For the Love of Richard Corliss:
“Everything’s Worth Seeing” b/w Only with the Heart Can One See Rightly
I don’t remember the specific piece. There I was in college, struggling to put myself through school, struggling to become a “real writer” – and there he was in TIME. Student subscriptions were cheap, and reading the iconic newsweekly made me feel culturally more aware of the state of the world, the nation and yes, the arts.
It might’ve been a piece about John Hughes, for Richard Corliss loved his movies. Or perhaps it was something else a critic should scorn. But it wasn’t his populism that lured me in, but rather the way he excavated not just story arcs and performance nuances, but the emotional bridges and arches the audience could find within the film.
Richard Corliss recognized that art, especially art for the masses, binds us together. It reveals truths we might not recognize, just as films speak to the state of who we are right now. It was alchemy... with some of the most graceful word turns I’ve ever encountered.
And Corliss’ writing shaped a large portion of the critical math I still use. How does the movie – or his take on it -- strike you? What does the movie say about us? What are the creators trying to evoke or elicit in the one consuming? How was the actual execution?
He thrilled me. I found myself thumbing to whatever he’d written, whether I cared or not, because he always drew me in. Even if I walked away still not caring, I learned about the craft, but also the art revealing things to and about the reader in the writing.
Last night the email came as an interviewee was literally being seated at the table. A cold shock, a time stop. What to say? How to explain? Where do you go? Professionalism is its own reward: you ask the questions, try to draw out the life before you.
Then you go home. You curl up. You read everything the internet will hold – NPR, The New York Times, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, the Hollywood Reporter, Associated Press, New York, The Los Angeles Times. You cry through it all, then you curl up even tighter... and remember so many picture postcards falling to the floor.
Richard Corliss was the great white of pop criticism, a critic who wrote with knowledge and style, but without the elite art snobbishness most critics feel compelled to employ. Kung fu movies, “The Crying Game,” Cirque du Soleil, the Brat Pack, Bollywood, amusement parks, high art cinema, “Sex in the City,” Robert Redford, a British Film Institute Classics paperback examination of Stanley Kubrik’s 1962 take on Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” one of the ‘60s most controversial movies.
He would write occasionally about other things. Other things.
When I gave up my primary occupation as a music critic to become the head of Media & Artist Development at Sony Nashville, Richard Corliss became my personal Great White. He wrote of other things; why not my country singers?
And so the Fed Ex packages were shipped off, the blind emails sent into ether. Always something -- hopefully -- evocative enough to get him to listen. Always silence, a deep velvet cave of nothing. Voice mails, positively positive, trying be some siren’s song to lure him to my 615-742-4342 office phone.
I had read him. I knew what he liked: smart, real, true.
Undaunted, I kept writing notes, cards, missives.
One day, my assistant Angie entered my office, an odd look on her face.
“It’s Richard Corliss...” she said, an equal mix puzzlement and awe.
Since my boss Mike Martinovich was a quixotic prankster – and since Angie had been his assistant – I knew the set up. He was not going to trick me again.
“Piss off, Martinovich! I know it’s you...” I laughed into the phone.
“Uhm,” said the very elegant voice on the other end of the phone, “I am looking for... Holly... Gleason.”
“Oh, uhm, one moment...”
Never has a call been slapped on hold that quickly or with such force. I then let out a scream that left an entire building sure someone was being slaughtered. I slammed my door shut, turned the lock, hyperventilated, sat down, exhaled one last time. Then I picked up the phone.
“Well, that was awkward,” I opened.
“Are you Holly Gleason?” he asked, more than aware it was the same person.
“Yes, and I have a merry prankster of a boss who knows...”
My internal dialogue kicked me in the back of the cerebellum.
“Knows...” he prompted, intrigued.
Sighing, it was a moment of great decision: tell the truth or game.
“That...” I paused, remembering why I don’t gamble, “that I am obsessed with your writing.”
“What an odd thing,” he sparkled, all Gregory Peck and Cary Grant on the other end of the line.
“Well, it is what it is, and it’s true,” I offered, trying to create an equilibrium we could dance to. “I started reading you in college, not just how you use words, but how you choose to see things: you had a tremendous impact on me. You really did.”
I immediately regretted speaking with italics.
He laughed again, a big fluffy warm flannel cloud of laughter.
“Well, I see...”
Cringe, molar chew, die.
“Okay, well, uhm...”
