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Sunday, March 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Starry memories: As farewell, film critic recalls favorite interviews

Seattle Times movie reviewer

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Editor's note: After 35 years as one of the best, most knowledgeable and hardest-working film critics in the country, Seattle Times movie reviewer John Hartl is retiring. Over the years, he's forged an incredible bond with this newspaper's readers, and his passion for film has had a direct hand in creating the diversity of the film scene here. Seattle is a movie-loving town, and that's due in no small part to his efforts. We wish him well in his new endeavors.

I made a precocious debut in The Seattle Times 53 years ago. I was 2, the subject of a prize-winning snapshot taken by an Eastern Washington photographer, Marvin Schroeder, who caught me playing in a sprinkler outside my parents' Ellensburg home.

"I doubt that he remembers riding on his father's shoulders down to the Central Washington State College film library to help him rewind film," said Schroeder, who made the connection between his photos and the grown-up me several years ago.

Perhaps my fate was sealed by the time he took that sprinkler photo and submitted it to The Times' photo contest. It would be movies and newspapers from then on.

I turned up again in The Times at age 20, reviewing a movie (Steve McQueen's "Nevada Smith") for Wayne Johnson's arts-and-entertainment department while finishing up a degree in journalism at the University of Washington. It would be the first of thousands (!!!) of movies I would cover over a period of nearly 35 years.

Now I am retiring, at least from the daily grind, which has, frankly, ground me down. I started thinking seriously about retirement last summer, around the time that a co-worker asked if my review of "Nutty Professor 2" was actually my resignation.

Last month, I wondered if The New York Times' relatively new critic, A.O. Scott, was registering the same disillusionment. He ended his review of the new Freddie Prinze Jr. bomb, "Head Over Heels," by advising readers to ignore its existence:

"Think about the stock market," he wrote. "Think about Renaissance paintings. Think about noble beluga whales, swimming through the briny deep, blissfully oblivious to the existence of movies like this one. Try to be more like them."

It's not just the stupidity of most studio movies that gets to you over time. Near-criminal foolishness has always been a large part of this business. It's the escalating hype surrounding the release of the junkiest stuff, the willingness of the press to play along, the lust to be "No. 1 in America" on thousands of screens. Everyone gets into this delusionary act; even TV Guide carries Hannibal Lecter's face on its cover, as if "Hannibal" were scheduled to turn up on pay-per-view this week.

Meanwhile, the theatrical distribution system intended to support and benefit from the hype is collapsing. The chains have expanded so drastically that hundreds of theaters are now closing, victims of too much confidence in the continuation of this disastrous state of affairs. The audience has not grown noticeably larger over the years, even if inflated ticket prices and box-office grosses suggest otherwise.

When I started reviewing movies at The Times in June 1966, few pictures opened in more than a hundred theaters in the entire country, and they were not regarded as instantly disposable. Many of them came with promotional campaigns that nurtured their slow release from city to city. One of the side effects of this was the opportunity to interview actors and directors in a less hurried, deadline-crazed atmosphere. The 1970s/1980s may have been the golden age of interviews, at least as far as Seattle was concerned.

Movie critics are always being told that they've got cushy jobs, that seeing movies for free is everyone's idea of an ideal livelihood, but the biggest perk may be the chance to meet their creators. True, some interviews are bound to turn out badly, partly because there's something formulaic built into the process. But at their best they become true conversations, filled with remarkable insights into people as well as cinematic history in the making.

Among the ones I won't forget: George Lucas, on the eve of the 1973 release of "American Graffiti," dreaming about a new project called "Star Wars" (it would take him years to persuade a studio to finance it); Liv Ullmann discussing Ingmar Bergman and "The Emigrants" at a three-hour dinner at the Space Needle (never did the conversation lapse); Charlton Heston sharing epic memories and a couple of bottles of wine with me at Labuznik (I was nervous about meeting Moses); Lillian Gish discussing her relationship with D.W. Griffith and expressing her disapproval of Robert Mitchum's performance in "The Night of the Hunter" (we agreed to disagree); Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, celebrating the unexpected success of the ultra-low-budget "Easy Rider" (they stayed in the most expensive suite at the Westin).

Some interviews felt more like budding friendships than professional assignments. Beau Bridges, Candy Clark, Gregory Peck, Colin Firth, Paul Walker, Dom DeLuise, Debra Winger and Bud Cort were so welcoming and down-to-earth that it was no longer possible to think of them as movie stars.

Bob Rafelson was refreshingly, exhaustively candid about the creation of "Five Easy Pieces" (though not always quotable in a family newspaper), while Peter Bogdanovich was so eloquent that I felt compelled to ask for a follow-up interview two days later. He not only agreed to do so; when I landed in the hospital with meningitis, he called to ask if I was OK. What a mensch. How could I have been so mean to him in my reviews of "Nickelodeon" and "At Long Last Love"?

Similar mixed feelings accompanied the arrival of the late Stanley Kramer in Seattle and at The Seattle Times, where he wrote a regular column. I had admired his earlier films, especially "The Defiant Ones," "On the Beach," "Ship of Fools" and "Judgment at Nuremberg," and I had enjoyed interviewing him a number of times.

