(Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images, Sasha/Getty Images, Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images, Paul Zimmerman/WireImage, cover of Screenland)
In honor of Women’s History Month, Rotten Tomatoes is taking a step back into the archives to celebrate a number of the female writers who paved the way for those critics covering movies and TV today and whose work has had an huge influence on the culture. The 17 names on this list are by no means a complete lineup of influential female film writers, but each is a pioneer in her way, and we hope with this list to help you discover reviews by critics you may not have heard of as well as remind you of some of the greats you’ve been meaning to get around to reading or want to revisit.
Like women filmmakers, female film critics were working during the early years of the movie industry. And like their filmmaker counterparts, women critics often had to contend with sexism and limited opportunities in their newsrooms. Fortunately, this did not stop women like Iris Barry or Harriette Underhill, who helped shape what film criticism would become when they were writing in the early 20th Century. Nor did it stop Pauline Kael or Molly Haskell, two very different writers in style who left distinct and indelible marks on the profession. Or B. Ruby Rich, the writer who defined the term “New Queer Cinema.” Or Judith Crist, who had a regular stint on the Today show to talk about movies.
We’ve also included in this guide critics who covered TV, went on to lead newsrooms, or become successful authors after leaving criticism. We hope you enjoy discovering their stories, and reading their insightful and reviews – we’ve provided links to some highlights from each, and also linked to their Critics pages, so you can access all of the reviews we have collected from them. And don’t forget, while these critics were pioneers and we’re highlighting them during this special month, you can find a number of incredible female critics working today – across all sorts of media – throughout the movie and TV pages on Rotten Tomatoes. They are the pioneers of our time.
As one of the first film critics for a daily newspaper, Harriette Underhill helped set the standards for film criticism in the 1910s and 1920s. At the New York Tribune, she took over her father’s sports column after his death and began covering the burgeoning field of the film business through interviews and reviews of new releases. Underhill was a sharp writer whose work moved beyond simple plot synopses to really analyze films and the business. Her former stage career may have helped steer her attention towards actors, a direction which became a big draw for star-obsessed audiences. Her works are fascinating windows into the past, when movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the John Barrymore version of Sherlock Holmes first premiered in New York City.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) (1920) 99%
Fresh: “The picture sets itself the task of raising your hair from your head, and it succeeds from the moment the actors appear in the prologue.” – New York Tribune, April 4, 1921
The Conquering Power (1921)
Fresh: “We were afraid we weren’t going to like it, and in that case we should have to say so, and we are tired of being insulted by anonymous writers who suggest that we ought to be put off The Tribune or drawn and quartered because we didn’t like ‘The Black Panther’s Cub,’ ‘Sowing the Wind,’ “Carnival’ and some others.” – New York Tribune, July 4, 1921
(Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)
Known both for her contributions to film criticism as well as her role in helping establish the film department at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Iris Barry made the early distinction that film had a language of its own that’s different than theater. It was an idea that ran against some popular dismissals of film at the time, but it was an argument she would make over and over again in her work at The Spectator and the Daily Mail through the 1920s and ’30s. Her 1926 book Let’s Go to the Pictures would continue to explore her interests in cinema’s new aesthetic capabilities.
Metropolis (1927) 97%
Fresh: “The cinema, even here at its best, and full as it is of invention and thrill, is still only at the mental age of seventeen. It is still – quite rightly – far more concerned with its medium than with what its medium may most magnificently express.” – The Spectator, March 26, 1927
The Kid (1921) 100%
Fresh: “Beyond its ability to wring the heart, The Kid of all Chaplin’s pictures perhaps most manifests his extraordinary knowledge of life, which his sensitive perceptions and comic imagination use as the raw material for laughter.” – The Spectator, December 19, 1925
Hotel Imperial (1927)
Rotten: “[The producers] worship a minor deity called ‘box-office appeal,’ which demands that every film should have a stereotyped happy ending, however improbable.” – The Spectator, January 29, 1927
Under the pen name Felipe Centeno, María Luz Morales wrote several movie reviews over her almost decade-long run at Spain’s La Vanguardia from 1923 to 1932. After finding success in criticism, Paramount hired Morales to translate their projects into Spanish and write marketing material. Eventually, she returned to La Vanguardia to manage the paper, becoming the first woman in Spain to lead a newsroom. Unfortunately, her career was disrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1939, but she never stopped advocating for women journalists for the rest of her life.
