JOHN KELLY’S WASHINGTON
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.”
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