The Hidden Jew as Critic

January 10, 2020 | Jonathan Leaf
About the author: Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

 In November, the theater critic John Simon, known for his erudition, prose style, and biting, sometimes cruel, reviews, died at the age of ninety-four. While obituaries noted that he was born in Serbia as Ivan Simmon and came to the U.S. in 1941, Jonathan Leaf reports hearing a very different story about his early life from Simon’s close friend and fellow critic Howard Kissel: that Simon was born to a Jewish father who barely escaped Europe, and that he had a half-brother who remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. Leaf believes this closely guarded secret may shed some light on Simon’s notoriously selective tastes:

People hide their Jewish roots because they are ashamed of their Jewishness. I suspect that Simon’s experiences had persuaded him that Jewishness was a particularly dangerous kind of weakness, and in his vanity, as well as for perceived reasons of self-protection, he chose to identify himself with his oppressors. That which was Aryan was good, and in his mind he was not only its advocate but a kindred soul.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Simon first made his name as a critic through his promotion of the erstwhile art-house Nazi, the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Simon’s writing about Bergman is startling for its fatuousness. There can be little doubt that Bergman was capable of great filmmaking: one has only to think of movies like Summer with MonikaWild Strawberries, or Autumn Sonata. Yet these were not the films that Simon praised. Rather, he celebrated the worst of Bergman’s tedious exercises in pomposity and pretentiousness, deservedly forgotten motion pictures like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf.

In [his writings on these films], Simon was establishing a template, a pattern of taste that would carry through the rest of his career. Whatever was admired by the most recondite of European highbrows, he admired. Whatever was liked by New York Jews, he despised.

Thus, Barbra Streisand was “the sort of thing that starts pogroms.” . . . Annie Hall was “so shapeless, sprawling, repetitious, and aimless as to seem to beg for oblivion.” Everything that David Mamet wrote after his first two one-act plays was “the same thing rehashed over and over, and no longer news.” (This included American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.) Simon was rueful that political correctness had made it impolitic to call something a “faggoty Jewish musical.” . . . Any actress with Nordic looks was likely to be judged as superlative. Thus, Uma Thurman was “scintillating.”

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