We Lose a Music Man, Two Critics and a Fashion Champion

 Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes

Two Critics, One of Art, One of Film, Both With a Little Acid: Robert Hughes and Judith Crist

Robert Hughes, 74, had a life writ large, and he wrote large, too, doing for the visual arts (and his native Australia) a great favor, writing books, essays, criticism and biographies about the former, and a big, giant readable history for the latter and thereby helping large numbers of readers understand both better.

Judith Crist, 90, was one of the top movie critics of the 1960s and 1970s, a field that came to be dominated just a little in that era by women writers, making movies that much the better.

Both critics died this past week, leaving behind a readable accumulation of reading matter on their specialties and lives. The fact of their passing reminded us that critics, when they’re as good, sharp, deeply informed as Hughes and as popular as Crist, could be enormously important and influential, no matter how much you might disagree or get angered by their opinions.

Hughes was skeptical to some degree about modern art, but he also helped make it palatable and understandable to every day sort of readers with his position as a writer for Time Magazine and a PBS television series, and his lively, if often controversial opinions and style, dubbed “pugnacious by many.”

His best-selling history, “The Fatal Shore,” told the history of Australia from its convict settler beginnings to modern time in a lively, detailed style that seemed almost novelistic.

Crist was nothing if not passionate about movies—sharing a fondness for serious films, some foreign directors and, of course, the critics’ darling, Woody Allen. But she was absolute death on Hollywood extravaganzas like “Cleopatra” and star-studded dashers, once calling “Cleopatra,” the Burton-Liz tempest in a pyramid a “mouse.”

Crist was delightfully readable if not particular cutting edge in her tastes or deep in her thinking. That honor, I think, went to Pauline Kael, a contemporary of Crist’s who could also be tempestuous but for my money had deeper insights. Both added immensely to our understanding of movies and to the broadening of our likes (and sometimes dislikes).

One would have to wonder how either Crist or Hughes would fare in today's Internet world, where every blogger is a critic, and twitterers presume to hold the same job.

Passing of a Fashion Journalist: Anna Piaggi

Not everyone that writes about fashion becomes famous unless they somehow become publishers of a fashion magazine, but Anna Piaggi managed that not inconsiderable task. That may have had something to do with the fact that she had a terrific and original fashion sense of her own. She knew hats, she knew drama, and she had a collection of thousands of dresses and shoes. And her writing and flair inspired no less a fashion legend than Karl Lagerfeld.

Lagerfeld was so impressed by her that he once said, according to one obituary, that Anna “invents” fashion. Fittingly, she died at 81 in Milan, the fashion hub of Italy.

The Music Man: Marvin Hamlisch

If music were an empire, Marvin Hamlisch would be its emperor. If music were a kingdom, Hamlisch would be its king. If music were a bunch of states, Hamlisch would be the president, by acclamation with no negative ads.

Marvin Hamlisch, who died at age 68 this week, was our music man, maybe the music man. Seventy-six trombones weren’t ever enough—he had music in movies, music on stage, symphonic music, pop music, every which kind of music and he had the Oscars, the awards, the acclaim to prove it. Not that he couldn’t have done it just by talking about it.

Hamlisch, who was the National Symphony Orchestra’s pop conductor—a position created just for him—for 11 years, was in a word everywhere, but especially in our heads and memories. Romance? Try “The Way We Were,” the recurrently romantic song sung and performed by Barbra Streisand in a movie starring Barbra Streisand, but not composed by Barbra Streisand.

In the year of “The Sting” and “The Way We Were,” two classic, hugely entertaining films, Hamlisch collected three Oscars, a haul that seemed almost unseemly until you listened to the Scott Joplin ragtime score for “The Sting” and never, ever forgot it. He was a part of "Performances at the White House," he was on television playing the piano and educating kids with his versatility, he sang, he talked, he never stopped being music’s music man.

He was also ubiquitous on Broadway, most memorably with the music for “A Chorus Line”, a one-of-a-kind legendary Broadway musical about—Broadway. Dim the lights a little, a flicker, for Marvin Hamlisch, the music man.

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