Unlike so many movie stars, Robert Ryan was able to portray a real heterosexual. But Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952), seen on Channel 11 at 2 a.m. March 30, 1983, is not impressed. It is very, very, very hard to impress Barbara Stanwyck. She is authentically blue collar in this picture, utterly credible when she says she used to sell sheet music in a dime store, and able to make us forget that she is a glamorous millionaire movie star. She drinks what she calls a “slug” of whiskey out of a shot glass with no chaser and holds a cigarette in her teeth when she lights it. The picture would not be the same without cigarettes; the climax for me occurred not when the director intended it but earlier in the picture when Ryan, fairly tough himself but of course no match for Stanwyck, lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. She accepted it but looked at it with an easy, graceful scorn for just a fraction of a second and tossed it over her shoulder. I was so shocked I didn’t notice what Ryan did. I believe he did nothing; what could he do?

This is Boyd McDonald’s review for Clash by Night in its entirety. It does two things I love, which every movie review McDonald wrote for Christopher Street and other gay pubs does:

1. It asserts the viewer’s right to shape a movie, deciding not just what does and doesn’t have value, but when its climaxes and low moments fall.

2. It takes the actor’s body as the lone source of all movie art.

Most of McDonald’s task is to write from his hardon—he is consistently leering over (or dismissing) the asses and bulges of male actors throughout the golden years of Hollywood. But this approach to criticism finds its way to a kind of radical rethinking of what movies can do, who they are for, and what they can do for the people they’re for.

Take, for example, this bit from his review of Fireball 500: “it is especially calming to watch a[n Annette] Funicello picture after being overexposed to such excessively gifted players as Liza Minelli, who relentlessly ram their talent up the viewer’s ass.” Or when he dismisses Katherine Hepburn’s “scenery-chewing” performance in Adam’s Rib as not worth watching.

Instead, McDonald is gaga over Hope Emerson, the 225lb 6’2″ character actress whose unconventional (i.e. “unfuckable”) body makes every (male) director in Hollywood overlook her magnetism and understated talents.

One of the joys of criticism is feeling yourself able to elucidate the presence and textures of talent better than the average person can. (I’m kind of doing this right now.) Critics then, love stars and the abundantly skilled, and they love to play to our similar enthusiasms. If you go to movies to be allowed closer to the more ideal versions of us, conventional film criticism is for you.

If you feel that beauty is cheap and you’re more interested in real human faces,[*] buy McDonald’s book. His eye is so honed to the real that slips through a film’s worth of sheeny inauthenticity, and his variant (deviant/perverted) tastes open movies up as documents to a kind of U.S. viewership unreported by critics reading movies as auteur narratives.

What I love about the above paragraph-review is how succinctly he gets at those moments of the real, and how confidently he shuts out whatever gets in their way. As a “movie review” aimed at telling you what the thing is about and whether you should spent money on it, McDonald’s blurb provides no service, which is what lets it hang out as art.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. No surprise I count myself among you. My favorite film performance of the year is Louise Latham in Hitchcock’s Marnie (which I just saw last month in Finland so it counts). Go see it and watch what her face is capable of.