of the film’s financiers, the infamously confrontational performer pulled the trigger on what would become the defining moment in his previously illustrious career. Overlong and messily constructed, the film was met with howls of derision, and then summarily destroyed by the critics who had also sat through it. The loudest voice of dissent was that of veteran US critic Roger Ebert, who labelled The Brown Bunny “the worst film in the history of Cannes.” Vincent Gallo, who had instigated the festival’s biggest controversy in years and was now its current hipster cause célèbre, fired back in typically aggressive and insensitive fashion by calling Ebert “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.” The war of words continued. “One day I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny,” retorted Ebert. Gallo then allegedly said that he had put a hex on Ebert’s colon, to which the critic responded that a colonoscopy would be more enjoyable to watch than The Brown Bunny. In a bizarre turn of events, Ebert actually contracted cancer. “I never apologised for anything in my life,” Gallo later said. “The only thing I’m sorry about is putting a curse on Roger Ebert’s colon. If a fat pig like Roger Ebert doesn’t like my movie, then I’m sorry for him.” When Roger Ebert allegedly saw the finished, far shorter version of The Brown Bunny, he did not hesitate in saying that he liked the film, and awarded it three stars. “Make no mistake,” he wrote. “The Cannes version was a bad film, but now Gallo’s editing has set free the good film inside.” This particularly vicious feud, however, seems to have no end. Even though Roger Ebert sadly passed away in 2013 (with his health battles movingly captured in the documentary, Life Itself), Vincent Gallo reopened this torrid can of worms in 2018 with a characteristically incendiary essay for the magazine, Another Man, in which he revises the entire incident. “Roger Ebert made up his story and his premise because after calling my film literally the worst film ever made, he eventually realized it was not in his best interest to be stuck with that mantra,” Gallo rants in Another Man. “Stuck with a brutal, dismissive review of a film that other, more serious critics eventually felt differently about. He also took attention away from what he actually did at the press screening. It is outrageous that a single critic disrupted a press screening for a film chosen in main competition at such a high profile festival and even more outrageous that Ebert was ever allowed into another screening at Cannes. His ranting, moaning and eventual loud singing happened within the first 20 minutes, completely disrupting and manipulating the press screening of my film.”

CLINT EASTWOOD VERSUS PAULINE KAEL

Bona fide Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood is now so widely lauded that it’s difficult to believe that he was once the subject of almost pathological critical derision. The woman doing the hating was the late Pauline Kael, the opinionated, influential, highly gifted and long serving film reviewer for The New Yorker. She first bared her teeth upon the release of 1971’s Dirty Harry, in which Eastwood starred as a tough, take-no-prisoners San Francisco cop. “Dirty Harry is obviously just a genre movie, but this action genre has always had fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced,” Kael wrote of the film. “It is a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place.” Though Don Siegel’s now classic thriller was a big hit, Kael’s line of thinking held great sway, and Eastwood was skewered by liberals as a right wing demagogue. While he would rarely directly comment upon Kael’s in-print hatred of him (which continued for decades after Dirty Harry), Eastwood has certainly alluded to the fact that her words both frustrated and upset him. “Kael was saying that I was a product of the Nixon years, and that I represented Nixon,” the actor once said. “But I was doing very well as an actor long before Nixon became President. And I was doing well after Nixon.” In Focus On Film, Eastwood responded specifically to the claims of fascism that Kael had levelled at him: “The people who call it a fascist film don’t know what they’re talking about.” According to Eastwood’s friend and biographer, Richard Schickel, Kael’s constant criticism had haunted the actor throughout his career. “Clint asked me if I’d seen an interview in which Pauline Kael said that one of her regrets about retirement was that she no longer had a forum in which to criticise Clint Eastwood. He sighed, ‘Can you imagine that kind of bigotry?’”

