"This is Michael Medved, your cultural crusader!" says the Northwest's most influential film critic, dressed Seattle casual in a plaid shirt, wrapping his trail-friendly boots around his stool at radio KTTH-AM on Eastlake, leaning toward the mike on one elbow, barking out sound bites:
"There are 60,000 investigations that the Motion Picture Association has launchedthat's more than John Ashcroft! We're dealing with more investigations of pirated movies than suicidal Islamofascist terroriststhere's something wrong here!"
As usual, Medved is ripping apart Hollywood and the film industry, something for which he's been able to make a paradoxical, yet comfortable, living.
In a city where the movie reviewers are mostly liberals in rusty Hondas, Medved is a conservative with a house on Mercer Island and a vaster audience than any local critic could dream of. His movie reviews are heard on 300 radio stations, and he claims about 2 million weekly listeners for his political/pop-cultural talk show. He's published eight books (not counting his forthcoming memoir, Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons From a Controversial Life) that together have sold 3 million copies. The most famous of them is 1992's Hollywood vs. America, written during his 12-year stint with Jeffrey Lyons replacing Siskel & Ebert on PBS' Sneak Previewswhich, he notes, had a far smaller audience than his radio show today. Medved is the only major reviewer besides Time-film-critic-turned-New-York-Times-liberal-pundit/editor Frank Rich who has ascended from an aisle seat to the political punditocracy.
But success only makes him crave more. Breaking for a commercial, Medved notes a call from Lubbock, Texas, and fretfully asks his producer, "Lubbock! Did we just go on in Lubbock? I gave a speech there once to 4,000 people. We should get Lubbockget Laura to get Lubbock!"
Yet despite his national profile, Medved remains a shadowy presence in Seattle, where he's lived for seven years. He pontificates on Oprah, Letterman, and Rush Limbaugh and in the nation's biggest newspapers (chiefly The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, on whose board of contributors he sits), but has no local TV or print outlet. "I kind of wish I did," says Medved. When The Seattle Times needed a new film critic, "I called and said, 'Boy, I certainly respected [former Times critic] John Hartl, and I'm here.'" The Times demurred. Though he spoke at a Seattle International Film Festival forum last year, he won't be appearing this time. He's famous and invisible; connected and alienated; happy at last to be a Seattleite, yet not fully at home; an insider and an outsider at the same time.
HE STARTED OUT as an insider in the American cultural establishment. Medved went to Yale with John Kerry and George W. Bush and to Yale Law with Bill and Hillary; out-hitchhiked Kerouac (coast to coast in 76 hours, plus two trips to Seattle); and crusaded for Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Congressman Ron Dellums. But six crises made him turn right like St. Paul turned Christian: Dellums' alleged "corruption" and Stalinism; Hillary et al.'s Yale defense of Black Panther murderers; disillusionment with affirmative action programs at Berkeley; getting burgled and seeing a public defender get the perp off via "every liberal clich颻 Israel's 1973 salvation by the C5-A jet, opposed by leftie McGovern and supported by Richard Nixon and Henry "Scoop" Jackson; and North Vietnam's cruelty after America's retreat ("They were demonicask John McCain how he feels about the North Vietnamese").
Having undergone a startling personal transformation, Medved chronicled his generation's changes in the 1976 best- seller-turned-TV-show What Really Happened to the Class of '65?, a study of the cultural journey of his high-school cohorts. Another best seller, 1978's bad-film compendium The Golden Turkey Awards, made Attack of the Killer Tomatoes famous and got him a gig as a movie pundit on CNN, then Britain's Channel 4, and then Sneak Previews from 1985-96.
But for Medved, being a movie critic has never quite been enough. "You sort of wonder, is that all there is? 'You should go see this movie, and not this movie'why is this important? Is this what I prepared my whole life to do? And the answer emphatically for me is NOOOO. Basically, Jeffrey lives to recommend movies. I would find it exquisitely boring. I don't do windows, and I don't do celebrity interviews."
