“Why Aren’t There More Women Film Critics?” was the subject of a January 31 forum at the Boston Public Library sponsored by Women in Film and Video/New England (WIFV/NE), and nobody on our panel — WBZ’s Joyce Kulhawik, the Boston Globe’s Janice Page, Boston Society of Film Critics president Loren King, and yours truly, Mr. Film Culture — came up with much of an answer. Sexism went only so far as an explanation. The pool of women desiring to be critics is far smaller than that of men. Is it because females are socialized not to be confrontational ? Is criticism easier for guys after a geeky childhood of horror movies?
Whatever, this is what we learned: four decades ago, all the film critics in Boston were women! Kay Bourne, the arts editor of the Bay State Banner for 40 years, introduced our panel and supplied the history. “It was another world altogether when I started reviewing films in 1966,” she began. Screenings would be attended by Peggy Doyle of the Record American, Nora Taylor of the Christian Science Monitor, and “the queen of the pack, Marjorie Adams of the Boston Globe.”
Marjorie Adams? “I can certainly say she was supremely confident,” Bourne e-mailed me, “She’d been doing the job for years, was obviously better than competent, and worked for a powerful newspaper. She was of an era long gone, however, and the rules she played by are not today’s rules.” Bourne concluded her BPL introduction with a provocative theory: women were the Boston critics until, in the 1960s, film exploded as an important art. Then men came in wanting the reviewing jobs.
A key women film critic was the Phoenix’s Janet Maslin who, pre–New York Times, left here for Newsweek in the early 1970s. For more than 30 years since, no woman has been a staff film critic for a major Boston newspaper! Ouch!
Through these years, many have penned reviews. But Erin Trahan, the former WIFV/NE president who organized the panel, argued that wasn’t enough. “When women are writing only every so often, it’s hard for readers to get to know their critical sensibilities. Readers have to have a relationship with their critics.”
There are a handful of lead women newspaper critics including Manohla Dargis for the New York Times, Carrie Rickey for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie for the Atlanta Journal, and Lisa Kennedy for the Denver Post. The newspaper with the steadiest history of female lead critics is New York’s Daily News, going back from Jami Bernard today. Why? I called Kathleen Carroll, a reviewer there from 1962 to 1992.
Here’s the story. The News’ founder, Captain Joseph Patterson, hired Paul Gallico as his first critic in the late ’20s. Gallico wrote negative reviews, so Patterson, a movie lover, banished him to sports. “I think women film critics are more intuitive and understand movies better, “ he declared, and he went on to hire a string of them. The first was Irene Thiver, the second his wife’s sister, Loretta King. These critics shared a nom de plume: Kate Cameron. Camera on! Loretta King/Kate Cameron — ”an elegant little woman, very sweet” — was an encouraging presence when Carroll arrived at the News. She retired in 1967, after 32 years of reviewing. “She was a spinster,” Carroll said, “who lived with her sister, Mary King, the News’ women’s editor. This was after Captain Patterson, Mary’s husband, had passed away.” In the ’60s, the Daily News had, with Carroll, three women critics. There was Wanda Hale, whom Carroll remembered as “Glamorous! These were the days when women wore hats to work, and gloves!” But Hale, as “Cameron,” was soft on movies. The first tough distaff critic, pre–Pauline Kael, was the Herald Tribune’s Judith Crist. “Judy was very demanding, a good writer,” Carroll said. And she mentioned the forgotten Rose Pelswick of Hearst’s Journal-American. “She’d come out of a screening saying, ‘This is awful, this is terrible,’ and you’d see the reviews were so benign. I think she got out all her venom in the elevator.”