MERYL STREEP VERSUS PAULINE KAEL

Though The New Yorker’s irascible and high profile film critic, Pauline Kael, loved and championed many filmmakers and performers (most notably, Brian De Palma and Warren Beatty) to the extent that she almost helped them jump up a notch in their careers, she probably visited disdain upon even more. As well as her aforementioned well documented distaste for Clint Eastwood, Kael was almost as combative in her feelings toward his The Bridges Of Madison County co-star, Meryl Streep. Though Streep has been hailed by many as the finest actress of her generation, the forthright critic was having none of it. “She’s pallid and rather glacial,” Kael said of Streep in her review of Out Of Africa, “like some creature from the moon trying to be a movie star. If only she would giggle more and suffer less. She has used too many foreign accents on us, and this one puts quotation marks around everything she says.” Kael also liked to say that Streep only acted “from the neck up”, and lacked any real physicality as a performer. “What does that mean, act from the neck up?,” asked Streep’s friend and The Seduction Of Joe Tynan co-star, Alan Alda, in amusingly snide response. “Should she act with her knees more?” Streep herself, meanwhile, has gone on the record about Kael’s statements. “It killed me,” she once said. Streep expanded upon this even more candidly in The Guardian. “I’m incapable of not thinking about what Pauline wrote,” the actress said. “You know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena Wasps with long blonde hair, and the heartlessness of them got her. And then, years later, she sees me. Pauline had a visceral dislike of me, and there’s no movie that I could have done to stop that. She made up a person that I’m not.”

NOAH BAUMBACH VERSUS ARMOND WHITE

Armond White – infamous for his often inflammatory film reviews for the alternative newspaper New York Press – takes perverse joy in offering stridently voiced opinions that go against the grain of general critical consensus. He has slammed, amongst others, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3 and Get Out. He callously marked the passing of veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet with a lengthy piece in which he posited the theory that the director of Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico was, well, a talentless hack. As well as gleefully speaking ill of the dead, White also likes to spin controversy around himself, which he did when he was not invited to a screening of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s 2010 comedy drama Greenberg. Leslee Dart, the film’s publicist, said that she made the decision to bar White because in his previous writings, the reviewer had crossed a line, letting his personal animosity for Baumbach cloud his ability to judge the filmmaker’s work fairly. “I have no more against Noah Baumbach than I do against Michael Mann,” White told HollywoodNews. “It’s not personal. I just don’t like their movies.” White’s feelings toward Baumbach, however, would appear to be quite possibly personal: the African-American reviewer infamously called the writer/director’s mother – one-time Village Voice film critic, Georgia Brown – a racist for things that she had written in her review of the 1989 film, Chameleon Street, but failed to point out exactly what he had seen as being racist. The plot thickened even further when another film critic, former Village Voice scribe J. Hoberman, dug up White’s singularly vicious review of Baumbach’s 1998 film, Mr. Jealousy. “I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film reviewer mother except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents,” White wrote. “To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.” Charming. For the record, White was eventually invited to a preview screening of Greenberg…and he didn’t like it. Oh, and he also called J. Hoberman a racist.

DARREN ARONOFSKY VERSUS ARMOND WHITE

An Oscar winning critical darling, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was lauded from pillar to post for its dark excesses and mind-bending narrative about a New York ballerina (Natalie Portman) grimly navigating an inexorable mental breakdown. A lone voice in the critical wilderness, however, was aforementioned infamous contrarian Armond White, who wrote a lengthy review in New York Press in which he unfavourably compared Aronofsky’s film to Runaway, the dance-themed debut short film from music superstar, Kanye West. The African-American White branded Black Swan “a ridiculous psychological thriller” and accused Aronofsky of “ethnic denial” because of his failure to include any discussion of race in his film. At The New York Film Critics Circle Awards last year – at which White, the then chairman of the organisation, served as emcee – the often tough-talking Darren Aronofsky used the podium to fire off a one-shot of invective at Armond White when Black Swan picked up an award for Best Cinematography. “I thought I was giving White the compassion award because if you don’t have something, you should get it. Seriously, keep it up because you give all of us another reason not to read New York Press,” the director snapped. The audience gasped and giggled. “Hey, it’s my only chance to have revenge against this guy, and now it’s done,” Aronofsky said. “I’m sorry.” Armond White, however, was far from done. When the critic returned to the podium, he fired directly back in Darren Aronofsky’s direction. “That’s all right,” he said. “Darren reads me. That’s all I want. And because he reads me, he knows the truth.” Darren Aronofsky, however, wasn’t the only filmmaker that Armond White upset at The New York Film Critics Circle Awards. As emcee, he questioned how The Social Network had won the Best Film gong, and ended the night with a decidedly charmless and ungracious quip: “I thank the circle for not awarding a single award to Greenberg.” With telling insight, the late and aforementioned Roger Ebert perfectly summed up Armond White in 2009 as a “smart and knowing…troll.”    

