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Face It: Bad Reviews Can Be Fun--Unless They Are for You

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Today, I read scathing reviews of Tom Cruise's new movie, each seemingly upping the ante as they went for the jocular jugular. In the New York Times, the review ran alongside a lengthy, unusually vicious critique of a performance by tap dance great Savion Glover.

A week ago, I may have laughed along with the insults, or taken some guilty pleasure in seeing Tom and Cameron's summer flick flicker out (Savion's drubbing would still confuse me). But this week, I received some dismissive notices of my own, for a small and personal off- Broadway play, so I see things from both sides now.

"Theater critics are burned out and bitter at this time of year," warned my publicist. Okay. That doesn't make the pain go away. To have a cast and crew, as well as one's words, dismissed so rudely, hurts, and feeds the insecurity and uncertainty that come with personal risk. I have revitalized respect for all artists who put their work out there for all to see and judge.

I think back on Julia Roberts' appearance at the Tony Awards the year she was universally panned for her first Broadway venture. Brave to show up at all, and then to pay homage to stage professionals who "do this for a living," added to her class act. Will Julia return to the stage? I am sure she feels the bruises still, and it is far safer to stick to the medium she knows and does best. But I suspect there may be an unfinished feeling -- the star of "Closer" probably wants her own redemptive "closure."

While I will take less joy in the bashing of all artistic visions, I do think studio extravaganzas and expensive Broadway shows are fair game. Was all that money and decision-by-marketing worth it? But I feel differently about the independent film, the documentary, and yes, the small theater piece, that were put together with passion and very little money. I have spent the last few months working with talented actors and designers who got paid virtually nothing to do what they love in something they admired, with the great hope of having their work seen. Film actors in Indies do the same, and while I don't suggest they should be immune from criticism, (think what the positive variety can do for a project!) it seems they should be graded on a slightly different scale.

Yes, Tom Cruise makes about $20 million a film but as a friend of mine said today, "that doesn't mean the reviews hurt any less." So Tom may be feeling momentarily embarrassed, but I think mostly of one Patrick O'Neill, whose screenplay became "Knight and Day." He has ridden the roller coaster of artistic endeavor. He must have been celebrating the night away when he heard his first screenplay had sold. Then Cruise and Diaz were going to do it! Then it went into others' hands, the original creator lost all control, and now he's a footnote in nasty commentary.

I think there is evidence that people are paying less attention to reviews and they may in fact be irrelevant (probably true in Hollywood, less so with New York theater). I will likely continue to read them, but I will empathize far more with those on the other end. I hope I will find the courage to say "hey, I tried, I said what I wanted to say" and to enjoy the fact that audience members seem to be having a good time. But first, I have to get past the fear that the critics may be right. May the better instinct win.

Michele Willens' play Family Dinner is playing at the Beckett in New York through July 3.

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