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Remembering Variety, the Spice of Life

  • 3/10/10 at 1:35 PM

I’ve never met Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, but I’ve always respected his work (and work ethic — I can't file full reviews from on the ground at festivals), and agree wholeheartedly with Roger Ebert’s impassioned screed regarding McCarthy’s dismissal. If nothing else, you’d think Variety’s publishers would understand that even the most crassly bottom-line Hollywood money people appreciate an honest critic’s early assessment of a film’s quality along with its box-office prospects. (Personally, I feel no responsibility to forecast box office, but that was part of McCarthy’s mandate and he did it well.) The part I loved best in Ebert’s piece, though, had to do with Variety in the old days:

I became fascinated by the back pages, the items two paragraphs long about cabaret performers in Boston, dancers in Miami, magicians in Philadelphia, lounge acts in Las Vegas, jazz clubs in London. Variety got its name from variety artists, and for decades they lived off a favorable notice in its pages. The paper then truly was "the showbiz Bible."

Yes! I faithfully read the weekly Variety at my high-school and college libraries, and would always save the best for last: the live-venue reviews from cities all over the world. The lounge and concert reviews were surprisingly detailed: the order of the song set, the backup musicians, the size and demeanor of the audience. Even when they were negative, the reviews were written by people who seemed to love what they were doing, and loved writing not for a fickle general readership in a daily paper but a show-biz audience, an audience of peers who knew the jargon and brought their own love of live performance.

There were times I actually dreamed of becoming one of those writers, at least when I got out of college — driving from city to city to catch the latest B celeb tour or dash off three rep or dinner-theater reviews in a day. I always told myself that New York and L.A. weren’t the only places in which performers could make a satisfying living, that “variety” was alive in all the country's nooks and crannies. It was a ridiculously romantic view, probably, but every time I catch the latest Gypsy production or hear a few bars of Cole Porter’s “Another Opening, Another Show,” I remember the joy I felt of settling into a soft library chair and letting my mind skip from city to city, show to show. It’s just not the same with movies … or, nowadays, Variety.