“I like this Mary-Chapin Carpenter girl very much,” he said, scooping me up off the dark grey carpet he couldn’t see. “I believe her father worked for Time-Life.”
“He did,” I said, trying to regain my composure. “She’s a different kind of literate than Tammy Wynette.”
“Yes, I know,” he said, reassuringly. “She’s very good.”
“Yes, she is,” I agreed, hoping I could say one thing intelligent before the call was over. Be careful what you wish for, my outer body me admonished, because when you get it, you can look like an idiot.
“Do you think you could send us some art?”
“You want a picture?” I asked incredulous. Richard. Corliss. Writing. Chapin.
“Well, it helps if we’re reviewing...”
“Oh, God...” the grey carpet rushed up at me.
“No, Richard Corliss,” he replied, clearly delighted.
“Yes. Yes, of course,” I blurted. “We will send everything. Do you want to email me the address so I don’t screw it up?”
“Okay, that will be fine. Can you overnight it? Do you need our Fed Ex number?”
“No, no. We can handle that.”
“Well, good. I think it will be in next week’s book...”
I don’t know what to say. Silence.
“You write very charming notes.”
And so began my literal intellectual love affair with Richard Corliss. Odd hour phone calls, witty emails, cards and the occasional small gift. He would always laugh at how wide open, indeed unbridled my adoration was. Yet he never let me feel small or like the ninny I was always sure that I was.
He wrote about Chapin, Lee Ann Womack, Tammy Wynette, Stacy Dean Campbell, Joy Lynn White, Marshall Chapman Live from the Tennessee State Women’s Prison, Gretchen Peters, the Gibson Miller Band, Matraca Berg. He knew that my temple was hard country singer Patty Loveless; he gave her half a page, writing “Loveless gives us the truth, and she serves it up raw.”
Indeed, that review – headlined She Can Handle The Truth – taught a pantheon of country music industry folks the word “plangent.” Everyone around Sony Nashville suddenly knew that the mostly literary adjective meant: “loud, reverberating, often melancholy.” Or as I explained, “the kind of sadness that comes from the bones out...”
Richard Coriss, in that small office stacked floor to ceiling with books and VHS tapes, records, CDs, magazines, tchotchkes and his eternally glowing computer, knew worlds we couldn’t imagine. He’d take you inside for moments, for glimpses, for celebrations of things he thought deserved being noticed.
And as he famously said – and has been echoed in countless memoriams – “Everything is worth seeing.” Spoken like the true child of a chain link fence dealer and a first grade teacher, who fell in love with baseball and the cinema as a young boy, who saw the world through his heart yet somehow maintained a perspective that gave his critical eye extra resonance.
The week his Woody Allen cover story ran – not long after the Chapin review – there was a photo with the Editor’s Note. I almost swallowed my tongue: the man was Sean Connery as James Bond good-looking. Solidly built, clear granite-eyed vision. Holy crap! He looked even better than he wrote.
Did he call me? Or did I call him? All I can remember is that marshmellowy cloud of warm laughter floating down the phone line when I confessed, “Jeeeeez, Corliss, if I’d known you looked like that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk to you. OHMYGOD!”
“You’re silly,” he protested.
“No, you look like James Bond, and that’s not fair!”
He laughed some more. We talked about the Chapin review, how it made the rounds, how people were so proud of her there. It wasn’t why he’d done the piece – he genuinely liked Come On, Come On with its gentle entreaties and ironic clevernesses – but it was a side benefit he wanted to report.
One Valentine’s Day, I was going to be in New York on business; I asked if I could take him to lunch. “Something grown up,” I said, “so I can pretend to be some kind of big girl in the big city.”
“But you are,” he protested to a woman still on the far under side of 30.
“21 in the bar,” I volleyed, knowing the former speakeasy with the lawn jockeys down the stairs had always been a big favorite of Jackie Kennedy Onassis when she was an editor, as well as the well-heeled gentry from where I was from.
“Twenty-One,” he echoed. “You’re not kidding around.”
“NO!” I protested. “Valentines Day in the big city! Don’t break my heart...”
“Well, I couldn’t do that,” he seceded. And so it was set. Early because he had a standing editorial meeting. But my heart would remain in tact.
I arrived early, hissed when they showed me to a table by the kitchen door. “He’s Richard... Corliss... of TIME... MAGAZINE! Nooooo!”
