Remembering Jay Scott, 1950-1993

Posted by on Aug 4, 2021 in Brian's Blog, Journalism, Movies | Comments Off on Remembering Jay Scott, 1950-1993

Jay Scott was an award-winning film critic who died 24 years ago this week. Copied below is the piece I wrote about him for the Calgary Herald.

“I return from vacation to read sad news. A respected journalistic colleague, the Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott, has died in Toronto, of AIDS at age 43.

Last week, in San Francisco, I sat in a hushed theatre while Tommy Tune, the gangling Broadway song-and-dance man, quietly roll-called the names of showbiz friends who have died in recent years, mostly of AIDS.

Yesterday, I felt the same sense of grief as I read the weekend tributes from fellow Canadian scribes to Scott, the rawboned movie writer with the tattooed biceps, the Pete Townshend face, and the talent that wouldn`t quit.

Scott was the writer we all admired, and many wanted to emulate. None could come close, however, because we lacked his extraordinary gift. At his worst, Scott was erudite and readable. At his best, he wrote the wittiest, hardest, most lucid, most vividly descriptive prose about movies ever published in Canada.

He was just 25, and the product of a cloistered, Seventh-day Adventist, Southwest American upbringing, when he came to Calgary in 1975 to write about entertainment for The Albertan newspaper. The only movies he had been allowed to see as a child were Teahouse of the August Moon, and the occasional Disney flick. Yet he wrote as if he had spent his life immersed in the New York and Los Angeles entertainment scenes.

When he compared Canadian stage productions to those of the Broadway director Tom O`Horgan, Scott gave the impression he had been in the audience the very night Hair opened in New York. In truth, however, he had been at school in Albuquerque, contemplating Canada as an alternative to Vietnam.

He didn’t like Calgary. It reminded him too much of provincial New Mexico. He referred to it as “Vulgary,” a place where you could see people in cowboy boots puking in the streets during Stampede. Nor did he like The Albertan, where he wrote under his baptized name, Scott Beaven. But his editors gave him free rein. That meant he could be as esoteric and unconventional as he pleased, not bound by the simplistic, deadened prose styles that defined the writing in the rest of the newspaper.

Where did his style come from? My guess is that Scott owed a large debt to the late British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Like Tynan, Scott was an expert with the lightning phrase that instantly illuminates. Thus we had Lily Tomlin “riding a wheelchair like a rodeo star” in the movie All of Me, or F. Murray Abraham playing Salieri in Amadeus as a “rubbery old demon with a nose that wrinkles beneficently at the camera.”

Scott had a rare ability to evoke a performance or production in a few gleaming sentences. His review of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, for which he won one of three National Newspaper Awards in 1984, is a treasure trove of such one-liners, including his description of Tanya Roberts as “the last angel begat by Charlie unto the tube.”

He also had a great talent for parody. If a show didn`t warrant serious comment, Scott would mimic Tom Wolfe, do his review in the question-answer style of Jeopardy, or devise an imaginary exchange between the leading characters. Other reviewers used the same tricks, but only Scott could make the reviews more important than the actual productions.

Sometimes he faltered under the weight of his own cleverness. Sometimes he made mistakes. In a review of a Herb Alpert concert at the Jubilee Auditorium, he denounced Alpert as an inferior trumpeter to Jelly Roll Morton, seemingly unaware that Morton played ragtime piano, not trumpet. But one could forgive Scott the occasional error when the rest of his writing had the profile of a work of art. Scott had already reached the top of the mountain when the rest of us were still looking for the foothills’ map.

He joined the Globe in 1977 after his first National Newspaper Award brought him to Toronto’s attention. He dropped his last name, and began to write in a stream-of-consciousness style never previously seen in Canadian mainstream journalism. First, he wrote gossip and rock music reviews. Then, in 1978, he took over the movie beat.

I won’t linger at the tourist stopovers in his movie-writing career. His many trips to the Cannes Film Festival, and his journeys to the dream factories of Hollywood and New York produced memorable copy because Scott never allowed himself to become a cog in the movie industry’s publicity machine. If he praised actors or directors, it was because he thought their work was valuable, not because he felt obligated to the studios.

Though the voice in his writing resonated with the inflections of his voice on the phone, he didn`t reveal much of himself directly beyond his enduring sense of wonder about a fantasy world that had been forbidden fruit for him as a child. The closest he came to writing about his bisexuality was a sympathetic piece he did on k.d. lang when she emerged from the closet. As for AIDS, it was a closed subject except for Scott’s acknowledgment in a magazine interview that his partner Gene Michael Corboy died of the disease in 1989.

Scott’s private attributes included his humanity, his utter lack of arrogance about his talent (in this respect, he differed greatly from Tynan), and his way of making fellow journalists feel as if we all deserved co-billing when we knew in our hearts that he was the only star.

His public legacy includes the amazing volume of newspaper and magazine articles he produced over the last 20 years, and three books. One is a collection of his Globe reviews. Considered second-class literature by some critical standards, it endures as compelling proof that the best of daily journalism deserves to live beyond a single sunrise.

In the world of literary running, J. Scott Beaven never made the marathon. But as a sprinter he was unparalleled.”

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Copyright 2017 Brian Brennan - Author