OLIVER STONE VERSUS LARRY ROHTER

Writer/director Oliver Stone practically lives his life on the back-foot, constantly fending off criticisms and explaining his stance on matters political and cinematic. Whether it’s the snorts of derision greeting the conspiracy theories laid out in JFK, or the claims that his violent satire Natural Born Killers had inspired a spate of real life killings, Oliver Stone is right at home in the middle of a storm of controversy. Though hardly on the level of those two media blow-outs, the director found himself in a tussle with Larry Rohter, a respected journalist for The New York Times with a history of reporting on South America, who turned one-off film critic upon the release of Stone’s 2009 documentary, South Of The Border, which looks at the politics of the region. Rohter took particular umbrage with Stone’s sunny portrait of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s controversial populist president. “Unlike his movies about American presidents, the 78-minute South Of The Border is meant to be a documentary, and therefore to be held to different standards,” the journalist wrote in his lengthy and wholly negative review of the film. “But it is plagued by the same issues of accuracy that critics have raised about his movies, dating back to JFK. Taken together, the mistakes, misstatements and missing details could undermine Mr. Stone’s glowing portrait of Mr. Chávez.” Always ready to roll up his sleeves and throw down, Stone wrote a long, piercingly detailed letter to The New York Times which responded to each and every one of Rohter’s criticisms and claims of inaccuracy. “[Larry Rohter] was determined to present his narrative of intrepid reporter exposing sloppy filmmaking,” Stone wrote. “The result is a very dishonest attempt to discredit the film by portraying it as factually inaccurate – using false and misleading statements, out-of-context, selective quotations from interviews with the director and writers, and ad hominem attacks. The New York Times should apologise for having published it.”

JOSHUA NEWTON VERSUS VARIETY

In something of a groundbreaking case, a negative review of the little-seen 2009 thriller Iron Cross – in which the late Roy Scheider plays a retired New York cop who decamps to Europe and dispenses a little rough justice to the ageing Nazi officer who murdered his entire family during WW2 – actually led to a lawsuit. “Iron Cross will be remembered as Roy Scheider’s swan song and little else,” wrote reviewer Robert Koehler in the US trade paper, Variety. “[It is] a film of serious intent undone by hackneyed plotting and intrusive editing…” When Iron Cross producer-director Joshua Newton complained about the review to Variety, arguing that the article had killed the movie’s chances for awards, scared off potential distributors, and – most importantly and legally significantly – undermined the expensive ad campaign that he had taken out with the paper, he claimed that a staffer dismissed his complaint by telling him, “It’s only one person’s opinion” and “No one takes these reviews seriously.” Newton then filed a lawsuit against Variety, claiming fraud and breach of contract, and later stating that he had basically been “conned” into taking out advertising in the magazine, whose editors had allegedly claimed that Iron Cross was a likely Oscar contender. “Our backers dished out $266,000 because of a campaign induced by Variety,” Newton told The Wrap. “They created the Oscar buzz. They tempted us, and induced us to spend this money, which went down the drain.” The review was then pulled from the magazine’s website, and then reinstated, leading to an ugly debate about Variety’s credibility, and whether or not the magazine stood by its reviews. In the end though, Newton admitted that he was “not suing Variety over a bad review. The problem was that Variety should have waited until the ad campaign was over. They completely destroyed the campaign that they sold us.” A bad review, however, is exactly where it all began…