I’m sure the maître d’ thought I’d pulled the name out of thin air. He put me at a corner banquette, the table still entirely too small, but better. When the captain returned less than a quarter hour later with my luncheon companion in tow, his startled look told it all: Yes, the short girl in the pink Chanel suit – like Jackie wore to Dallas – with the lighter pink suede Charles Jourdan platform pumps had been telling the truth.
Behind him, the slightly rumpled movie critic in the tweedy jacket and the twinkling eyes followed laughing. Whatever exchange had been had, it amused him. Greatly.
“Corliss!” I squealed. He bowed over, bussed my cheek, swung his rather large frame around and into the leather upholstered bench seat 90 degrees from me.
“I made it,” he said, taking in my journal – as always tattooed with curly cursive words rendered in Bic ballpoint and the wrist smears from the odd angles I wrote in. “You’re capturing the moment?”
“All moments,” I explained. “All moments are worth keeping.”
Paraphrasing his most solid refrain, his eyes danced. He nodded. He understood.
Richard Corliss got my passion for the music, my hungry for the context great critics could bring. Not merely for the blurbage studios to sell movies, but the deeper understanding of the art, of the intention, of ourselves in its reflection.
We talked and talked and talked, laughed and ate and had dessert. Suddenly, he looked at his watch. The entire cocktail lounge, with the little trucks and trains upside down on the heavy dark wood paneled room’s ceiling, was empty. Without a breath, he exclaimed “My meeting!”
In a flash, he was gone. Alone, I returned to pouring my entire meal into my journal. Every verbal fillip and conversational aside being captured forever, a meal not to be forgotten. Like Madame DeFarge knitting and knitting and knitting in A Tale of Two Cities or Wynonna Ryder’s chronic journaling in “Heathers,” I was throwing myself at the moment completely.
So consumed, I did not see the man standing there. Obviously wanting to cash out, how rude of me. To stay past the shift change in the name of nailing down all that had happened.
“They cancelled my meeting,” Corliss said.
“YOU’RE... BACK?!” I chirped.
“Well, yes, it was so pleasant... and were we really done?”
“Of course not,” I said emboldened from whatever brown liquor I’d drunk during the meal to calm my nerves. “There is always so much to say.”
“I move we move to the lounge, so I can smoke and we can continue.”
We did. Drinking 1963 Warre’s Warrior port; Corliss smoking in a way men –save Guy Clark – just don’t any more. And we talked about music, about possibilities, about how life takes you, but you must pay attention and yes, what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“You say you’re a midwifer of dreams,” he said, referring to my shocking pink business cards, “and I think that’s about right. You bring dreams to life, Holly. Get people to see what is right there, but miss. They wouldn’t see those without you, you know. I wouldn’t sometimes...”
My face burned crimson. Perhaps for the incredibly too potent port, but mostly from being seen in a way no one ever noticed. Richard Corliss with the x-ray vision. Richard Corliss, who loved woman – and they him – in a way that was safe, yet just enough dangerous to never let you forget those double X chromosomes on the double helix genetic twist that determines who we are.
When we parted an hour or so later, sated for conversation and even deeper in mutual fascination, we were happy and spent. It was a perfect Manhattan moment, cast across the ages. It was mine, his, ours.
Perfection was something he did well, because he found intrigue in the bumps and cracks, the silly little things that spoke volumes, the major things that spoke of intimate truths.
And as much as he loved women, coming to my salons with the ridiculously gorgeous photo editor Marie Tobias or some cinema friend who might find the artist interesting, there was always Mary. One late night, he in his office pecking away another tossed off bit of brilliance, we spoke about some such or what not, and I asked, “Well, what is she like?”
“Your wife. The woman who is your better half. That seems daunting.”
“Ahhhh, Mary,” he said, almost swoony. “She looks like the young Natalie Wood, loves movies perhaps more than I do and runs the film stills library at Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art... She is amazing.”
Mmmhmmmmm. There you have it. Whatever eau de frisson there might be, it’s not even a glimmer in the real world. And so it should be: Batman + Bacall, ever soignee, ever dangerous, ever more than my life experience can hold.
Sighing, I said, “Of course.”
“Of course, little one! We’ve been married since 1969. I’m not even sure you were born yet... and we have been absolutely in love ever since.”
Ever since. Indeed. Happily ever after. Just like the movies promise.
Just how Richard Corliss saw the world, lived his life.
He believed no matter what was, there was always a turn around around the bend. Hold on for it, don’t lose faith. Believe in the outcome and keep navigating.
