Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s (First Run Features, NR)

Smiling 75The best part about Smiling Through the Apocalypse is the way it recreates something of the mood of those heady days.





Smiling 500

In the golden age of the print magazine, Esquire was a legend among legends. This was due in no small part to the number of outstanding pieces it published by writers like Gay Talese (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”), Tom Wolfe (“The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”), and Norman Mailer (“Superman Comes to the Supermarket”). Most writers today drool at the thought of being paid enough to be able to afford to do the kind of in-depth reporting (and rumination) that is necessary to produce that kind of work. Or, for that matter, for a large audience who appreciated that level and length of writing.

I’m not generally in favor of sighing about how everything was better in some time other than the present, because 1) the good old days were never quite as good as memory makes them, and 2) the only time is now. However, learning something about how things worked in the past can be helpful in understanding the present, and that’s where Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the 60s, a new documentary directed by Tom Hayes, comes in.

The best part about Smiling Through the Apocalypse is the way it recreates something of the mood of those heady days and gives a sense of the excitement that could be generated by long magazine pieces. Seeing excerpts from some of those eminent pieces up on the screen, and hearing interviews with their authors, makes you want to run out and read them, right now.

Hayes also celebrates the innovative graphic design featured in Esquire, particularly the many covers designed by George Lois. In December 1963, the cover of Esquire featured boxer Sonny Liston, perhaps the last person white Americans wanted to see coming down the chimney, in a Santa Claus hat. The March 1965 cover featured Italian actress Virna Lisi shaving her face, a lead-in to a story on, I kid you not, “the masculinization of the American woman.” Perhaps most notable, the October 1966 cover was all text, white letters against a solid black background. The provocative headline—“Oh my God—we hit a little girl” refers to the exclamation of an American soldier serving in Vietnam, as reported in John Sack’s story “M.”

The central character in Smiling Through the Apocalypse is Harold Hayes, who edited the magazine from 1963 to 1973. In fact, this film is more a biography of Hayes than it is a general history of the magazine. Unfortunately, much of the biographical information is of much less general interest, particularly when we are treated to tidbits like the fact that the director, who is also Hayes’ son, was 4 years old when his father became managing editor. Tom Hayes also narrates the film, and his constant references to “Dad” quickly become annoying.

Director Hayes also downplays Esquire’s origins as a “men’s magazine,” complete with pin-ups, and seems uninterested in exploring how that history, and the attitudes behind them, might have influenced the magazine in the 1960s. He also doesn’t worry too much about who was not invited to the literary party, or what role race and class and gender privilege played in that question (Nora Ephron appears several times in the film, although she only wrote for Esquire from 1972 to 1974, which seems like a belated effort to achieve some kind of balance). It’s understandable that Harold Hayes, who after all had a magazine to put out, and was also a product of his times, might not consider these questions, but a film made almost 50 years later should have some perspective on them.

Extras on the DVD include extended interviews with Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron, and Gay Talese. | Sarah Boslaugh

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