Grand Hotel (1932) 86%
Fresh: “It has presented a cast, difficult, if not impossible, to beat. Of a discreet and correct modesty, in form and substance.” [Full Review in Spanish] – La Vanguardia (Spain), February 28, 1933
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) 96%
Fresh: “The truly extraordinary thing is that the filmmaker has been able to give the same painful feeling of nightmare, anguish, that the book delivers.” [Full Review in Spanish] – La Vanguardia (Spain), March 26, 1933
Originally from New Zealand, Josephine O’Neill made her way to Australia’s Daily Telegraph in the 1930s and soon made her mark in the country’s film world by taking the medium as seriously as any other art form. Like others, she left behind the plot synopsis and broke apart each of a film’s components in her reviews, putting a special focus on acting and cinematography. She continued to review movies through the 1950s.
Stagecoach (1939) 100%
Fresh: “With Stagecoach, previous frontier sagas seem like flimsy pasteboard. Here, the old West really lies. Credit for the dusty realism and the vivid humanity of Stagecoach go to director John Ford and his team of nine character actors.” – Daily Telegraph (Australia), July 24, 1939
The Lost Weekend (1945) 98%
Fresh: “The mental or emotional impact of The Lost Weekend upon the watcher cannot be measured. The film should be seen a second time, however, as an example in technique. Wilder uses his camera as a psychological index.” – Daily Telegraph (Australia), May 26, 1946
The Lady From Shanghai (1948) 83%
Rotten: “This Orson Welles production for Columbia proves what is wrong between Mr. Welles and the screen. The Boy Wonder is so busy playing with the tricks of the trade he forgets the trade itself.” – Daily Telegraph (Australia), February 22, 1948
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
From the ’50s through the ’80s, Judith Crist was one of the U.S.’s most widely read and watched critics. Her works could be found in a number of outlets, like New York Magazine, TV Guide, and The Atlantic, and Crist made regular appearances on the Today show until the mid-1970s. She made a name for herself back in 1963 – not long after securing her film critic job at the New York Herald Tribune – when she called out the epic failings of the Elizabeth Taylor-starring Cleopatra. Like her contemporary, Pauline Kael, Crist extensively covered an exciting time in American cinema, and some of the landmark films of that period made it into her book, The Private Eye, the Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl: Movies from Cleo to Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 88%
Fresh: “Naturalism – in characters and background – is the mark of this film in its technical perfections. Saturated in time and place, we are left with the universality of the theme and its particular contemporary relevance. And this is the triumph of Bonnie and Clyde.” – Vogue, September 15, 1967
Something Wild (1986) 91%
Fresh: “The end’s not unexpected, and the soundtrack’s overloaded with songs, but once Something Wild gets really wild – with Daniels and Griffith and Demme’s fringe comedy at their best – the movie makes its mark as offbeat entertainment.” – WWOR-TV (NJ), November 1986
As the longtime editor of the British Film Institute’s magazine, Sight and Sound, Penelope Houston covered an exciting time in film, from the birth of the French New Wave to the emergence of worldwide box office titans. No matter the trend, she held a high standard for herself and her colleagues. “The unattractive truth,” Houston said early in her career, “is that there is plenty of reviewing and not nearly enough criticism.” Her writing could be passionate about auteurs and popular actors alike, and her management of the magazine’s best films rankings made them one of its most popular features.
On the Waterfront (1954) 99%
Fresh: “Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a significant, almost a definitive, example of a type of film which traditionally finds Hollywood at its most expert: the melodrama with a stiffening of serious ideas, the journalistic expose of crime and corruption.” – Sight and Sound, October-November 1954
North by Northwest (1959) 97%
Fresh: “This is the purest piece of entertainment filmmaking we have had from [Hitchcock] in some years; it is also, which does not inevitably follow, the most purely entertaining.” – Sight and Sound, July 1959
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) 81%
Rotten: “The dehumanising of Bond has reached a point where pain has become the last irrelevance and he soaks up punishment with the dreadful willingness of a cartoon cat.” – The Spectator, Dec. 27, 1969
Born in California and splitting her childhood between Japan and the U.S., Hoshi Soffen wrote reviews for the bilingual newspaper Shin Nichibei/New Japanese American News through the 1960s. After studying journalism in Kansas City in the 1950s, Soffen moved back West to study English at the University of Southern California and write for the weekly, Suburbia Today. She would later become the English-language editor of Shin Nichibei/New Japanese American News, and her reviews often covered Japanese movies that were making their way to Stateside art house theaters.
Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) (1954) 100%
Fresh: “More than anything else, it is the color and photography which makes this production that of a superlative quality. Each scene is a priceless picture in itself, and the whole thing is a rare pictorial poem.” – Shin Nichibei/New Japanese American News, December 21, 1954
The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima) (1960) 100%
Fresh: “It is a monumental study in the mute determination, unfaltering dignity and monastic strength of the human being’s day to day battle with life.” – Shin Nichibei/New Japanese American News, November 24, 1962
Narayama bushiko (Ballad of Narayama) (1958) 86%
Rotten: “The pace is slow and in spots monotonous and repetitious. It could have been a few notches better with a few knots less.” – Shin Nichibei/New Japanese American News, March 17, 1962
Although she would become one of the first TV columnists and critics in England, Nancy Banks-Smith had originally started her career in 1951 as a reporter for various newspapers throughout the country. In 1965, she began writing about television for The Sun before moving to The Guardian in 1970, where she would remain for the next 40 years of her career. To get a sense of the variety of her work, Banks-Smith covered everything on TV from the long-running soap opera The Archers to the first episode of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks: Season 1 (1990) 91%
Fresh: “It has flashes of quite striking acting, is much better looking than your average soap, and far funnier. Tell you what, though. It is made by someone who doesn’t take soap seriously. Like romantic fiction, soap has to be sincere. Twin Peaks is just down the road from Tongue in Cheek.” – Guardian, October 24, 1990
Extras: Season 1 (2005) 93%
Fresh: “There are comedies that make you laugh and comedies that make you weep. Watching Extras I heard myself crying, as the salt stiffened on my cheeks, ‘Stop it! Oh, stop it. You’re hurting me!'” – Guardian, August 4, 2007
Foyle's War: Season 4 (2006)
Rotten: “You can hear the grass growing in the pauses. Time passes. It is in no hurry. It was two long hours long, and at one point I actually thought I had died.” – Guardian, January 23, 2006
(Photo by Anthony Calvacca/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
For many readers, Pauline Kael’s name might be the most recognized on this list, but as the same list shows, she had many predecessors and colleagues. From the 1960s through the ’90s, Kael had an engaged readership who eagerly awaited her sharp wit and divisive appraisals. Her 1967 review of Bonnie and Clyde pushed her work into the mainstream, and from then on – aside from a short stint in Hollywood as a consultant – she held a must-read position at The New Yorker, which brought her both fame and scorn from embittered filmmakers panned in her reviews. Her books I Lost It At the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang cover some of her early controversial opinions.
Hairspray (1988) 98%
Fresh: “When Divine’s Edna Turnblad is on-screen in the sleeveless dresses she’s partial to, the movie has something like the lunacy of a W. C. Fields in drag.” – New Yorker, February 29, 1988
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 95%
Rotten: “The thrills are fully consumed while you’re seeing this movie, and it’s totally over when it’s over. It’s a workout. You feel as if you’d been to the desert digs: at the end your mind is blank, yet you’re parched, you’re puffing hard — you want relief.” – New Yorker, June 8, 1981
(Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
One of the foremost voices in feminist film criticism, Molly Haskell has been looking at women’s reflections in movies since the 1960s for outlets like the Village Voice, Vogue, Film Comment, The New York Times, and many others. Her first book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, is a must-read for anyone interested in the topic and was just re-published with a new foreword by fellow critic Manohla Dargis. She followed the success of From Reverence to Rape with several awards and more works, including an in-depth look at Gone with the Wind, a biography of Steven Spielberg, and her memoir, Love and Other Infectious Diseases. You can still find Haskell’s regular contributions over at Film Comment.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 98%
Fresh: “Like the spirits in Poltergeist, suspended between one state of consciousness and another, Spielberg hovers somewhere between childhood and adulthood, unable and unwilling to go over the other side. But then, where would the movie industry be if he did?” – Vogue, August 1982
The Favourite (2018) 93%
Fresh: “It’s a dark view, but dark views, like sunny views, have to come from somewhere. Where is Lanthimos’s dark sun? I don’t know, but I’ll definitely keep watching.” – Film Comment Magazine, November-December 2018
Gator (1976) 0%
Rotten: “Burt Reynolds is a man not necessarily for all seasons, but surely for summer, for sunshine beer, and ice cream sodas, for drive-ins and long, lazy nights. I continue to find him one of the more interesting and appealing male stars for those qualities that others condescend to – the bright, even antiseptic, high gloss and a genuine light touch… [However,] structurally, Gator is a bit of a mess.” – Village Voice, September 13, 1976
(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Although she only wrote about movies for a brief span of her career, Ruth Batchelor’s legacy lives on through the group she founded in 1975, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Originally a songwriter for Elvis Presley and others, Batchelor made her own women’s liberation album called Reviving a Dream for a record company she began herself, Femme Records. Eventually, her career brought her to the Los Angeles Free Press, where she wrote about movies like Taxi Driver, Tommy, and Jaws. She would also contribute to ABC’s Good Morning America and NPR, as well as run the organization she founded for its first three years.
