Every few years, someone on the internet rediscovers that the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz has a 99 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to 100 percent, thanks to one “rotten” critique. One writer called the review “one of the most churlish and thus entertaining professional assessments in the history of fictional media.” Another said it’s “a testament to the fact that no film, no matter how great, can truly be called ‘universally acclaimed.’”
The critic in question was the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson, who, like Stanley Kauffmann after him, was one of the great film essayists of his era. Both men were noted for their innovative approaches to the form, and their contrarian opinions.
Kauffmann, who wrote for the New Republic from 1958 until his death in 2013, authored 11 books during his illustrious career. He refused to side with any of the myriad critical camps that emerged during his tenure, such as the auteurists, preferring instead to engage with film on classical terms: story, character, structure. Kauffmann was also a europhile through and through; give him Fellini or Truffaut over Spielberg or Tarantino any day. He disdained the American tendency to bombast and, as he saw it, the fetishization of childhood.
Ferguson joined the New Republic in 1933 as a book critic before switching to film. He held that post until shipping off to fight in WWII in 1942, and died in combat a year later. Ferguson never enjoyed the adulation and widespread acclaim that Kauffmann did, though he was no less influential. His writing practically gave birth to the idea of film criticism as art. Ferguson was a skeptic of wantonly high-brow art and lover of folksy films, with a particular soft spot for comedy.
The following is a survey of their most daring reviews that broke with the consensus.
“They have put padding in his cheeks and dirtied his teeth, he speaks hoarsely and moves stiffly, and these combined mechanics are hailed as great acting. I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker....
“Al Pacino, as Brando’s heir, rattles around in a part too demanding for him. James Caan is OK as his older brother. The surprisingly rotten score by Nino Rota contains a quotation from ‘Manhattan Serenade’ as a plane lands in Los Angeles. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors.”
“[T]here is no doubt the picture is dramatic. But what goes on between the dramatic high points, the story? No. What goes on is talk and more talk. And while the stage may stand for this, the movies don’t....
“The movies could use Orson Welles. But so could Orson Welles use the movies, that is, if he wants to make pictures. Hollywood is a great field for fanfare, but it is also a field in which even Genius has to do it the hard way; and Citizen Kane rather makes me doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures.”
“It’s less easy to understand how, for five years, Kubrick managed to concentrate on his ingenuity and ignore his talent. In the first 30 seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and, although there are plenty of clever effects and some amusing spots, it never recovers. Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major disappointment.”
“The ads show a gaping shark’s mouth. If sharks can yawn, that’s presumably what this one is doing. It’s certainly what I was doing all through this picture, even in those few moments when I was frightened....
“The only performer worth mentioning is Robert Shaw as the old pro, and I mention him only to hope that he is getting rich. This good actor certainly ought to get something out of all the non-acting he’s doing these days. The direction is by Steven Spielberg who did the unbearable Sugarland Express. At least here he has shucked most of his arty mannerisms and has progressed almost to the level of a stock director of the ’30s—say, Roy del Ruth.”
“Even before you see Raiders of the Lost Ark, after you’ve read the ads and gotten some sense of the reviews, you know that the picture is offering you a pact: you agree to be a kid again, in return for which Raiders will give you old-time movie thrills expressed in slick modern cinematic terms.
“I don’t want to be a child again, not even for two hours. I reject the Raiders pact.”
“This is Lucas’ tribute to Flash Gordon, and is now enthralling all those who feel that Flash Gordon needs a two-hour, eight-million-dollar tribute. There’s a glitzy attempt at profundity in the opening title which tells us that the story took place on a galaxy far away ‘a long time ago.’ It really takes place in the science-fiction future, a place which is as fixed and fictitious for bad sci-fi writers as the Old West is for bad Western writers....
“About the dialogue there’s nothing to be said. In fact the dialogue itself can hardly be said: it sticks in the actors’ mouths like peanut butter. The acting is the School of Buster Crabbe, except for Alec Guinness who mumbles through on the way to his salary check....
“The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional.”
“[W]hat’s most bothersome about Pulp Fiction is its success. This is not to be mean-spirited about Tarantino himself; may he harvest all the available millions. But the way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming.”
“The whole thing is, in fact, much too long, and the plot is full of holes.”