In Bookforum, Melissa Anderson raves about a newly published collection of film writings by Boyd McDonald, an under-recognized critic who penned brilliant, sexually brash reviews for New York–based gay newspapers in the 1980s. He was the sensual antithesis of cold, super-serious film writers like Pauline Kael. An excerpt from Anderson’s piece:
As my copious citations of McDonald prove, he honed a kind of cultural criticism—personal but outward-looking, raunchy yet brainy, funny and furious—rare in his era and barely in evidence today, when we are overrun with professional (and paraprofessional) opinionators whose writing rarely rises above plot synopses with some adjectives and adverbs thrown in. Throughout Cruising the Movies, McDonald archly points out the deficiencies of what he dubs “pack journalism,” of those arbiters who had far more readers than he; Leonard Maltin’s movie-review vernacular is aptly described as “Tarzan-like English.” He presents, without commentary, an instance of flagrant plagiarism found in the New York Times’ obituary for director Henry Hathaway and aims a well-turned barb at Janet Maslin, that paper’s fixture. Halfway through the book, in an ode to actor Richard Widmark, McDonald states his frustrations with “film criticism” in general: “[Widmark] demonstrates the importance of the movie star over the movie and thus the importance of star reviews over mere movie reviews, with their constant complaints about plot.” McDonald is especially “unmoved” by any critical stance taken by Pauline Kael, among the most powerful critics at the time of Cruising the Movies’ original publication and one whose influence remains outsize today. Like Kael’s, McDonald’s sensibility was resolutely uncompromised. But his writing, even if for a very specific audience, teems with qualities—generosity, curiosity, wit, raillery, and, of course, lust—lacking in hers and that of most other critics, then or now. The columns collected in Cruising the Movies reflect the best that criticism can do—they are, as Oscar Wilde would have it, a record of McDonald’s soul.
Image: Boyd McDonald in 1981.