By Cece M. Scott cecescott.com
Best known as the Toronto Sun’s movie critic for several decades, Bruce Kirkland says, “I had three different careers in my life and I didn’t apply for any of them.”
“AT THE END OF MY SUMMER INTERNSHIP AT THE Toronto Star, I became the paper’s first, full-time music critic, for which I wasn’t really qualified,” says Kirkland. “This role dramatically broadened my interest in the possibilities of a wide breadth of music genres. If the music was good, I wanted to listen to it.”
Moving on to the Ottawa Journal in 1979 as the entertainment editor, Kirkland appointed himself the paper’s film critic. He had a little more experience in this field, having watched movies on the family’s old television set. “Most of the films were in black and white,” says Kirkland. “And if I gave a movie ten minutes, I would watch it to the end. This served me well. I went on to be a film critic for 36 years.”
The first interview that Kirkland conducted for the Toronto Sun in 1980 was with Bette Midler, singer, songwriter, actress and comedian. “The interview with Bette was a real kick-start,” says Kirkland, “That is one thing that I do miss since retiring – the opportunity to sit down with people like her.”
His last interview for the Toronto Sun was in 2016 with the influential filmmaker, Martin Scorsese.
As a young teen, Kirkland was painfully shy. His father was in the RCAF, which necessitated the family moving 16 times in Kirkland’s first 16 years. Inadvertently falling into journalism (he signed up for the wrong course at the University of Western Ontario), Kirkland decided to pursue it – a decision that proved to be fruitful.
Kirkland has attended 44 Toronto International Film Festivals (TIFF), 31 Cannes Film Festivals, and covered a dozen Oscars. His interviewees include Tommy Lee Jones (his least favourite personality), Russell Crowe (a casual friend), Toronto filmmaker, writer and actor, David Cronenberg, as well as Canadian film director, Atom Egoyan, William Hurt, Mary Steenburgen, and American politician and environmentalist, Al Gore – to name a few.
When reminiscing about the hype that was attached to the illustrious Cannes Film Festival, Kirkland recounts filing his stories by teletype, which were run by local men, who didn’t speak English. They were merely inputting the words that were on the page. “Sometimes it was so garbled my editor didn’t know what I was talking about,” says Kirkland with a laugh. “After the teletype machines, the technology evolved to crude boxy computers that looked like giant lunch boxes, and probably had the computing power of 1/100th of today’s cell phones. High speed internet did not come until much later in my career.”
Kirkland could relate scores of celebrity anecdotes, but when the topic turns to birding (a true birder never calls it bird watching) he becomes visibly animated. “I love travelling, especially in Latin America. I love speaking Spanish, which I continue to study. And I love to feed my birding obsession in Costa Rica.”
Kirkland’s birding preoccupation began in 1976, when he spotted a large gathering of Northern Gannets sitting atop a skyscraper-sized rock on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. “It was like seeing the Manhattan of the bird world,” says Kirkland. “The area was later declared a reserve, and became protected land. I felt like I was involved in a little bit of nature history. It was a magical, life changing experience.”
At the age of 70, Kirkland is grateful for his physical health. He enjoys working around the house, travelling and hiking. “Walking long distances doesn’t bother me in the least,” says Kirkland. “It is the excitement of the chase, and it is also good exercise. If you are completely bonkers about birding like I am, you want to see every bird possible.”
Kirkland says that his emotional and spiritual wellbeing is a result of his deep friendship with his second wife, Rachel Sa. Sa is an author and former Toronto Sun columnist. She currently works as a public relations manager for an engineering and architectural firm. “Rachel is the love of my life,” says Kirkland.
On safari in Kenya last July, the couple were challenged by a young bull elephant, who trumpeted their vehicle. “The guide told us that the situation was dangerous; that even the click of a camera might frighten the elephant,” says Kirkland. “It was exhilarating, rather than filling us with fear.”
The couple ended up adopting two orphaned elephants (Mukkoka and Enkesha) through the David Sheldrick Foundation. “We got to feel the elephants, experience the texture of their skin and marvel at their eyelashes. We’re still in awe.”
Kirkland currently co-edits and writes for the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) organization, and contributes his much-loved film column for Active Life magazine. “If you have a good life, embrace it, trust it, and expand it every chance you get.”