John Simon (critic)

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John Simon
Born John Ivan Simmon
(1925-05-12) May 12, 1925 (age 90)
Subotica, Bačka Oblast, Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
Occupation Critic, writer
Genre Theatre, literary, film

John Ivan Simon (born May 12, 1925) is an American author and literary, theater, and film critic.

Personal life[edit]

Simon was born in Subotica, city in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (today's Serbia). He is of Hungarian descent.[1] The son of Joseph and Margaret (née Reves) Simmon, he grew up in Belgrade before immigrating to the United States in 1941 on a tourist visa to join his father.[1] By 1944 he was in United States Army Air Forces basic training camp in Wichita Falls, Texas.

He attended Harvard University where he earned a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. While a student, Simon was hired by playwright Lillian Hellman to prepare a translation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark, but he was never paid for his work since Hellman claimed he had typed it in the wrong format.[2]

Simon has written theater, film, music, and book reviews for publications such as New York, Esquire, The Hudson Review, National Review, Opera News, The New Leader, Commonweal, The New Criterion and The New York Times Book Review. He also contributes a monthly essay to The Weekly Standard.

Simon was the theater critic at New York magazine for 36 years from October 1968 until May 2005.[3] He wrote theater reviews for Bloomberg News from June 2005[4] through November 2010. He currently reviews theater for The Westchester Guardian and Yonkers Tribune.

Simon played himself in a 1975 television episode of The Odd Couple.[5]


Celebrated for his erudition and longevity as a critic, Simon is equally well known for his aggressive style.[6]

Reporting for Playbill, Robert Simonson wrote that Simon's "stinging reviews—particularly his sometimes vicious appraisals of performers' physical appearances—have periodically raised calls in the theatre community for his removal."[6] In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted 10-7 to deny Simon membership, although the following year he was accepted into the group.[2] A 1980 issue of Variety included an ad signed by 300 people decrying Simon's reviews as racist and vicious.[2] On Simon's dismissal from New York magazine, critic Richard Hornby wrote in the The Hudson Review:

His removal seems to have been political, with a new editor-in-chief acceding to the usual pressure from theatrical producers to replace him with someone more positive....In fact, Simon was no more negative than most critics, but his lively writing style meant that his gibes were more memorable than those of the others. His enthusiasms were expressed with the same vigor—after heaping praise on the writing, acting, directing, and even the set designs of Doubt, for example, he described it as "a theatrical experience it would be sinful to miss." But positive reviews tend to be taken for granted, while negative ones are seen as personal insults. (I regularly get angry letters and e-mails of complaint from actors and theatre companies, but no one has ever thanked me for a favorable notice.) Theatrical producers in particular become enraged when reviews do not sound like one of their press releases. They finally seemed to have prevailed.[7]

While some people loved Simon's reviews in New York magazine and others hated them, many were quick to change positions, depending on what he thought of their latest work. Interviewed for The Paris Review, Simon described a photo taken with producer Joseph Papp who had "his arm around me after I've given him a good review, and [asked] for the picture back the next month because of a bad review."[8] Lynn Redgrave and John Clark were particularly happy with his review of Shakespeare for My Father, about to begin a struggling debut on Broadway.[9]

Others have suggested, however, that his negative criticism is mean-spirited rather than constructive. For example, he is known for dwelling on the unattractiveness of actors he does not like: Wallace Shawn is "unsightly", Barbra Streisand's nose "cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning",[10] while Kathleen Turner is a "braying mantis".[11] In his memoir Life Itself, Roger Ebert wrote, "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat." [12] In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker criticised Simon for reviews that obsessively focus on an actor's physical appearance to the detriment of critical acumen.[13] Carol Burnett wrote a letter to Time Magazine responding to an attack on Liza Minnelli, whose face Simon had compared to a beagle's,[11] and she closed with "Could Mr. Simon be suffering from a simple case of heart envy?"[14]

Performers were occasionally known to react in unexpected ways. In 1973, Simon wrote a nasty review of a play called Nellie Toole and Co, featuring actress Sylvia Miles, whom Simon referred to as "one of New York's leading party girls and gate-crashers."[11] In retaliation, Miles dumped a plate of steak tartare on Simon's head in a popular New York restaurant.[15]