When I left the record company suddenly, the product of black Irish girls’ temper and corporate structures that don’t have the same idea about what’s important (someone’s dreams versus politics and the bottom line), Corliss called me that same evening. My assistant had told him when he’d called about some review; he knew in spite of impetuousity, it was less than a blip in my life.
“So now it all begins,” he said, jovial as a country club Santa bestowing gifts on the members’ children. “Now you can build a world unto your own making. I think it’s going to be splendid.”
I was still in shock. What do you say? Let alone to a beacon, a mentor, an inspiration.
Raised proper, I went with the standard. “Thank you.”
A few days later, a book arrived in brown paper in a padded envelope. The 1271 Avenue of the Americas return address could be anyone in the Time-Life Building; I did a lot of business there.
Tearing at the paper, I found a book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Wind, The Sun & The Stars, an account of his time flying mail planes for the French foreign legion. Corliss and I had discussed St X (as we called him) and his seminal The Little Prince multiple times. This was a more grown-up treatment.
“May the first be always at your back, the middle warm your soul and the latter stay sparkling in your eyes,” read the inscription. “Here’s to flying the far flung skies...”
I sank down in the thin passthrough hardwood floored hallway, lined on one side by shelves and shelves of books and the other by grass paper painted celadon green. It was simple. It was perfect. It was palpable. It was real.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye...” the fox tells the little prince in the children’s book that means so much more when you are grown. Corliss knew I cared, knew walking that plank was death. He also knew it was the caring that made me do it.
My mother could tell me I was stupid all she wanted. Richard Corliss, the great American film critic, understood. Just as he believed it was only the beginning for me – and he was right. Neither of us could know, nor dream what was to come. But in his faith, I believed – and in my Black Irish defiance, I somehow made my way to every award imaginable, to crazy dreams for little projects that could, for high profiles for critical darlings and respect for mainstreamers yearning for integrity.
Without knowing what or how, Corliss and his heart saw that. Without ever telling me why, I believed because he believed in me.
We last emailed a few months ago, about Lee Ann Womack’s wondrous little record that could The Way I’m Livin’. Grammy-nominated, I was trying to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that might lead TIME’s 35 year veteran critic to his keyboard in the name of music one more time.
“It is incredible,” he wrote back. “She still breaks hearts and has her finger on the pulse of how the human condition goes wrong. And how are you?”
Always looking out – and looking out for the people who huddled under his tent of equanimity and love. No matter that I was off his beat, hadn’t given him fodder for his copious writing skills in years, he still responded.
Sarah Potenza and her husband, the artist who had arrived as I got the news, had offered to come back in a bit, the look of chagrin evident on my face. I beckoned them to sit, let myself settle. She had been blown out of “The Voice” after surviving the Knock Out Round and the Play-Offs, something so feeding the Christians to the lions, almost excessive the way they ratchet up drama
An unlikely candidate at 37, anything but lithe, quirky looking, Potenza is a belter. She is Every(Real)Woman with talent, improbable, but powerful. We talked of hopes, of strategy, of songs and how tv talent shows are built on emotional shell games more than the gift of real – or the enduring
Somewhere Richard Corliss’ star twinkled just a bit, threw a little light down. He liked what we were doing with her journey. The Cinderella as a big gal; the working Judy Garland from Rhode Island in a van with 300,000 miles.
When people die, I have always written essays. Corliss would always send me little notes with phrases he liked, questions about the departed, bits of common ground or things he knew/saw I couldn’t.
Suddenly, he won’t be telling me what he likes about this essay. It’s just me out here now, trusting he can see me, hoping somehow he’ll know... even knowing he just might be laughing with delight at the dorky girl who never could quite believe he was responding.
Richard Corliss was just that way. I might never be a Hepburn – Audrey or Katherine – in a brilliantly written romantic comedy of that age, nor even Diane Keaton in her awkward realm of “Annie Hall,” but I could be a plucky girl making her way while staying singularly all the things that I am. To him, that was everything those heroines should be: strong, smart, savvy, truculent even.
Richard Corliss did that to people. Just like when you read him, you felt smarter, lighter, shinier, somehow more soignee than you deserved. To a kid in a bad linoleum dorm room, I can testify to what I say. As a grown-up who’s worked with some of the biggest stars – from Emmylou Harris and John Prine to Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn – I know it to be true.
Somewhere, my dear Mr. Corliss, I hope you know you’re on my heart. But even more, I hope the wind is at your back, the sun is on your face and you’re one of the stars in my eyes. I can only hope, but somehow I believe it’s so.