Know Your Critic

Know Your Critic: Leonard Maltin, Film Critic and Historian

Maltin talks favorite films, reflects on his celebrated career, and teases his new film review-centric game, “King of Movies.”

by | July 23, 2020 | Comments

Warner Bros. Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Newmarket Film Group
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Newmarket Film Group)

Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.

Before Leonard Maltin became known as the iconic critic and historian that he is, he was a movie-loving teenager, putting together a fanzine called Film Fan Monthly. He wrote for Variety, TV Guide, and other major publications, eventually becoming Entertainment Tonight’s broadcast movie critic – a position he held for 30 years. Starting in 1969, he compiled lists of every year’s must-see movies – Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide published annually or biannually until 2014. He’s written a dozen books, been the president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and taught at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. And now he’s a game… really.

Maltin’s most devoted fans and fellow cinephiles have put together a game in his honor: “King of Movies.” The objective? To be Leonard Maltin in the most convincing fashion. Players pull a movie title from a deck of cards, along with a genuine Maltin review of the title, then must review the film in Maltin’s signature style, attempting to trick a player into thinking Maltin wrote it himself. It’s basically “pick the real Maltin review,” and will be available to purchase from Mondo.

“The idea is to fool the other players that you’ve written an authentic writeup for a movie they’ve never heard of,” Maltin told Rotten Tomatoes in an interview.

In his storied and celebrated career, Maltin is most proud of “surviving,” he says – “and that’s not a flippant answer.”

Leonard Maltin is a film critic and historian. He currently publishes at leonardmaltin.com.


What do you consider required viewing?

Charlie Chaplin. No further explanation. To me, so much begins with Charlie Chaplin.

Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Samurai, La Strada, I could go on and on and on.

What is the hardest review that you’ve ever written?

The Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. Because I went to a screening, and directly from that screening to our studio, and had to write and deliver a review without having more than a half hour to digest the film and organize my thoughts.

Is there something that’s Rotten on the Tomatometer, but you’d defend it to the ends of the Earth?

I actually wrote about this one in the book, Rotten Movies We Love. It’s called Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. And by any objective standards, it’s indefensible, but I love it.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

I feel very fortunate that I came along when I did – which is to say long before the Internet – when you could still make a name or stake yourself a spot on the landscape through old-fashioned means, self-publishing the fanzine as I did, being generously plugged or promoted by other publications and building a reputation, and then publishing books that were actually distributed widely in stores around the country and not just limited to specialty presses.

My first couple of books – I met a lot of people who say that mine was the first movie book they ever bought when they were in their teens, because they only cost a dollar-and-a-half, and they were on sale at the local drug store or Woolworth’s or card and gift shop in the days before the malling of America and rise of the bookstore chains.

Timing in life is crucial – and luck. The challenge for anyone starting today is cutting through all the clutter.


Can you give us the rundown on your new King of Movies game?

Well, there are people who were devotees and remain devotees of my annual movie guide for years, in some cases for decades. One of them is Tim League, the co-founder of Alamo Drafthouse. He and one of his cohorts, Ant Timpson, used to play this game where they would try to devise phony write-ups of movies, because especially when writing about older, more formulaic Hollywood movies, there was identifiable rhythm and style to the writing. So they started to challenge each other and friends of theirs.

They’ve now institutionalized this as a game. I played it with them a couple of times, and I’ve done a couple of test runs of the final game. Some people really get it. Some people fall into the rhythm of those write-ups, and they can be very persuasive.

What makes a Leonard Maltin review a Leonard Maltin review?

Well, none of the better qualities are part of this game. Rapier wit and incisive storytelling in capsule form are not the hallmarks of these reviews. It’s the formula – the formulaic descriptions of films that really come out on top in the game.

Is there anyone that you think could “beat” you at your own game?

Well, yes, theoretically. But I did it for so long, I have an unfair advantage.


Warner Bros. Pictures
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

What is your favorite classic film?

Casablanca.

Is there a movie that you’ve watched more than any other?

Casablanca.

Can you guesstimate how many times you’ve seen it?

No, I really can’t. Certainly 20 to 25 times.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about critics?

We’re lucky to get paid for what we do. And that is also a truism.

Yeah, we are lucky. We’re not digging ditches, we’re not doing manual labor, but we get paid to watch bad movies. I found out particularly when I started getting recognized from being on television and people would stop me and say, “You got the best job in the world.” I said, “Well, it’s a great job, but you know, some days it feels like a job.” Then people’s eyes glaze over. When you get paid to watch movies, no one wants to hear complaints, and I get that.

What do you think makes a good movie?

They say a smart person can hold two opposing thoughts in their mind at the same time. On the one hand, I’m tempted to say originality and freshness, and yet there’s some movies I like a lot, very good movies, that follow a ritual for a genre and wind up being really good.


What is your preferred seat in a movie theater?

Aisle seat, midway down the aisle.

What is your favorite screening snack?

Popcorn. No butter.

When reviewing, do you go in cold?

The only way I go. I actually studiously avoid reading or seeing anything about a movie. I don’t even watch the trailers. The less I know about a movie going in, the better experience I have.

Are you pro- or anti- note-taking?

Neither. There are times when note-taking is crucial. I don’t write lengthy reviews, so I find as long as I log-in either that night or the next morning when I get home, that does it for me.

What is your personal record for most movies watched in a day?

Seven. May I add with an asterisk: That was the day I discovered definitively that it’s not the eyes that go first, it’s the tush.

What’s your favorite film from your childhood?

Oh gosh, so many. No one has ever asked me that.

At age seven, my parents took me to see a film called The Golden Age of Comedy, which was a compilation of great moments from silent film comedies with Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin and others. I even remembered the theater where I saw it in Manhattan, and it literally changed my life.


Twentieth Century Fox
(Photo by Twentieth Century Fox)

Who is an actor or director or a screenwriter whose work you always love?

Alexander Payne. He is an original – he and his frequent writing partner, Jim Taylor. Their films aren’t like anybody else’s. They deal in social satire, which very few people even approach, because it’s such a difficult genre.

Who are some under-the-radar directors or a screenwriters that you think more people should know about?

Well, yes. I guess it depends on how you define that radar. Kelly Reichardt, her latest film, First Cow, is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Nicole Holofcener, huge fan; Jeff Nichols, an underappreciated talent; Debra Granik, so many. They’re not exactly newcomers, but they ought to be more celebrated than they are.

Is there someone in your life who isn’t a critic, whose opinion you admire?

Well, my wife and daughter, who are critics, only they don’t get paid for it. I respect their opinions, both of them.

Can you think of a recent movie where you may have disagreed with either of them?

Oh gosh. My daughter and her husband weren’t engaged by Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods. My wife and I just thought it was terrific.


Who are some up-and-coming critics that you want people to check out?

I deal so much with classic and vintage films. I’ve been very impressed with two young-ish writers and essayists on the scene. One is Imogen Sara Smith, the other is Farran Smith Nehme.

They’re both freelancers, and they’re employed quite a bit by the Criterion Collection. I’ve seen them both on camera and doing commentary tracks and writing wonderfully eloquent essays for Criterion booklets as well. They’re whip smart, and I’m very impressed with both of them.

Do you have advice for critics who are still finding their voice?

Keep at it. Experience is the best teacher, and getting feedback is hugely important too.


Leonard Maltin is a film critic and historian. He currently publishes at leonardmaltin.com.

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