Simon has been identified as the inspiration for the character of the acerbic and tormented culture critic Max Jamison, in Wilfrid Sheed's novel of the same name,[16] and Simon himself expressed his displeasure whenever Sheed's book was reviewed without mentioning Simon's name.[17]

Although not a native English speaker, he also is known for his criticism of the (mis)use of language in American writing, and edited the 1981 collection, Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. He was one of the guests on the PBS special Do You Speak American? In addition, Bryan Garner referred to Simon as a language maven and credited him with improving the quality of American criticism.[18]

In December, 2015 during the week of the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, New York made the unusual move of republishing a review of the original 1977 Star Wars film by Simon in which he was critical. In included the paragraph:

I sincerely hope that science and scientists differ from science fiction and its practitioners. Heaven help us if they don't: We may be headed for a very boring world indeed. Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its highfalutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a "future" cast to them: Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science of any place or period.[19]


  • George Jean Nathan Award (1970)
  • George Polk Award for Film Criticism (1968)


Simon's compilations of film, theater, poetry, and music criticism include Acid Test (1963), Private Screenings (1967), Movies Into Film: Film Criticism, 1967-1970 (1971), Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963-1973 (1975), Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974 (1976), Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films (1982), Something To Declare: Twelve Years of Films from Abroad (1983), Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry (2001), and John Simon on Film, John Simon on Music, and John Simon on Theater (all 2005). Other works include Ingmar Bergman Directs (1974) and The Sheep from the Goats: Selected Literary Essays (1989). Some of his essays can be found at


  1. ^ a b Stefanova-Peteva, K. (1993). Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?, page 26
  2. ^ a b c Jones, Kenneth. "Critic John Simon Hangs His Own Shingle on the Web". Playbill, Inc. Retrieved 4 December 2013. 
  3. ^ Playbill news article. Retrieved Jan. 28 2009
  4. ^ Theatermania news article Retrieved January 28, 2009
  5. ^ People Who Played Themselves at
  6. ^ a b Simonson, Robert. "John Simon to Leave Long-Held Post at New York Magazine; McCarter Named New Critic". Playbill. Playbill, Inc. Retrieved 23 September 2013. 
  7. ^ The Hudson Review, Autumn 2005 Retrieved Jan. 28 2009
  8. ^ Napoleon, The Paris Review
  9. ^ John Clark's blog Retrieved January 28, 2009
  10. ^ Gilman, S. (2000). Making the Body Beautiful, 203.
  11. ^ a b c Reese, Jennifer. "Seeking Ageless Wisdom? Ask the Aged". NPR Books. National Public Radio. Retrieved 23 September 2013. 
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (2011). Life Itself: A Memoir. New York, NY: Grand Central. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-446-58497-5. 
  13. ^ Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct, pp. 398–399
  14. ^ Letters, Jan. 16, 1978, Time
  15. ^ Napoleon, Davi (Spring 1997). "Interviews: John Simon, The Art of Criticism No. 4". Paris Review (42). Retrieved 23 September 2013. The most famous case is Sylvia Miles throwing some steak tartare at me, which made her into a heroine. In fact, Andy Warhol said in one of his so-called books that she’s famous for that and not much else. This incident was so welcomed by the Simon-hating press that the anecdote has been much retold. She herself has retold it ten thousand times. And this steak tartare has since metamorphosed into every known dish from lasagna to chop suey. It’s been so many things that you could feed the starving orphans of India or China with it. 
  16. ^ "Books: Max Jamison". The Village Voice. 26 August 1971. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  17. ^ Miller, Adrienne (2003). Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing: More Than 70 Years of Celebrated Journalism. New York: Hearst Books. p. 298. ISBN 978-1588162984. 
  18. ^ Garner, B. (1998). Garner's Modern American Usage (page reference req'd)
  19. ^ Simon, John (December 17, 2015). "Looking Back at New York’s Critical 1977 Review of Star Wars". New York. Retrieved 17 December 2015. 

Further reading[edit]


  • Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Gilman, Sandra. Making the Body Beautiful. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin, 1994.
  • Stefanova-Peteva, Kalina. Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages? London: Routledge, 1993. ISBN 978-3-7186-5438-3


External links[edit]