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Critic Darlings

The casting call for the next Janet Maslin.

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Was Janet Maslin just too nice to review movies? Will the Times hire from within, or search for a comer from the hinterlands? As the Kremlinologists of West 43rd Street await signs of a successor to the chief Times film critic, who announced her resignation last week, they might consult our handicapping of the contenders. Sadly, our dark-horse favorite, Paul "Libby Gelman-Waxner" Rudnick of Premiere, has a confessional style and penchant for cross-dressing that are less than Timesian.

Dave Kehr, a Times Arts & Leisure freelancer who's been looking for a full-time gig since getting axed by the Daily News, is an early sentimental favorite. One source says News editors rated his output too scholarly; that rep could serve him well on 43rd Street. "He's got a national reputation, a lot of newspaper experience, and the kind of stature the Times needs," raves Roger Ebert. Told that Ebert likes his chances, Kehr says, "That's nice to hear. I used to run the projector in his film class."

If Vincent Canby is any indication, the Times enjoys poaching Variety. Current critic Todd McCarthy is friendly with Maslin and has discussed working at the paper before. McCarthy's toughest word on the competition: "When David Denby came to Sundance this year, he could write just one think piece about it. But I have to write a couple reviews a day. That's really intense."

For his part, Denby isn't campaigning for the job. "They simply wore Janet out," he says, "and they would wear anyone else out." Other magazine critics, like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman (who called The Phantom Menace "overstuffed" while Maslin loved it), may be similarly cowed.

The Times bench is deep but problematic. Caryn James -- who was Maslin's extremely competitive No. 2 before being made chief TV critic -- could stage a comeback, though Maslin is said to be helping to choose her successor. Current second-stringer Stephen Holden seems best suited for the repertory-film beat. Michiko Kakutani could take it on but would have to give up her current post as literary dean and culture pooh-bah at large.

The provinces are notoriously lacking in talent. But the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter could be the iconoclast the Times is looking for. "I don't socialize with other critics," he says. "I can't stand to sit in those screening rooms and listen to people make bad Noël Coward conversation. Do I sound like I'm auditioning for this job? Well . . . no, I haven't got the call."


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