Meet a Critic: Retiring NY Daily News Scribe Jack Mathews

Oh, the stories he has to tell!

by | February 12, 2008 | Comments

Jack Mathews

At the end of this month, with thirty years of film reviewing under his belt, NY Daily News critic Jack Mathews is retiring. But before he turns in his critic’s badge (a writer never really says “retire”) he shared stories of the looser days of entertainment journalism — scuba diving with the stars, buying Frosted Flakes in the South of France, and more anecdotes that make us long for Hollywood’s wilder, pre-digital years.

From his first start at the Detroit Free-Press to stints at the LA Times, Newsday, and USA Today, Mathews has covered the entertainment world and guided his readers towards great films (four recent stars to Oscar nominees Ratatouille and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) and away from bad ones (last fall’s Awake). A newspaper reporter-turned-columnist who began covering movies in the 1970s — a time of exciting young filmmakers and the American New Wave — Mathews has seemingly adopted his generation’s attitude of freewheeling artistry and daring. Ask him for a story from his career and he’ll tell of coyotes rescued from Charleton Heston‘s swimming pool, or getting a quickie SCUBA certification so he could swim with Tom Hanks on the set of Splash! in the Bahamas.

Mathews belongs to an older guard of film criticism, one that still remembers hobnobbing with legends like Barbara Stanwyck (see his story below of one super fan’s Stanwyck obsession at a 1981 film critics’ dinner). A lifelong newspaper man, Mathews has seen criticism morph from the days of Pauline Kael to the Internet age, and he fears for the future of the medium. Print criticism, he bemoans, is “on life support.” His departure, announced after the recent lay-offs of colleagues like David Elliott of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, comes at a time of the increasing disappearance of full-time critics at major print publications.

To be sure, when Mathews leaves his post later this month, the critical community will lose a voice of sparkling wit, a film writer with decades-spanning knowledge, and a newspaperman who rode the waves of the last thirty years in Hollywood. Life will soon come full circle for Mathews, who plans on retiring to Oregon to finish a novel about one of the Zodiac killer’s presumed first victims, a case he had covered early in his career.

We spoke with Mathews about the old days of entertainment journalism — when a writer could chat for hours with the A-list likes of Heston, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood — and what his plans are for the future. Mathews will continue writing and reviewing for the NY Daily News through February, giving readers one last round of Oscar coverage for 2007, one of the best years for film in recent memory. He’ll also continue to share his insights at his Movies in Focus blog (check out his career-retrospective breakdown of favorite films by genre), where you can reach him to chat, talk movies, or just say hello.

Jack Mathews

Name: Jack Mathews

Age: Sixtysomething

Hometown: Mahopac, New York

Years reviewing film: 30

Why and how did you become a critic?

Jack Mathews: I was working for the Detroit Free Press as an entertainment feature writer when they sent me to Los Angeles to open a Hollywood bureau. There, I wrote about film, television and music, until the paper’s film critic left to become a programmer at the American Film Institute and they offered me his job.

Fill in the blank: “If I wasn’t a professional film critic, I’d be a…”:

JM: Newspaper editor.

What is your favorite film?

JM: My Darling Clementine (Western), Some Like it Hot (comedy), Raiders of the Lost Ark (action-adventure), Jaws (horror), Casablanca (romance), The Deer Hunter (war), Singin’ in the Rain (musical), The Godfather I and II (drama). If I have to pick just one: Some Like it Hot.

Who is your favorite director?

JM: Billy Wilder.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

JM: Considering its level of pandering manipulation: The Color Purple.

Who do you think is a shoo-in come Oscar night?

JM: Daniel Day-Lewis.

What was the most interesting film of 2007?

JM: Eastern Promises.

You’ve been a movie critic for 30 years. Which have been the best and worst decades for film?

JM: Worst: the 1980s. Best: the one we’re in.

How in touch with the movie going public are most critics?

JM: Most of us know what the public likes but we generally don’t like what they like. So, if being in touch means sharing their tastes, we’re definitely out of touch.

Jack Mathews

What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?

JM: Critics: Tony Scott (NY Times), David Denby (New Yorker), Todd McCarthy (Variety).
Bloggers: David Poland, Jeffrey Wells, Lou Lumenick, Stu Van Airsdale.
Entertainment journalists: Anne Thompson (Variety), Michael Cieply (NY Times).

What does it take to earn a 4/4 rating from Jack Mathews?

JM: Flawlessness.

Describe your relationship with your readers.

JM: Active. I write, they read, they comment, I respond. (But, looking ahead to the next question, readers don’t comment as much as they did pre-Internet.)

How has the Internet changed film criticism?

JM: It has taken the elitism out of the profession and made it a free-for-all. Anyone with the will to create a website can do it. It has also put daily newspaper critics behind the curve; most newspapers still run reviews on opening day, long after Rotten Tomatoes is abuzz with Internet reviews.

What is the state of current film criticism?

JM: On life support.

Should print critics be worried about the continuing consolidation of the medium?

JM: Yes.

What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?

JM: Riding down a river in Borneo, drinking rice wine, listening to the Tarzan-like soundtrack coming from the jungle and wondering what the natives were doing back in Hollywood. (I was there for two weeks doing a magazine piece on the John Milius movie Farewell to the King.)

Your book, The Battle for Brazil, is about Terry Gilliam‘s battle to release Brazil. Why and how did you come to tell this story?

JM: As a film columnist at the L.A. Times, I had been interested in the movie from the time it went into production. When it fell off Universal’s fall, 1985 release schedule, I began inquiring and got lucky with sources. I broke the story about MCI-Universal chief Sid Sheinberg taking the movie away from Gilliam to edit a more commercial version and the ensuing fight — fought almost exclusively through my column — went on for months.


What will you miss most when you leave the NY Daily News?

JM: Being part of a daily newspaper.

What are your plans for “retirement?”

JM: Books. I have a novel in progress and some non-fiction ideas I hope to develop.

What word or phrase do you over-use?

JM: Honestly, if I knew I was over-using one, I’d stop.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JM: I had no clue until I got to college where I quickly decided I wanted to be a writer.

What is your most common concession stand purchase?

JM: When I’m running late at dinner time, I’ll grab a hot dog at the theater. Otherwise, I buy nothing.

What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?

JM: I was at a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in the early 1980s when a very frail Rudy Vallee fell asleep in the seat next to me and his head settled on my shoulder. I was afraid he was dead and that I’d have to wait until the movie was over to tell his wife.

Double Indemnity

Bonus answer: Most bizarre movie-related experience: During the one-and-only televised Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. awards dinner in 1981, a colleague asked me if I’d like to meet Barbara Stanwyck, who was receiving a life achievement award. Of course, I would and did, spending five minutes chatting up my favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, with her. When I went back to my table, the person sitting next to me — whom I did not know — pleaded with me to introduce him to Stanwyck. Reluctantly, I did. A few minutes later, he returned to the table and pointed toward his lap. There he held a folded linen table napkin, which he carefully unfolded to reveal three asparagus spears. He had snatched them from Stanwyck’s plate to keep as souvenirs. I have always wondered what it was about me that night that made this crazy bastard think I’d appreciate that.

To catch up more with Jack Mathews, check out his reviews at the New York Daily News and his musings at his Movies in Focus blog.

Read more Meet a Critic interviews here:

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times
Scott Weinberg of eFilmcritic, Cinematical, Apollo Movie Guide, FearNet, and more
Pete Hammond of Maxim magazine
Lisa Kennedy of the the Denver Post