A quirk of Sneak Previews' schedule gave Medved a window of escape into political punditry in 1986. "We had to have 10 shows that were 'evergreen.' Roger and Gene had created the idea of the trend showthe typical Roger and Gene trend show would be 'Blond Femme Fatales.' I was adamant that we should be edgier: 'Does Hollywood Bash Big Business?,' 'Hollywood vs. Religion,' and 'Kids Know Best'I said if they renamed Father Knows Best, it would be Father Knows Nothing. After that, ABC had a show in development called Father Knows Nothing, and they didn't even pay me!
"All of this was outing me as a conservative. I knew, and I was warned, that there would be a price to pay, because once you take a political position on cultural issues that is viewed as quote-unquote right wing, you make enemies. I just thoughtit's not a Martin Luther moment, 'Ich kann nicht anders, I cannot do other.' It was just that it sounded like fun." Medved bursts out laughing.
But his career nearly blew up in scandal: Just as he was about to make his name with the rightist jeremiad Hollywood vs. America, slated to be excerpted in USA Today, the nation's other big papers were plastered with a devastating story charging that he "accepted money from studios to rewrite scripts and advised studios how to market their films."
"But it was before I was a critic!" Medved wails. He had written a picture that got canceled when Henry Fonda got sickit would've been the first movie to star Jane, Henry, and Peter Fonda ("my best friend among Hollywood actorsI'm almost sure he voted for Bush"). "These were the worst three or four days of my life," says Medved. "USA Weekend almost canceled the cover story. I had to fight like a tiger!" Follow-up stories defused the controversythe whole issue of critics' entanglements with Hollywood is a vexed one too complex to be reduced to a simple gotcha! story. He still bristles at what he regards as his punishment "for being an unpopular conservative in a very liberal industry" and for alleged hypocrisy. "Tom Shales said, 'Medved should turn in his critic's badge'Shales has sold screenplays to ABC! Gene Shalit was one of the witnesses at Spielberg's wedding! I didn't review Peter Fonda's beekeeping movie [Ulee's Gold] because Peter had been at my house."
The scandal helped sell the book: Lots of Americans agreed with him that movies are "an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children. The dream factory has become the poison factory." Though movies have dominated his career, and he loves cinema, he ironically won his first fame lambasting turkeys he hates and made it bigger by loathing the entire industry.
The Guardian in England said Hollywood vs. America "change[d] the way the world thinks." It also made most of Medved's pinko peers think he stinks. "Basically, the reviews were extremely angry. Peter Bart [recently pilloried in an award-winning Los Angeles magazine profile] wrote a front-page story in Variety headlined, 'The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Medved.' I never said The Sound of Music was my favorite movie!" His favorite: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"written by Sidney Buchman, who was a member of the Communist Party, and directed by Frank Capra, who was a member of the Republican Party."
"Why is the critical fraternity so liberal now? It didn't used to be. There used to be very conservative critics like the late Bosley Crowther, and there used to be operations like the Legion of Decency, and they had a Protestant film office, and they put out reviews from a specifically moralistic point of view. What's amazing to me was how that entire voice representing that third of America who consider themselves conservative is basically not represented other than by myself in the film-commentary business." Medved's truest colleagues aren't film critics, but cultural critics like David Gelernter, author of 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, who yearns for a return to a lost America of innocence and promise and might untrammeled by liberal doubt.
Medved thinks all movie critics reveal political biases and that it's "quite natural that people would want to inform their judgments with their worldview, with something they care more deeply about than who will win the Oscar for best supporting actor." Medved evinces more passion for a film's political implications than its aesthetic ones. Time's Richard Corliss dismissed him as "the magistrate of morals"but to Medved, that's no dis.
Would he give a morally good, society- improving, family-friendly film a push beyond what its aesthetic achievement would warrant? "I try not to," he says. But he does! Uniquely, he views movies through a dizzying lens of political extremism. Fascinatingly, Medved agonized over Kangaroo Jack, which few critics thought about for two seconds. For him, it presented a dilemma: Except for a few flatulent-camel jokes, he commended it as inoffensive family fareyet, he warned, it was written by Stephen Bing! Or, as Medved calls him, "Stephen Bing Laden," the caddish impregnator of fornicatrix Elizabeth Hurley and the notorious No. 2 financer of (horrors!) the Democratic Party! A man worse than child violator Roman Polanksi, Medved argues, because Polanski's crimes are old, The Pianist is serious Holocaust drama, and the runty Pole is apolitical, while Bing funds "strident, partisan Democratic propaganda."
