By JANET MASLIN
Published: October 25, 1994
Readers of Premiere magazine know the monthly columnist Libby Gelman-Waxner as a tireless practitioner of what one of her fans calls “glandular criticism.” Her marriage to Josh Waxner, “a wildly sought-after Upper East Side orthodontist,” and her job as “an extremely successful assistant buyer in juniors’ activewear” are no obstacles to Libby’s career as a guerrilla movie fan, happily throwing brickbats and valentines at the screen.
Delirious movie-inspired riffs are her specialty, the more personal the better. She leaves a screening of “Indecent Proposal” and describes running into a dead ringer for Demi Moore, who buys a night with Josh Waxner in exchange for $170 and aisle seats for “Sunset Boulevard.” Libby regales readers with her relatives’ thoughts about movies. (“Jennifer begged me to take her to ‘The Karate Kid III,’ but I explained that if I did, the Government could legally place her with foster parents.”) Writing from her bathtub, “with the whirlpool attachment turned to the adultery setting,” Libby contemplates “The Last of the Mohicans.”
She announces that she would not mind being Libby Gelman-Day-Lewis some day.
What readers may not know about Libby is that she is actually the pseudonymous creation of Paul Rudnick, the fabulously funny playwright (“Jeffrey”), screenwriter (“Addams Family Values”) and novelist (“I’ll Take It”). And Mr. Rudnick weaves many a trenchant thought into Libby’s comic screeds. The mark of movie-making experience is apparent here, no matter how giddy, ad hominem or trivia-crazy the tone. For instance:
Libby on directing: “If I bake a cake, I buy the mix, I put it in the microwave, and I take it out when it beeps; my husband watches me do all this, which makes him the cake’s director. The director is like God; no one knows if God really exists, but it’s someone to blame. Some directors even went to film school, mostly to watch old movies; film school is a three-year version of a snow day.”
Libby on screenwriting: “Screenwriters often work in pairs, because one partner usually specializes in writing the phaser battles, while the other partner is good at lines like ‘Hasta la vista, baby,’ or ‘Lieutenant, what the hell is going on out there?’ “
Libby on stars: “Lassie couldn’t talk, act or be in any way human and yet she became very popular by simulating these talents; Lassie is the role model for today’s biggest box-office idols.”
Libby on marketing: “Marketing is, of course, 99 percent of film making, because it is the only part of the process that the execs, the writers, the stars, the director and the audience really enjoy. In the TV ads, the movie is always the feel-good hit of the summer, the star looks great and the audience gets to see the only 30 seconds of the movie that actually work.”
Not all of “If You Ask Me,” a slender collection of Libby’s Premiere columns, is quite this sure-fire. Libby can ramble, repeat herself and overuse the semicolon; you will know way too much about her shopping habits before finishing this book. But you will also have annoyed anyone within earshot, because Libby’s best harangues prompt laughing out loud. Libby elaborating on “Heathers” to her daughter: “I explained to Jennifer that just because someone is blond and cute and popular, that’s no reason to murder them. The best thing to do is wait 20 years until those girls become Connecticut divorcees with secret drinking problems and children in ashrams, and then you can run into them at reunions and sympathize.”
Although “If You Ask Me” is at least as much a work of fiction as of film criticism, it’s at its best when Libby comes out of her haze to deliver a sharp, novel opinion. Describing “Jungle Fever” from an unusual but apt perspective, she writes, “Spike’s movies always have drop-dead clothes and gorgeous furniture and jazzy camera angles, as if he just loves making movies; Spike is great because he’s like an activist Vincente Minnelli.” Annoyed by “Edward Scissorhands,” she notes: “Some people say that this film is an allegory about Jesus or the role of the artist in society. Jesus, if you ask me, actually had something on his mind besides hedge clipping, and I don’t remember anyone chasing Picasso, or Warhol or even Tim Burton, who conceived and directed this movie, back up to his castle.”
Libby zeroes in on sanctimoniousness wherever she finds it. (On “The Fisher King”: “Almost all you need to know about it is that Robin Williams plays a homeless person who imagines himself to be a knight on a mythical quest. This is a film for people who thought that ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘Dances With Wolves’ were too sarcastic.”
She also shows off a screenwriter’s way with one-liners. So Demi Moore “may in fact be the first actress to use movies as a steppingstone to modeling.” Libby’s cousin Andrew, an art director who’s “so incredibly creative that, as my mother says, no one’s holding their breath for grandchildren,” opines that “David Mamet is the Hulk Hogan of the American theater and that his word processor should be tested for steroids.” On the brat pack: “I’m very sorry, I know I’m not supposed to call them the Brat Pack, because it degrades their work in teen-vampire movies.”
Finally, the author’s most satisfying witticism is Libby herself. Her character is drawn with such glee and affection that at moments like one when “the usher had to conk me with his flashlight to make me stop whimpering” during “The Last of the Mohicans,” she can sound real, sweetly incorrigible and even touching. When Libby imagines Daniel Day-Lewis saying “Libby, let me take you in my arms and explain who the Hurons are,” the reader may even hope, for Libby’s sake, that her daydreams come true.