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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Poison pen in pocket

May 06, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

New York — New York

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?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Actress' name -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar about film critic Rex Reed misspelled the first name of actress Daryl Hannah as Darryl.

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."

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