Car Wash (1976) 88%
Fresh: “Car Wash is the best comedy I’ve seen this year. It’s a movie that never stops moving, from its toe tapping opening to its humorous and pathos filled ending. The film itself is the ‘star’… Car Wash is an ensemble effort and there’s not a weak link in the entire chain of activity.” – Los Angeles Free Press, August 27-September 3, 1976
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) 92%
Fresh: “Can you imagine falling love with a [droid] called R2 or a golden robot with Cary Grant’s accent? Well, I did.” – Los Angeles Free Press, June 3-9, 1977
Orca - The Killer Whale (1977) 9%
Rotten: “If this whale had hair on it and cost as much, it could be just as big a bomb as King Kong. As it is, it’s merely chicken of the sea.” – Los Angeles Free Press, July 15-21, 1977
(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)
Dolores Barclay worked her way from a reporter covering the courts and City Hall to Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Associated Press. Through the decades of her busy career, Barclay often fluctuated between traditional reviews, feature pieces, co-authoring books, and award-winning investigative series. Although most of her film writing took place in the ’80s and ’90s, Barclay’s influence on the entertainment section helped expand the AP’s arts coverage, which remains a fixture for the wire service.
Sister Act (1992) 74%
Fresh: “Sister Act is outrageous fun and delicious deviltry. The laughs keep coming but, best of all, there’s much humanity at work. It’s a movie that just, pardon me, makes you feel darn good.” – Associated Press, May 28, 1992
White Palace (1990) 52%
Fresh: “White Palace is more than a romance or a bedroom romp or human comedy. It is a lesson in judgments and values, and a glimpse at emotional roulette.” – Associated Press, October 18, 1990
Waterworld (1995) 47%
Rotten: “One of the strongest indicators of a good action movie is the ability to snare an audience in the first 15 minutes and dazzle with a thrilling display or sizzling dialogue. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld… does neither. Its opening serves only to introduce you to one of the most self-absorbed, embittered loners in the action hero legion.” – Associated Press, July 26, 1995
Covering not one but two of the biggest entertainment capitals of the world can be a challenge, but it was one Nikhat Kazmi took on a weekly basis at The Times of India. In short, zippy reviews that blended both Hindi and English, Kazmi paved the way for others to use the same informal blend of languages to talk about Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Her brief capsules were direct and to-the-point, and longer columns allowed her to show off her insight into movies. She began covering movies in the 1980s and published books like The Dream Merchants of Bollywood and Ire in the Soul: Bollywood’s Angry Years before her death in 2012.
The Strangers (2008) 48%
Fresh: “This one’s a neat little chiller that creates fear out of the familiar: dark corners in the room, peepholes that show masked figures, walls that are incessantly battered with loud knocks, glass panes that reflect strange images.” – The Times of India, May 30, 2008
Luck by Chance (2009) 80%
Fresh: “The jibes are gentle, the tenor is fond, yet firm. But most importantly, the characters are completely real: feisty and flawed, even as the end is exhilarating.” – The Times of India, January 30, 2009
Rotten: “[Lead actor] Bobby Deol seems bored. Really bored. And you wouldn’t blame him for it. For the poor soul is saddled with a sad script that has nothing exciting to offer in terms of characterisation and drama.” – The Times of India, August 13, 2010
Of the writers on this list, Kathi Maio’s career is perhaps one of the most eclectic. Not only did she work as a film and book critic from the 1980s to 2010s for outlets like Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and On the Issues Magazine, Maio also worked as a librarian for much of her career and wrote two books on feminist criticism, Feminist in the Dark: Reviewing the Movies and Popcorn and Sexual Politics. Many of her reviews at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction looked at genre and sci-fi movies through a feminist lens.
