MoMA Tribute to Lillian Ross

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MoMA presents a tribute to Lillian Ross, longtime journalist for The New Yorker, with screenings of five films illuminated by her writing

Pictures In Print: Lillian Ross & The Movies (February 23–28, 2007) features films prominently discussed and analyzed in her magazine profiles. Following the February 23 screening of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Ross will hold an onstage conversation with The New Yorker articles editor, Susan Morrison.

Ross (b. 1927) is one of the most celebrated names in film journalism. Reporting on the film industry over the last six decades, she captured many of the outsized personalities and landmark moments in the history of cinema. Shortly after her start at The New Yorker in 1945, she wrote a series of articles on John Huston and the making of The Red Badge of Courage, covering all aspects of its production, as well as the critical and financial reception that greeted the finished feature film. Ross’s work spotlighted the studio system at a time when independent producers and directors were beginning to assert themselves; these articles are widely regarded as the most informative and engaging record of the era in which film studios had primacy in dictating scripting, casting, profit-sharing, and release patterns.

Ross began as a staff writer at The New Yorker at a time when the magazine was still under the direction of Harold Ross, its founding editor, and in which Joseph Mitchell, James Thurber, E.B. White, and A. J. Liebling were regular contributors. Beginning with a 1950 profile of Ernest Hemingway that detailed the novelist’s short trip to Manhattan, including a shopping excursion and a caviar-and-champagne visit with Marlene Dietrich, Ross became celebrated for the immediacy of her writing style. The New Yorker editor William Shawn, with whom Ross enjoyed a personal and professional partnership for several decades, summarized Ross’s talents as the “dual gift for invisibility and observation, so that not only does she see, and see profoundly, but people tend to act out their dramas in her presence.”

In the wake of her Hemingway profile, Ross received several offers to come to Hollywood as a screenwriter, all of which she refused. In the summer of 1950, Ross accepted an invitation from John Huston to chronicle the making of his latest film, The Red Badge of Courage. Originally published as a series of articles entitled “Production Number 1512,” her book-length profile of Huston and The Red Badge of Courage was collected and republished as Picture (1952). Often described as a founding example of “literary journalism,” Picture presents the producers, assistants, actors, crew, and families that orbited the realm of the film as vibrant characters in a story about the Hollywood studio system, with the leading role occupied by Huston.

Ross also reported on Otto Preminger’s suit against Columbia Pictures for allowing Anatomy of a Murder (1959) to be broadcast on television with commercial breaks. A portrait of the filmmaker’s combative but charming nature, the piece captures his pride in the film, as well as a cultural moment in which a feature film’s legacy could be determined by the manner in which it was presented on television.

In addition to her extensive profiles of directors such as John Huston, Otto Preminger, Akira Kurosawa, Francis Coppola, Federico Fellini, and Clint Eastwood, and actors, including Tony Curtis, Robin Williams, Al Pacino, William Holden, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Warren Beatty, Walter Matthau, and Tommy Lee Jones, Ross has profiled politicians (Adlai Stevenson), playwrights (Edward Albee, Harold Pinter) and novelists (Hemingway). “The Yellow Bus,” her piece about Indiana’s Bean Blossom High School seniors on a class visit to New York, has become a classic, taught in schools and colleges for years throughout the country. She has also written shorter pieces on such film industry figures as Fran?ois Truffaut, Sidney Poitier, Anjelica Huston, Sean Connery, Bill Murray, and Wes Anderson, among others. With a prose style that relies on succinct but striking detail, and through quotations that register all the imperfections of unrehearsed speech, Ross offers compelling and fully realized narratives on her subjects, or what she terms “little story-films.”

Ross is the author of 11 books, including Reporting (1961) and Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism (2002), both collections of her New Yorker articles; Moments with Chaplin, an impressionistic sketch of Charlie Chaplin that draws on their years of friendship; The Player: A Profile of an Art (1962, co-written with her sister Helen Ross), a series of short character studies of actors, all written in the first person; and Vertical and Horizontal (1963), a satirical novel. She is currently working on a new book about actors, One of a Kind, to be published by Doubleday. While Picture has been in print for 56 years, and Ross’s profile of Coppola has been republished in a collection of interviews, the articles on Preminger, Kurosawa, Eastwood, and Tony Curtis have not been reprinted in full since their original publication in The New Yorker. To coincide with this exhibition, the profiles of Coppola, Preminger, Kurosawa, Eastwood, Curtis, and an excerpt from Picture will be made available at www.newyorker.comJennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).