KEVIN SMITH VERSUS EVERYONE

Writer/director/actor Kevin Smith likes to present himself as the ultimate laidback slacker, a kind of savvy man-child who wears his love of comic books and pop culture like a badge. He is also, however, a filmmaker who has followed the reviews of his movies with almost stalker-like zeal. On the DVD audio commentary for his comedy-drama Jersey Girl, Smith recites quotes almost verbatim from a number of reviews of the film, and ticks off all of the reviewers that either liked or disliked his film. Despite his flip, nonchalant, who-gives-a-shit attitude, Kevin Smith – the foul mouthed creator of cult favourites like Clerks and Mallrats – obviously really cares about what people think of him and his movies. His sensitive side was glaringly exposed after the critical drubbing handed out to his comedy, Cop Out. The film was universally slammed, and for Smith, it appeared to be the final straw, with the director hitting Twitter to strike back at the world’s movie reviewers. “So many critics lined up to pull a sad and embarrassing train on Cop Out like it was Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit To Brooklyn,” he tweeted. “It’s called Cop Out; does that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You really wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so obviously strived for nothing more than laughs? Was it called ‘Schindler’s Cop Out’? Writing a nasty review for Cop Out is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple of chuckles from the normies by singing ‘Afternoon Delight.’ Suddenly, bully-dudes are doing the bad impression of him, using the ‘retart’ voice.” Smith also stated that he’d be pulling the plug on free critics’ screenings of his future films. “Pay like you would if you saw it next week,” he said on Twitter. “Why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free?” Smith, has, however, seemed to have curbed his vitriol for critics in recent years…

UWE BOLL VERSUS EVERYONE

“There are good critics, and they always inform their readers about a project,” director Uwe Boll told Score Notes, “while other critics are only egoists and wannabe filmmakers.” It was obviously the latter that the German-born filmmaker was thinking about when he laid out one of the most bizarre challenges in cinema history. Much maligned for his B-grade video game adaptations (Alone In The Dark, Bloodrayne), horror flicks (Seed), action extravaganzas (Rampage), fantasy adventures (In The Name Of The King) and bizarre “topical” projects (Stoic, Home Room, Darfur, Auschwitz), Uwe Boll finally decided in 2006 that enough was enough. Sick of being tarred as the modern Edward D. Wood Jr., Boll took the fight back to his critics…literally. The director challenged his biggest detractors to a boxing match, with the filmed fight footage to eventually be slotted into his latest movie, the satirical black comedy, Postal. “Many journalists make value judgements on my films based on the opinions of one or two thousand internet voices,” claimed Boll in the press release for the boxing challenge. “Half of those opinions come from people who’ve never watched my films.” Boll received thousands of submissions (unsurprisingly, none of them came from major film reviewers), and finally settled upon a small group of combatants, most of them internet critics grabbing at a bit of cheap publicity. What they perhaps didn’t know was that the puggish director had actually boxed for several years in his youth, and in a multi-card bout dubbed “Raging Boll”, the German filmmaker promptly proceeded to punch the piss out of the likes of Jeff Sneider (Ain’t It Cool), Richard Kyanka (Something Awful), Chris Alexander (Rue Morgue), and seventeen-year-old Nelson Chance Minter, who later admitted that he wasn’t a Boll hater, but just wanted the chance to fight a movie director. He might not be a cinematic heavyweight, but Uwe Boll – who scored a fascinating documentary portrait with the brilliantly titled F**k You All: The Uwe Boll Story – certainly knows how to answer his critics…

Like this story? Check out our special features on feuding actors, actors who got sacked, directors who got sacked, more directors who got sacked, and troubled film sets. Enjoy!

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