How Gregory Peck Got Over a Scathing Review
An advice column on how to deal with critics from 1948.
On Oct. 11, 1948, Hollywood star Gregory Peck wrote a column looking back at his early days as an actor, where he discovered a scathing first review from a critic that helped inform his future work. Peck went on to be nominated five times for an Academy Award for best actor, winning one for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Peck's original column for The Hollywood Reporter is below.
If it hadn't been for a critic in Philadelphia, I might not be in Hollywood now. Maybe I might not even be an actor.
Seven years ago, after I had played in several road show companies, Guthrie McClintic offered me a role in Morning Star, which would try out in Philadelphia before opening on Broadway. It was my first real chance and I was tense and eager. The morning after our first performance, I riffled nervously through the newspaper, searching for the review. My eyes ran right past Gladys Cooper, Wendy Barrie, Jill Esmond and Rhys Williams and stopped when they landed on my name.
As nearly as I remember the reviewer extolled me in these words: "Mr. Peck looks more like a wax dummy in a tailor shop than an actor headed for success on Broadway." Well, I wasn't exactly in a state of exuberance. Never before and never since have I felt so low. I could have slithered right under that proverbial snake's belly. I wasn't even conscious of eating breakfast.
I wasn't mad nor did I feel like writing the review off as the personal dislike of one person for another individual's performance. I suspected strongly that maybe I had been too tense and too eager. Although I had been in summer theatres and had been on the road in The Doctor's Dilemma with Katharine Cornell and in Punch and Julia with Jane Cowl, I simply hadn't had the experience or the background for the excellent company I was acting with in Morning Star. I needed a few more years on the stage.
My wife, Greta, and I talked matters over and we decided that if we took the review to heart and worked industriously, maybe I might look better to the New York critics by the time we arrived there. That would be a mere week hence. She sweated it out with me, helping me until far into the night, and somehow or other, that one week's prodigious effort did show up because the Broadway critics thought well of my performance.
I don't remember the name of the Philadelphia reviewer or of the newspaper because in my anxiety at the time I was only concerned with his critique, but he may easily have saved my career for me. If it hadn't been for him, I might never have known what was specifically wrong with my performance, or for that matter, that anything was wrong with it. Unlike in the movies, in a play the actor cannot sit in the audience and look himself over with a critical eye.
Since the Philadelphia episode, I have liked reviewers, those who are honest and sincere. And most of them are. Only occasionally do you find one who uses a play or a film as a peg on which to hang a witty piece of his own, often satirical, and he, of course, is not a critic but a humorist in his own right. But the drama editors who attempt to pen an impartial and unprejudiced opinion of a performance contribute vastly more to the theatre and motion pictures than some of us at times may realize.
They are not infallible, of course, and sometimes may err in their judgment, but they serve to keep us struggling to improve as actors. They save us from the great sin of contentment, and nothing perhaps is more fatal to an actor than that. In his Study of History, Arnold Toynbee points out that those countries and peoples achieved the most who were forced to meet and solve certain challenges, such as the challenge of environment, of external pressures, etc. In the case of the actor, the critic acts as the challenge of external pressure which must be met and solved as only an actor may — by never-ending study and effort.
The reviewer offers more than merely a pressure, however. Sometimes he provides a blueprint, othertimes only clues, about how a play or scenario could have been strengthened, or the performance of a player tightened up and heightened. These may be the only clues a player ever receives. His director, at the time the play or movie was being whipped into shape, may have told him in all good conscience that he was doing an excellent job, and others may have congratulated him.
They may have been extremely honest but erred because they were too close to the product for proper perspective. No one turns out a bad play or film deliberately, although the court jesters like to infer that such is often the case. Everyone in any creative field, whether it is painting, writing or acting, attempts his best. But it's only the critic, remote as he is from the creation, who brings an objective point of view.
For several years now I've kept a scrapbook and in one part of it, I paste the bad notices. And I've had plenty of them. Some of the most unflattering remarks — those points that I think I might overcome — I have underlined in red ink. Before I begin a picture or a play, I get that scrapbook out, partly to remind one Gregory Peck that he may improve with more work and partly to study the pieces and make certain I will not repeat the same mistakes.
The day I began Yellow Sky, in which I played an outlaw of the post-Civil War era, I brought that scrapbook to my dressing room on the stage and between shots I would sneak it out, when no one was looking, to check over my past mistakes. As I keep telling my dog, Perry, it's only human — and dog-like — to make a mistake, but only a mutt will commit the same error twice over.
It's healthful, I'm convinced, to get whanged over the ears occasionally. It draws us all up sharp to take inventory. It makes us realize that we do not know fully the secret of acting. The good reviews provide helium for the soul, of course, and they make a day about perfect, but I'm inclined to take the attitude of an oldtimer. Someone had praised him lavishly to the skies. He turned and said with a glint in his eye, "Well, mother, pin a rose on me!"