TELLURIDE--John Simon, the New York magazine critic known for his spiteful reviews, is in top form.
He has just finished an interview in which he said that the only thing that's bearable for him on television these days are the O.J. Simpson hearings.
"That's because I can't wait to see the son of a bitch fry," Simon said.
Now he is sitting on a panel with three of his favorite targets: Louis Malle, the noted film director, and Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, best known for their roles in the Malle film My Dinner With Andre.
Mindful of this previous collaboration, Simon says, "Films like My Dinner With Andre are merely forms of mental masturbation for the actors and directors who become involved in them."
Simon directs his opening remarks to Malle, referring to the director's new film, screened at the Labor Day weekend Telluride Film Festival.
"I could forgive Louis Malle a dozen films like this insipid Vanya on 42d Street for an exquisite film he directed in French called Zazie dans le Mtro more than 30 years ago."
Malle is at the other end of the table from Simon. Gregory and Shawn are seated alongside him.
Malle glares at Simon, but holds his tongue. Simon glances back at Malle innocently. He delivers a beatific smile toward Malle.
"I rather love it when people hate me," Simon says in what sounds like a distinctly German accent. The audience seated before the panel in a grassy park in the center of town may be as large as 300. Its members have all come to attention.
Many come each year to these seminars. Always before, the talk has been polite. Not today.
Malle, the husband of Candice Bergen, is obviously sensitive to criticism. This is probably because his work is generally applauded as brilliant. After a while, movie people become accustomed to such assessments and consider them their due.
The night before, Christina the Lawyer had insisted I hang around as Malle spoke to the opening audience for Vanya on 42d Street.
My Dinner With Andre is her favorite film. I can't stand it.
Vanya on 42d Street shares more than just cast and director with My Dinner With Andre. The new Malle film drags, and is exceedingly talky. Many who didn't have to please their wives left for the tavern long before the end.
Malle had encountered similar problems in 1981 with the same actors in My Dinner With Andre. That time, however, he came away with a critical triumph.
The new film is an adaptation of the Anton Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, which Gregory and Shawn have been performing for friends for five years in an abandoned New York theatre.
I have the distinct impression that Shawn would do a revival of Hedda Gabler if he could only have the title role.
Some might like Vanya on 42d Street because they feel obliged to applaud Chekhov under pain of being branded a Philistine. Others, truer to their real instincts, might regard it as pretentious or simply boring.
The trick for Malle was to make Vanya on 42d Street not seem like the filming of a stage play. The trouble was that it is a stage play. And it was clearly filmed on the stage.
Those members of the audience who remained to discuss the film were polite and deferential. They were also fans of Gregory and Shawn. They all seemed a little addled, like people who still think J.D. Salinger is going to write a new ending to "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Clearly, they were in awe of other Malle films like Atlantic City and Au Revoir les Enfants.
Everyone wanted desperately to be polite.
Then one man broke the spell.
"Couldn't you have done something so that it didn't seem so much like a stage play?"
Malle recoiled as though he had been struck a death blow.
"You have driven a sword through my heart," Malle said. "That was exactly my intent, not to make it look like a stage play. Until now, I thought I had succeeded."
Andre Gregory stepped forward to save the evening.
"We are thinking of performing it next on a cruise ship," Gregory said.
The audience dissolved into laughter. A bad moment had slipped by.
Shawn stepped up, too.
"This is like one of those intellectual theatre conversations in which people preface their remarks by saying, 'As Wallace Stevens once said . . .'"
The audience laughed uproariously.
I was puzzled. Wallace Stevens is a renowned poet. I know that. But what did he say that anyone would remember?
The only Stevens line I can recall is: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."
Does that sound profound?
Gregory apparently is like a knight errant where Malle is concerned. He makes a habit of stepping forward at the propitious moment to assuage Malle's feelings.
Now, following Simon's cutting remark in the park about Malle's work, Gregory attacks Simon's habits as a critic.
Bear in mind that Simon has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is the author of a highly praised book on the films of Ingmar Bergman. He is no slouch.
"Once when I had a play I was directing on Broadway," Gregory says, "John Simon told me he needed a seat so he could review the play. Then he added that he would only need the seat for ten minutes so he could see what the sets looked like before he went home to pan the play."
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The audience laughs. Gregory is on a roll.
Malle finally speaks.
"I think John Simon's remarks are racist," he says.
That remark also goes over my head.
And then Gregory adds:
"The truth about John Simon is that he can't stand intimacy."
Simon grabs his microphone and pulls it closer to his mouth to make sure he would be heard.
"I enjoy intimacy with other human beings," Simon says. "It's just that my idea of intimacy is not caressing my penis with my right hand."
After that, the battle is over.