By guest blogger Brian Brennan
In the midst of the hoopla surrounding the Toronto International Film Festival, a private retirement party for veteran CanWest entertainment writer Jamie Portman rates a 300-word mention in the National Post. “Portman scribe of the stars for a half-century,” says the headline. Is this how Portman wants to be remembered? One really has to wonder.
“Scribe of the stars” means that during the past 20 years in particular (not 50 years, as suggested in the headline) Portman has earned his living primarily by doing deferential pieces on the celebrities of stage and screen. A quick database search reveals that in recent months his subjects have included David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Chris Tucker (Rush Hour 3), Alan Alda, Claire Danes (Stardust) and Josh Hartnett (Resurrecting the Champ). The prolific 71-year-old has also covered the seasonal theatrical offerings at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, as he has done annually since the 1960s, and caught up with the latest must-see shows on Broadway and in the West End. But he hasn’t written a word about cultural sovereignty, government arts policy, the function of public broadcasting in Canada, or the travails of former Heritage Minister Bev Oda. In fact, it has been more than 10 years since Portman wrote regularly about the role of the arts in Canadian life. More’s the pity.
Portman has a long history of involvement with the arts in Canada. He fell into theatre criticism at age 23 in 1959, while working as an editorial writer at the Calgary Herald, when the paper’s regular reviewer went on vacation. Portman volunteered to fill in, and took over the arts beat shortly afterwards when the regular reviewer left the paper. Portman combined reviewing with writing about politics and other non-arts-related subjects until his Herald bosses decided he should focus exclusively on entertainment coverage.
During the 1960s, Portman played an important role in Calgary arts journalism, documenting the evolution of the amateur Workshop 14 theatre company into the professional Theatre Calgary. A man of eclectic cultural tastes, he also wrote about opera, ballet, classical music, films, and books. In his weekly opinion column, he wrote about issues of interest to the local arts community. When the Herald started adding writers to its entertainment section in 1971, Portman became the section’s first editor. Four years after that, he replaced Dave Billington as national arts correspondent for Southam News (the predecessor of CanWest). Portman continued to write from Calgary, but he travelled extensively and his pieces now appeared in newspapers from Montreal to Vancouver.
As national arts correspondent, Portman functioned simultaneously as a reviewer of Canadian theatre, music and dance, and as a cultural watchdog keeping an eye on how the federal government was doing in terms of funding for the arts. He played this dual role for about 10 years until he decided he would fulfil his mandate better by functioning more as a cultural analyst and advocate than as an arts reviewer. In 1987, his Southam bosses moved him to Ottawa, explaining that it no longer made sense for him to be writing about government arts policy while based in Calgary. At the same time, they wanted him to make movies the central focus of his entertainment coverage. The entertainment editors of the Southam newspapers had indicated they were more interested in the latest news from Hollywood than in Portman’s coverage of the Blyth and Lennoxville theatre festivals.
The move to Ottawa, as it now turns out, marked the first step in the transformation of Portman from influential cultural commentator into Canada’s answer to Bob Thomas of the Associated Press A respectable change of assignment, no doubt, but one somehow felt that Portman had made a more important contribution when he lobbied for increased funding for the arts than when he started writing about the bee-stung lips of Molly Ringwald.
His CanWest bosses obviously valued Portman’s writing because they kept him on the job for close to seven years beyond the normal retirement age of 65. But one wishes that more of that writing had been about the inability of the Canada Council to meet the needs of younger artists and less about the fact that Esquire magazine named Jessica Biel as the sexiest woman alive.
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and journalist. His latest title is How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray.