One of the most widely read film critics in the country, Owen Gleiberman, ’80, started his writing career at the Boston Phoenix before joining Entertainment Weekly in 1990. He worked there until 2014, becoming a champion of the wave of boundary-pushing American filmmakers in the 1990s. Now chief film critic for Variety, the Ann Arbor native has just published his memoir, “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies.” He spoke to Michigan Alumnus about his film education.
U-M’S ECLECTIC FILM SOCIETIES became a part of Gleiberman’s life in his teenage years. In the era before home video, this was the only way to view the classics and foreign films. Plus, as he recalled, they didn’t bar minors. “You could just show up and buy a ticket and go see a movie like ‘Last Tango in Paris’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ That was really my first taste of the romance and danger of cinema.”
A SEEDIER, BUT NO LESS INFLUENTIAL, ELEMENT of Gleiberman’s film education was the “Erotic Art Museum,” the Ypsilanti porn theater he visited as a student. That experience informed his enthusiastic review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film “Boogie Nights” in the pages of Entertainment Weekly.
AT THE MICHIGAN DAILY, Gleiberman penned his first movie reviews. A classical musician in high school, he had originally joined to review concerts, but found that beat unsatisfying. “I felt like I came off as peevish in the reviews, criticizing the oboe solo three days ago. Who cared?” In 2010, he returned to his alma mater to teach a mini-course on film criticism.
BEFRIENDING PAULINE KAEL as an undergraduate, Gleiberman was introduced to the larger world of professional film criticism. He wrote the legendary New Yorker critic a fan letter. When she responded, “it was as if Axl Rose had written back to me.” Kael collected friends and acolytes, deemed by the critical community as “Paulettes.” But Gleiberman said he never was one of that group. “I sensed that she always wanted you to agree with her, and I knew that I didn’t.”
IN HIS FINAL SEMESTER AT U-M, Gleiberman got a call from a Boston Phoenix editor offering him a critic position at the alternative weekly. At only 22 and with little life experience, he felt unqualified for his first job. “When you’re a movie critic, your experience of the world is such a central element of what you’re doing, because the movies are really about everything.”
GLEIBERMAN JOINED ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY at the magazine’s inception in 1990. By that point, “I had played out my maturation as a writer on the page.” He was ready to reach a national audience and used his platform to champion films like “Crumb” and “Chuck & Buck.”
ONCE AT ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Gleiberman became an integral tastemaker of cinema. He befriended directors like “JFK” helmer Oliver Stone, who took Gleiberman out for wild evenings, while his negative reviews of popular fare like “Pretty Woman” and “Forrest Gump” provoked constant pushback from magazine executives and studios. “Part of what drew me to being a critic is that I wanted to be a part of the conversation,” Gleiberman said. “I wanted to be at the center of what people were talking about.”
ON MAY 4, VARIETY ANNOUNCED Gleiberman’s appointment as its new chief critic—one of the profession’s most coveted jobs. “Owen’s astute film criticism and essays are awe-inspiring,” Claudia Eller, Variety co-editor-in-chief, said in the announcement. The movie freak has become the movie master.
Andrew Lapin, ’11, is a film critic for NPR.org and other outlets. He attended Gleiberman’s film criticism mini-course as a student.