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Palm Springs—At once a poignant personal memoir and a chronicle of a fascinating period in cultural and literary history, Smiling Through the Apocalypse takes a look at the scintillating tenure of Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire magazine during the 1960s. For those who miss the glory days of print journalism, this documentary—which had its world premiere in Palm Springs—has a bittersweet tang. While the film may be too specialized to draw even as much of an audience as recent documentaries about Anna Wintour or Diana Vreeland, it should find a home on public or cable television.
The film’s big draws are the literary lions interviewed in the film, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, the late Nora Ephron and Gore Vidal, as well as Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Benton, both of whom worked for Esquire before traveling to Hollywood to direct movies. Yet the picture also tantalizes as a personal inquiry by Hayes’ son, Tom Hayes, who wrote and directed the film. Tom Hayes provides the narration, in which he talks about his own relationship with his father, who died in 1989 at the age of 62. While they had a close relationship, Tom, who was born in 1957, didn’t have much understanding of his father’s cultural impact during the decade from 1963-1973 when the senior Hayes ran Esquire. So the film is a kind of research project for the filmmaker, who set out to learn more about a man he didn’t entirely know.
The movie covers the history of Esquire from its start as a glorified girlie magazine in the 1930s. (Hugh Hefner notes that when Esquire stopped including photos of scantily clad women in the 1950s, he saw an opening for a magazine of his own.) Publisher Arnold Gingrich and Hayes decided to bring a medley of classy writers to the magazine and provide an exciting new design. The magazine achieved many cultural firsts. Diane Arbus had her first photographs published in Esquire. The magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards, which Benton and writing partner David Newman helped to introduce, were the forerunners of many other worst-of-show lists. Yet the magazine also published major political and cultural reports by Norman Mailer, Talese, and John Sack, who wrote probing coverage of the Vietnam War.
All of this is cogently detailed in the film through a series of trenchant interviews with writers, editors, and art directors. Hayes’ rivalry with fellow editor Clay Felker, who was bypassed by Gingrich and went on to found New York magazine, will be interesting to journalistic insiders. But the film misses an opportunity to broaden its appeal by paying too little attention to Hayes’ personal life, which was apparently more complicated than the film suggests. In a discussion after the Palm Springs screening, Tom Hayes referred to his parents’ messy divorce, but this is not mentioned in the film. Harold’s personal history is not entirely irrelevant to the subjects covered in the film. One intriguing segment deals with a hatchet job that Hayes commissioned on rising feminist writer Gloria Steinem, but the film never delves into the sexist prejudices that so many editors harbored during that Mad Men era.
Despite these disappointing omissions, the film captures a vanished epoch with verve and skill. Skillfully edited and energetically paced, Smiling Through provides a memorable time capsule for those who miss the smart magazines that will never return.
Cast: Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron, Robert Benton, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hugh Hefner, Peter Bogdanovich.
Director-producer-screenwriter-editor: Tom Hayes.
Co-producers: Carrie Hayes, Judy Kessler, Daniele Salm.
Director of photography: Daniele Salm.
No rating, 98 minutes.
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