But his career was waning, and he made his last and worst picture here: "The Runner Stumbles." When I panned it, I thought I would be fired. I was far from alone. The Times stood by me and did nothing to interfere. I would interview Kramer again, and he never mentioned the matter, aside from confessing that sometimes a filmmaker ends up with "cottage cheese" no matter what his intentions.

Some interviews become particularly melancholy in retrospect. After we did a lovely if hurried phone interview, Peter Finch sent me a nice note (a rarity in this business) saying how much he enjoyed the article that resulted. He died just a few days later, shortly before winning a posthumous Oscar for "Network."

It's hard not to be shaken by such brushes with mortality. One of my first interviews at The Times was with a terrific African-American actor named Rupert Crosse, who came to Seattle shortly before being nominated for an Oscar for "The Reivers" (1969). He was young, full of invention, clearly at the beginning of his career. He died of cancer in 1973 and he's forgotten today, but Jack Nicholson (bless him) found his work significant enough to mention Crosse in his Oscar acceptance speech for "As Good As It Gets" just three years ago.

AIDS rubbed out the careers of Anthony Perkins and Brad Davis, not long after they came to Seattle to promote movies I barely remember. But I won't forget how personable and amusingly self-deprecating Perkins could be - or how intense and driven Davis was. At that point, Davis already knew he was HIV-infected, though hardly anyone else did.

Surely the eeriest of these interviews was with Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee's son), who was accidentally killed by a gun loaded with real bullets during the filming of "The Crow." One year before, he was in Seattle promoting another picture, and voicing his worries about the special-effects sequences in his upcoming film.

"You're not in control if a roof is supposed to collapse on you and you have to trust that it's rigged properly," he told me. "The accident on 'Twilight Zone' (which killed actor Vic Morrow) is always in the back of your mind." In his late 20s when he stopped here, he was just getting started as a leading man. He would earn his best reviews, posthumously, for "The Crow."

Some actors prefer not to discuss their personal lives; others don't care what they reveal. During interviews for "The Rose" (1979) and "Stella" (1990), Bette Midler couldn't stop talking about her experiences playing the Acid Queen in Seattle Opera's early-1970s production of The Who's "Tommy." She vividly remembered the rain, the kids in the chorus fighting with the director, her own unhappy love life, LSD experiences and the bad notices she got.

"Coarse and stagy, with unappetizing mammaries," she said. "That's what one of the Seattle newspaper critics called me. I'll never forget that review. It was a nightmare to do that show. Who knew it would be so horrible? Everyone's moving to Seattle now. What have you got up there? What's changed?"

One event that made Seattle special for years was the annual Science-Fiction X-Po at Seattle Center, where Harlan Ellison talked about the merits of the various "Star Trek" episodes and Robert Wise groused that he'd like to recut the first "Star Trek" movie, which had just been released to theaters.

George Pal, director of "The Time Machine," graciously discussed the ambitious fantasy projects he'd never been able to get off the ground ("Odd John," "Childhood's End"), while Jack Arnold talked passionately about how he rewrote the metaphysical ending of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" based on his own religious beliefs. For every sci-fi geek in town, the X-Po was heaven.

And then there were the pills. Matt Dillon, here to promote the film version of S.E. Hinton's "Tex," sullenly refused to discuss the upcoming movies of Hinton's "The Outsiders" and "Rumblefish," in which he also starred. Sean Penn rudely read a magazine while I tried to conduct an interview with him and his wife, Robin Wright Penn. Bob Hoskins and Neil Jordan, apparently jet-lagged, clearly didn't feel like promoting "Mona Lisa"; one local journalist walked out of an interview in which they seemed hostile to his questions.

Others were a mixed bag. Rupert Everett seemed reluctant to discuss anything when he visited the Seattle International Film Festival in 1984; one year later, he returned and couldn't have been more charming. Russell Crowe and Michael Rapaport communicated a nervous energy that was interesting on-screen but draining in person.

Some actors were astonishingly honest about their disappointment in the movies they were supposedly pushing. At a Trader Vic's press conference, attended by at least a dozen journalists, Joseph Bottoms trashed Disney's "The Black Hole" while his publicist freaked out.

When I told Peter Berg that I didn't buy the unrealistic ending of "Crooked Hearts," he didn't hesitate to agree; he explained that the reluctant cast had been brought back to reshoot the finale. Patrick Macnee clearly didn't care for "Shadey," whose distributor had footed the bill for his American tour, but he loved talking about "The Avengers" and Diana Rigg. At lunch at the 13 Coins, waiters and customers dropped by our table to ask, "How's Emma?"

Of course, Emma isn't real, and in a sense neither are most of these interviews. It's easy to delude yourself that Robert Redford or Robert Altman are your close acquaintances because you've talked to them a few times, but your true friends are often your co-workers.

At The Seattle Times, I've been privileged to work with many people whose names haven't appeared on marquees, but whose friendship has meant far more than celebrity.

Among those Times employees who have made this 35-year trip especially worth taking: John Voorhees, Melinda Bargreen, Tom Richardson, Misha Berson, Patrick MacDonald, Peggy Stockley, Mark Rahner, Robin Updike, Fred Birchman, Deloris Tarzan Ament, Carole Beers, Janine Dallas Steffan, Rajeeve Gupta, Bob Longino and Michael Upchurch. I know I've left too many off this list, but if I ran on any longer, I'd feel like I was accepting an award.

John Hartl can be contacted at Johnhartl@yahoo.com.

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