We started our “best of” practice in 2016, when it struck us that we were all pretty cool people who liked a lot of stuff. Most of our editorial meetings become exchanges of the movies, music, books, articles, podcasts, and tv shows we’re watching and loving. We have had informal office townhalls on Bob Dylan, Roxane Gay, and Beyoncé. We have created lists of the top female vocalists of the 20th century and debated the merits of authorship, discussed the role of fandoms, and every drama — no matter how great or how small — that have arisen in the past three years. The “Best of” post has become one of my most favorite rituals for The Smart Set. First, it allows us to reflect on all the material we’ve come across throughout the year and pluck those texts or people that really struck a chord. Second, it allows us to share that joy. We hope that you find below a few samesies from your personal lists and a couple of new things to binge.

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A hotel is a living organism, a microcosm with a strict hierarchy, an orchestrated timetable of actions and events that unfold according to a particular dramaturgy. Some hotels have even reached the status of living myths — they have succeeded in forming an identity of their own. And in many cases, their status is owed to the writers and actors that have stayed in them. Agatha Christie stayed in room 411 of Istanbul’s neo-Rococo-style Pera Palace Hotel and is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express there. The Park Hyatt Tokyo certainly owes some of its appeal for foreign visitors to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who filmed substantial parts of Lost in Translation there.

More… “If Walls Could Talk”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.


Bernardo Bertolucci once told me that I became an actor to get out certain emotions that I couldn’t get out in life. And I thought about that for a long time and, uh, uh, uh…um…uh…I think that’s right.
(Robert DeNiro in Esquire)

Yeah, well … I think that … umm…you know… uh-hah.
(De Niro to Richard Schickel, in Time)

I, uh, can’t, ah, umm … Well, let’s, ah, see uh, I, uh.
(De Niro cited in the Toronto Star)

In any list of all-time most taciturn celebrity interviewees, Robert De Niro would seem to have a lock on a top spot, along with fellow inductees Billy Bob Thornton and the late Lou Reed. Observers are frequently puzzled that De Niro, regularly hailed as one of the most powerful, nuanced actors of his generation, has so little apparent interest in displaying verbal power; as Barry Paris observes in the journal American Film, “It’s ironic that the very thing that draws people to De Niro on the screen — this powerful, largely nonverbal projection of character, emotion and meaning — is what baffles and annoys…people about him offscreen.” But De Niro’s well-known bouts of verbal blockage do not tell the whole story about his relation to celebrity promotion and the performance of a public subjectivity. Indeed, they are representations that do specific kinds of cultural work. As Greg M. Smith perceptively notes, journalists reproduce these inarticulacies, in the way you see them here, on these slides, transcribed literally. “Usually,” Smith reminds us, “a reply in such halting, ‘naturalistic’ speech would be cleaned up, and awkward false starts would be edited out.” Drawing upon recent affect theory that explores so-called “negative,” obstructive affects, I see these moments of inarticulateness as only part of the complex construction of desire and disinclination that I call “reluctant celebrity.” De Niro’s reluctance, then, represents: but how, and what?

More… “You (Not) Talkin’ to Me?”

Lorraine York is Senator McMaster Chair of Canadian literature and culture at McMaster University. She is writing a book on reluctant celebrity.


The curious career of Maximilian Schell ended last month when he died at the age of 83. Maximilian Schell was most famous for playing Nazis. But he spent the other half of his career playing Jews. After the Second World War, there was no shortage of film and television roles for German-speaking actors. An actor could play, for instance, the classic psychopathic wartime Nazi; the quiet concealed postwar Nazi; the subversive Nazi; the sympathetic confused Nazi; the hilarious bumbling Nazi. The world could not satisfy its hunger for watching Nazis onscreen. We wanted to see them cross-examined, punished, caught in the act. We wanted to bear witness to them, see them doing anything at all — shine their shoes, perform the most unexceptional tasks. We wanted to see the Jews too — brave, downtrodden and then, in later years, compromised, lost. Maximilian Schell had everything the roles required — he… More…


The plot of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is ridiculous. A group of Jewish American soldiers are recruited by a Tennessee mountain man played by Brad Pitt to kill Nazis during the Second World War. Along the way they discover a plan to screen a new propaganda film by Goebbels at a cinema in Paris. All the top Nazis will be there, Hitler included. Exterminating them in one fell swoop will end the war. A few twists later, that is exactly what happens. So what’s the point? What is it about this counterfactual and openly farcical scenario that so intrigued Mr. Tarantino?

It must have something to do with the relationship between film and reality. The fate of Europe hangs, in this case literally, on a movie. Directors, actors, and even film critics are central players in events of… More…

A sexy, dolled-up blonde enters a fancy hotel suite with an oaf of a man. Her face is impassive and haughty, her posture erect. This dame is not easily impressed. She stands around as the hotel’s manager attempts to please the oaf, showing him around, but she hardly pays attention. The manager politely leads her to her room, which faces the one the big oaf is in. The oaf, seeing her across the courtyard, opens a window, and shouts, “Hey, Billie!”

Taking her time, the blonde demurely saunters over and in her Tenement-best wails, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!”

Such are Judy Holliday’s surprising first moments in the 1950 film Born Yesterday. Three-and-a-half minutes in, that “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??!!” marks the film’s real start like a steam trumpet. From then on, you’re hooked. Holliday steals every scene she’s in. As Billie Dawn, the ditzy former chorus girl turned fiancé of a well-to-do mobster, she is hilarious… More…