Medved thinks Hollywood only claims to be above politics. When he had Oliver Stone on his show, "I argued that they would never fund a movie about the private sex life of Dr. [Martin Luther] King. And then Stone was working on that [not-yet-produced] Memphis, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. According to Stone's information, King had sex with five different women the night before he died." Don't look for this film soon at a theater near you. Some things not even money can make Hollywood do.
"They'll never remake Birth of a Nationeven though that's still the most successful film of all time. Two-thirds of Americans saw it within two years of its release." Medved thinks everyone in movies is politicalhe's just among the few to own up to his views. When he accused the L.A. and New York film critics groups of honoring director Jane Campion for The Piano instead of Spielberg for Schindler's List out of P.C. eagerness to salute a female director, "I was guilty of all kinds of sexist thought crimes. [Critic] Henry Sheehan wrote, 'Medved isn't even worthy to be a critic,'" or words to that effect.
EVEN IN SEATTLE'S more temperate liberal circles, Medved tends to get uninvited to the party, seven years after he arrived from L.A. with his three kids and wife Diane. (A clinical psychologist, she's co-author of The American Family with Dan Quayle and the new Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children From the National Assault on Innocence with her husband.) "When we got an opportunity to do a Seattle radio show [at KVI in 1996], I think I surprised everybody by saying, 'Yeah, great!'" After 20 years, he says, "We were desperately trying to figure out a means of escaping L.A."
Our town's big advantage is the same one cited by celebrity immigrants like Michael Kinsley and Cameron Crowe: "People are nicer here. I like the vegetation and the sort of relative public safety that people in the Northwest take for granted." Seattle is also the antidote to "a lot of the stuff we're writing about in Saving Childhoodit's not by any means perfect in Seattle, but it's better. It strikes me about Seattle that most people don't appreciate what they have."
Not that it's all paradise. "One of the things that has surprised me is the extent to which my political position has sort of left me to the side of the film community, such as it is." He loved doing a SIFF panel last year on "Why America Can't See (or Doesn't Want to See) Movies for Grown-Ups." "But it was, like, the first time anybody had asked me. The first two years I was here, I don't think I even got press accreditation for the festival." ("He didn't apply," says SIFF's Kathleen McInnis.)
In some ways, he rather fancies his status as an elder statesman of the "Support Our Troops" Red American electorate in Seattle's ocean of "No Iraq War" Blue. "I love being the skunk at the garden party," he says.
Though he's found a welcoming Orthodox Jewish congregation on Mercer Island, he says the broader Jewish community has not warmed to him. He calls himself "a minority within a minority within a minority." "One of the things that's most surprising to mebemused is the wordI used to come up all the time [from L.A.] as a guest speaker of the Jewish community, for different temples, for the Jewish Federation, for different fund-raising organizations, and I'd always jump at the chance to come to Seattle. But since I've been here [he laughs], it's like persona non grata. It's totally political. One of the leaders of the Seattle Jewish community pulled his advertising from KVI because I was on the stationand he didn't have any objection to Rush or to John Carlson, to other people, because they weren't Jewish." He adds: "I don't think that would happen today, because the Jewish community has shifted. I think Bush will come close to dividing the Jewish community, which no Republican has done in our lifetime. Reagan got about 35 percent in '84."
It could be that Medved's problemto the extent he has oneis not his conservatism but his outspokenness. The Seattle style isn't so much about political hue, but consensus, attempted politeness. We're as xenophobic as anyone, but while it's fine to cut someone dead, it's against the law here to raise your voice. "I'm not a screamer!" protests Medved. "Many people in talk radio are. I don't really think I have a polemical style." He only invites guests he disagrees with, on the theory that "we have all kinds of differences, but let's be nice about it."
On the whole, Medved gives a wholehearted thumbs-up to life in Seattle. "I do feel more at home here." Only one question continues to bedevil him: "If conservative ideas are so good, why is it that all the good places to live are so liberal?"