JOHN KELLY’S WASH­ING­TON

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - Twit­ter: @johnkelly

A long time ago in a news­pa­per close, close by, a movie critic was axed for a bad re­view.

Last week in this space, An­swer Man shot down the ru­mor that Wash­ing­ton Post film critic Gary Arnold was fired for pan­ning “Star Wars.” But what if Arnold was not the droid, er, critic we were look­ing for?

Sev­eral read­ers — in­clud­ing Bill Geer­hart of Gaithers­burg, Md., Dave Irvine of Lau­rel, Md., and Craig Hen­der­son of Bowie, Md. — wrote to say it was the Wash­ing­ton Star’s Tom Dowl­ing who was canned for a pan — not of the first film, but its se­quel, “The Em­pire Strikes Back.” True?

“It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than that,” Dowl­ing said when An­swer Man rang the re­tired news­pa­per­man up at his home in North­west Wash­ing­ton. “The story is true as far as it goes. I don’t know how far it fac­tu­ally goes.”

Dowl­ing joined the Star staff in 1971 af­ter pub­lish­ing an ac­claimed book about Vince Lom­bardi’s lone sea­son coach­ing the Red­skins. He penned a thrice­weekly sports col­umn for a few years and then changed gears and wrote an opin­ion col­umn fo­cused on na­tional is­sues.

He can’t re­mem­ber what he wrote that ir­ri­tated his boss — “Some­thing he thought was too pre­cious” — but Dowl­ing was yanked from that and re­as­signed to the Star’s movie beat. A de­mo­tion, per­haps, but Dowl­ing was a ver­sa­tile writer.

Ge­orge Lu­cas’s first “Star Wars” pic­ture blew Dowl­ing away. In his rave re­view, he called it “a dis­arm­ingly merry and tech­ni­cally un­for­get­table pic­ture, light years in ad­vance of any English-lan­guage movie that has opened in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing my ten­ure as a movie rater.”

“Star Wars” was screened for area crit­ics at a small the­ater in the I Street NW of­fices of the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica. When the screen­ing ended, a man who Dowl­ing had al­ways as­sumed wrote for some sub­ur­ban shop­per ran out of the the­ater. Cu­ri­ous, Dowl­ing asked what was up.

“I’m in a hurry to buy 20th Cen­tury Fox stock,” the man said. Said Dowl­ing, con­cerned at the eth­i­cal breach: “I don’t think that’s part of the deal.”

An­swered the man: “I’m not a movie critic. I’m an in­vestor.”

Said Dowl­ing: “He’d been go­ing to crit­ics’ screen­ings for years to de­cide which movie com­pany stocks to dump or buy.”

“Star Wars” made a lot of money. Three years later came the se­quel. Dowl­ing was among hun­dreds of crit­ics sum­moned to New York City for a pre­view screen­ing, fol­lowed by a round of in­ter­views with the cast and di­rec­tor Irvin Ker­sh­ner.

As Dowl­ing waited, he con­fessed to an­other critic that he hadn’t much cared for “Em­pire.” The other critic said, “I was be­gin­ning to think I was the only one.”

Wrote Dowl­ing later: “He spoke sotto voce, out of the side of his mouth, as if we were shar­ing a ta­ble at a press pre­view of a trac­tor film in Stal­in­ist Rus­sia, where pans were not the stuff of ca­reer longevity.” Prophetic words. In his May 18, 1980, story — pub­lished in the Star the day af­ter “The Em­pire Strikes Back” had its pub­lic pre­miere at the Kennedy Cen­ter — Dowl­ing called the film “mud­dled and pre­ten­tious,” not so much a movie as a “two-hour cor­po­rate logo ex­plain­ing the fu­ture of the ‘Star Wars’ in­dus­try.”

Never, he wrote, “had such un­lim­ited re­sources, un­par­al­leled good will and guar­an­teed for­mula of suc­cess been frit­tered away in such ir­repara­ble fash­ion.”

For most of its his­tory, the Evening Star was the dom­i­nant news­pa­per in Wash­ing­ton, but by 1980 it had fallen be­hind The Post. It had been bought in 1978 by Time magazine, which that very week had put Darth Vader on the cover. The story inside noted: “In many ways the new film is a bet­ter film than ‘Star Wars,’ vis­ually more ex­cit­ing, more art­ful and metic­u­lous in de­tail.”

Was it cor­po­rate em­bar­rass­ment that got Dowl­ing the ax? Hard to prove. Dowl­ing said that years later, at a re­union of Star em­ploy­ees, a for­mer ed­i­tor si­dled up and told him that Time magazine had a “se­cret in­ter­est” in the movie and ex­ec­u­tives were wor­ried his pan would dis­cour­age peo­ple from go­ing to see it.

“I have no idea if that was true,” Dowl­ing said.

But the re­view had ap­par­ently ir­ri­tated some­one. Dowl­ing filed a few more re­views — “The Gong Show Movie,” “Fame” — be­fore Star ed­i­tor Mur­ray Gart moved him to a col­umn called “Fed­eral Cases” that poked fun at gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy. (“Ac­tu­ally, it was the most fun I’ve ever had in news­pa­pers,” Dowl­ing said.)

The Star printed its last edi­tion on Aug. 7, 1981. Dowl­ing moved to San Fran­cisco to be­come the Ex­am­iner’s book ed­i­tor, writ­ing three re­views a week.

“I tried to re­view stuff I liked to read,” said the 81-year-old Dowl­ing, who re­tired in 1995. “That was far more pleas­ant than get­ting hauled out to watch some movie.”

Do you have a ques­tion about the Wash­ing­ton area? Send it to an­swer­man@wash­post.com.

For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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