John Ivan Simon (born May 12, 1925) is an American author and literary, theater, and film critic.
Jovan Simmon was born in Subotica, of Hungarian descent. The son of Joseph and Margaret (née Reves) Simmon, he grew up in Belgrade before immigrating to the United States in 1941, aged 16, on a tourist visa to join his father. By 1944 he was in United States Army Air Forces basic training camp in Wichita Falls, Texas. Both of his parents became naturalized United States citizens in 1941.
He attended Harvard University where he earned his BA, MA, and PhD. As 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.
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 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. He wrote theater reviews for Bloomberg News from June 2005 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 and as a sort of parody of himself in a short film on Saturday Night Live in 1986.
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." 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. A 1980 issue of Variety included an ad signed by 300 people decrying Simon's reviews as racist and vicious.
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.
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." Lynn Redgrave and John Clark were particularly happy with his review of Shakespeare for My Father, about to begin a struggling debut on Broadway.
Others have suggested that his negative criticism is mean-spirited, not 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", while Kathleen Turner is a "braying mantis".
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."
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. Carol Burnett wrote a letter to Time Magazine responding to an attack on Liza Minnelli, whose face Simon had compared to that of a beagle, and she closed with "Could Mr. Simon be suffering from a simple case of heart envy?" Whatever the answer, Simon did not let the comment color his critical opinion -- nearly a quarter of a century later, Simon gave an unqualified rave review to Hollywood Arms (2002), a play Burnett co-wrote.
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". In retaliation, Miles dumped a plate of food, mostly steak tartare (not pasta, as had been misreported), onto Simon's head in a popular New York restaurant.
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, and Simon himself expressed his displeasure whenever Sheed's book was reviewed without mentioning Simon's name.
The character of "Hugh Simon" (played by Kenneth Mars) in Peter Bogdanovich's film What's Up, Doc? was a parody of John Simon, according to the film's director, Peter Bogdanovich.
He is also 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.
In December 2015, at age 90, 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, who was negatively critical. It 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.
- 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 Broadway.com.