Memo to Peter Bart of ‘Variety’: Don’t Tell Jon Stewart Not to Make a Movie

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Memo To: Peter Bart From: Jason Bailey

Hope you don’t mind me adopting the format of your incoherent and inexplicable “Memo to Jon Stewart” from the March 26 issue of Variety, but it seems another round of what you call, rather politely, “unsolicited advice” might be in order. You see, Mr. Bart, there’s a whole lot to unpack in your piece, which begs Mr. Stewart to abandon his three-month sabbatical from The Daily Show, during which he will write and direct his first feature film. It’s full of oddball assumptions, boxed-in thinking, and smug condescension. But first, and most distressingly, it’s just plain wrong about basic film history.

The offending passage comes in the second paragraph. Here’s that graf, in full:

It may seem exciting to take a three-month leave from your hit comedy show to assume the role of auteur, but the plan has never worked for anyone else. First pictures are always failures, Jon, especially in the case of stars and celebrities, and you are the type of person who disdains failure.

“First pictures are always failures.” Always. Stewart’s plan has never worked for anyone else. Surely that was a typo, I initially thought, but no, you went right on to try and bolster this utterly insane point — with exactly seven examples, two of which (Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking and Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) were actually very fine films, in spite of your assertion that they “went nowhere.” (And one of them, Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now, wasn’t even his first film.)

Here’s seven films that weren’t mentioned as part of your “first pictures are always failures” rubric:

  1. Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, the masterful Hitchcockian thriller Play Misty for Me
  2. Charles Laughton’s moody, atmospheric Night of the Hunter
  3. Ben Affleck’s tough crime drama Gone Baby Gone
  4. Mel Gibson’s warm and affecting The Man Without a Face
  5. Robert Redford’s Best Picture winner Ordinary People
  6. Gene Kelly’s joyous On the Town (co-directed with Stanley Donen)
  7. Woody Allen’s uproarious Take the Money and Run

Just for fun, those were all first films by “stars and celebrities,” as was your original contention. But since you also included Scorsese and Coppola, here’s a few more first film “failures”: Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Crowe’s Say Anything, Levinson’s Diner, Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, Godard’s Breathless, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Sidney (aka Hard Eight), Raimi’s Evil Dead, Cassavetes’s Shadows, Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Lynch’s Eraserhead, Huston’s Maltese Falcon, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, Malick’s Badlands, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape.

But sure, Jon Stewart shouldn’t make a movie because of Renaldo and Clara.

So that’s where you get your history wrong. But the entire framework of your argument is fundamentally silly as well. You want Jon Stewart to stay within the tight little box you’ve constructed for him: “I’m aware that you’ve always liked to break the rules, Jon, and I hope you defy conventional wisdom once again this time. The problem is that most of us always want to become something we aren’t. TV hosts want to direct. Stars like James Franco want to be college professors. Seth MacFarlane wants to be Lenny Bruce; or maybe Frank Sinatra.” And Peter Bart wants to be a serious film commentator. (I kid. But not really.)

However, in branding Stewart a “TV host” and insisting he wear that badge forevermore, you’ve shown a startling ignorance about your subject. Stewart’s not just a TV host — he’s also a stand-up comic, an author, a producer, and (get this) an actor with 20-plus film and television credits. He’s made plenty of jokes about his lack of success in the latter field, but the experience is real, so your pat-on-the-head assurances that “while [filmmaking] looks easy, it is in fact a very exacting discipline,” where “(i)t helps if you know how to talk to actors (not just interview them) and also have a command of the camera and a mastery of film editing” sound even sillier than your fumbling attempts at revisionist film history.

The point is, Stewart is a smart, engaged, and talented guy — why shouldn’t he be able to try something new? We tend to forget, but the guy took over The Daily Show in 1999. That’s 14 years ago — he was doing Lewinsky jokes, for Chrissakes. Let him stretch his legs a little. Being particularly gifted in one medium doesn’t mean you should be restricted to that medium. I can almost imagine you banging out a feverish editorial in Variety circa ’41, snidely assuring Orson Welles that he would better served by sticking with the radio. Certainly nothing good could come of that dull-sounding picture he was going to make at RKO.