Invisible Ink: No 85 - Libby Gelman-Waxner

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The Independent Culture

Collected film reviews are only fun to read if their author's personality can be glimpsed through them.

Leslie Halliwell always seemed a curmudgeonly nostalgist. David Thomson has the bracing acerbity of an opinionated expert. Kim Newman has an almost autistic eye for detail, but cleverly connects his reviews to the world around them.

Libby Gelman-Waxner had none of these qualities. She was a Jewish assistant buyer in juniors' activewear described as "America's most charming and irresponsible film critic", and admitted that she knew nothing about film except what she saw at the multiplex. The idea was that as "an average filmgoer" she would bring a new perspective to reviewing. In a very short time she became the only reason for buying Rupert Murdoch's hagiographic film magazine Premiere.

Her reviews were hilarious because her naivety pointed up the absurdity of most Hollywood productions. "Pretty Woman is basically a recruiting poster for prostitution," she says. "The salespeople on Rodeo Drive snub Julia Roberts because she's tacky. What do they do when Jackie Collins starts to browse?" On the definition of film noir: "Sexy and really, really boring." On ethnic-demographic movies: "I was brought up to believe in a rainbow coalition because my mother said if a sweater is a classic you should get it in every colour." On Tom Cruise: "In almost all his films he learns a skill that only boys in a high school shop class would find attractive, like being a fighter pilot in peacetime, selling Lamborghinis or playing pool. In Cocktail he expresses emotional torment through banana daiquiris." On Sharon Stone: "On her tax return where it says 'profession' she can proudly have her accountant type in 'Jezebel'."

Soon, though, the pieces started sneaking in an increasingly liberal political agenda. Gelman-Waxner's family members began to write for the column, including her deafening mother Sondra, her gay friend Andrew, her dentist husband Josh, and their teenage daughter Jennifer. Jokes about Bill Clinton, Michel Foucault and Pauline Kael appeared, and the collected pieces arrived in a book called If You Ask Me.

Gelman-Waxner vanished from Premiere and the editors resigned over bias in its articles. In 2007, the magazine folded, and it emerged that Gelman-Waxner did not exist. "She" was the screenwriter Paul Rudnick, who wrote the novels Social Disease and I'll Take It. John Cleese once wrote a book of sketches under the pseudonym Muriel Volestrangler. "Libby" was just as funny, and is greatly missed.