Spirited Away (2002) 97%
Fresh: “Miyazaki’s animation is breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly intricate… But the filmmaker is equally talented as a storyteller, weaving Japanese fable and folklore into a plot that is unabashedly moralistic.” – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2003
Little Women (1994) 92%
Fresh: “The film is, in short, a joy to behold. But beyond the eye-candy, there is real substance in the screenwriting of Robin Swicord. It’s her naturalistic approach to a story she clearly loves that brings this beautiful film to life.” –Sojourner, February 1995
Hollow Man (2000) 27%
Rotten: “Good FX do not a good movie make. Certainly a few hundred state-of-the-art effects could not help Hollow Man, a movie even more empty than its title character.” – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2001
(Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)
An influential powerhouse in the fields of queer and feminist cinema, B. Ruby Rich’s work as a critic, programmer, and curator helped amplify films from independent and international filmmakers. Even before she coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in a 1992 Village Voice article, Rich was busy programming and writing about underseen movies since the 1970s. Today, Rich continues her work as a professor at University if California, Santa Cruz, and as an editor for Film Quarterly, the oldest film journal in the United States. In addition to her short-form reviews and appearances on TV and radio, Rich has also published books, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut and Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement.
Emporte-moi (Set Me Free) (1999) 82%
Fresh: “[Director Léa] Pool has reached a new level entirely as writer-director of deeply emotional yet lightly humorous storytelling. Best of all, she’s taken a genre known for its softness, the coming-of-age film, and put some bite into it.” – San Francisco Bay Guardian, November 20, 2000
The Mexican (2001) 54%
Rotten: “The Mexican of the title is actually a gun, not a person, which seems as instructive as any other detail of what might be wrong with not only this film but with the whole Hollywood project.” – The Nation, May 14, 2001
As Entertainment Weekly’s former TV critic and a writer for the magazine, Gillian Flynn was well into a storied career in entertainment journalism before she pivoted to writing her own books like Gone Girl and Sharp Objects. If you only know Flynn from her critically acclaimed screen adaptations, now’s a good chance to discover her reviews of shows like The Office and Lost and set visit dispatches from The Lord of the Rings and Jackass: The Movie.
The Office: Season 1 (2005) 69%
Fresh: “This smart series may revive TV’s interest in workplace sitcoms of the NewsRadio stripe – comedies that functioned almost as reality shows: See how smart people betray, bond, and go mad when trapped in petty bureaucracies.” – Entertainment Weekly, March 15, 2005
Charmed: Season 6 (2003)
Fresh: “The charm of Charmed is that it knows what it is: a guilty-pleasure fantasy about three witch sisters… who live in a really great San Francisco house and fight evil in supercool outfits.” – Entertainment Weekly, April 9, 2004
Lost: Season 3 (2006) 71%
Rotten: “Enough with the no-longer-surprising connections between all the islanders. The characters-bumping-into-other-characters-unknowingly has become such a given it borders on the ludicrous.” – Entertainment Weekly, April 20, 2007
(Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
For a brief time in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, Zadie Smith graced the field of film criticism with her prose writing about movies like Munich, The Social Network, and Brief Encounter for the Daily Telegraph, and with a rave review for The Clock in the New York Review of Books. Each review is a treat to discover, not only because of the arguments she makes within her pieces, but also the way in which she personalizes her responses to the movies. Before and after her brief time in criticism, Smith wrote a number of award-winning books like White Teeth, On Beauty, Swing Time, and Feel Free.
The Social Network (2010) 96%
Fresh: “In The Social Network Generation Facebook gets a movie almost worthy of them, and this fact, being so unexpected, makes the film feel more delightful than it probably, objectively, is.” – The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010
V for Vendetta (2006) 73%
Fresh: “In the face of this film something adolescent in me surged to the surface and I mean that as a great compliment: adolescence is a state I hold in high regard.” – Daily Telegraph (UK), March 19, 2006
Enjoyed this journey into the archives? Check out our story about Cine-Mundial, the magazine that brought Hollywood to Spanish-speakers.
Additional research for this story by Sara Ataiiyan and Tim Ryan.