They don’t make movie critics likes this anymore.
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Kael later wrote a long New Yorker piece on her year of living dangerously, “Why Are Movies So Bad?,” included in Schwartz’s anthology. Not long after, she was mugged by fellow film critic Renata Adler in the New York Review of Books, who accused Kael of “ad hominem brutality and intimidation” and for “laying down a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.” Adler’s attack matched Kael’s own extreme explosive language.
FOR KAEL, MOVIES were also an excuse to gab about the movie business, the Hollywood mentality, and the American culture that produced them. The movie at hand was a prism through which she beamed her favorite theories about audiences, critics, actors, America, always presenting herself as our advocate by her use of “we” and “our.”
Readers allowed Kael her evangelical excesses and often dubious judgments of “trash”—her favorite and at times tortured topic. She cooed over fluff like The Owl and the Pussycat and Shampoo (“The most virtuoso example of sophisticated kaleidoscopic farce that American moviemakers have ever come up with”), or the sappy Yentl, which she called “rhapsodic.” Kael was badly smitten by Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn, with both of whom she identified—the bright, witty, outspoken Jewish girl and the haughty, hardboiled sophisticate. Her politics were radical but she resisted all labels; critic Karen Durbin told Kellow, “She was deaf to feminism.” NPR film critic David Edelstein recalls, “She wasn’t politically correct.”
Kael embraced “trash” over self-conscious “art,” a false dichotomy that often led her to praise films beneath her (she actually liked Hawaii and The Bible); she regularly trashed the art house mind-set. To many, she worked her contrarian stance a little too hard, until it appeared almost a pose. But she made movies into a more important, more personal, art form than they had ever been, turning what was once just a pleasant weekend pastime into must-see, do-or-die, earthshaking moments. She made movie-going a visceral adventure. Kael responded to films as if they were real events.
Like any great critic, she was herself a performer, with flamboyant gestures (extolling Nashville before it was finished, sneering at popular films like The Sting and Blazing Saddles) and sweeping theatrical statements (she claimed Intolerance was the greatest film of all time). Her vital spirit, cocksure attitude, fevered instincts, and withering wisecracks still crackle on the page and make you laugh. “Her inflexibility pleased her,” said her daughter Gina in her eulogy. “She was right and that was it.… She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good.”
Kael was overly fond of sex and violence in films (her own critics called her a sensationalist), also cockeyed comedy, maybe because she wanted to be thought the hip, rough-and-tumble opposite of the gentlemanly critics of the era, personified by the New York Times’s buttoned-up Bosley Crowther, whose harrumphing disdain for Bonnie and Clyde set the stage for Kael to exalt the film and make a name for herself in her first New Yorker piece. But she considered movies a sensuous adventure, hence the suggestive titles of her collections—I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When the Lights Go Down, Movie Love.
Her didactic style exaggerated, and maybe undermined, her cinematic loves and hates. She could sound like a nagging carnival barker. In her defense, Kael said that, because of Hollywood’s advertising barrage and PR hype, she felt it necessary to over-praise movies just to get people’s attention. She compared Last Tango in Paris to Le Sacre du Printemps and Nashville to Ulysses. Some called her a cheerleader. When she praised De Palma’s The Fury over Hitchcock’s films, Kellow writes that “many of her diehard fans wondered if she might temporarily have gone off the rails.” As the movies’ golden '70s faded, she became more strident pushing pet cinematic causes.
Kael gleefully blasted beloved films like West Side Story, Blow-Up, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and took on famous critics like Dwight Macdonald and Sarris (she refused to appear on a panel of judges at the 1971 USA Film Festival in Dallas when Sarris was invited). Her rave of M*A*S*H cemented Robert Altman’s career (“the best American war comedy since sound came in”). She became an Altman drinking buddy and visited the set of his film Thieves Like Us. She scoffed at Alfred Hitchcock but went gaga over Sam Peckinpah, who sent her roses when she came to L.A. The critic Robert Brustein thought her enthusiasms verged on “press agentry” and that her hyperbole made her “a cog in the marketing machinery of the very system she deplores.”
LIKE A REAL-LIFE Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, Kael enjoyed flexing her muscles and exerting her influence as much as she did reviewing, crusading for her favorite young directors (Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Paul Mazursky, James Toback) and acting as mother hen and career counselor to young writers and wannabe critics, known as “The Paulettes”—Kael protégés James Wolcott, David Edelstein, Carrie Rickey, Michael Sragow, and David Denby; all wanted to write like her, to be her. Denby made it—he’s a New Yorker film critic, whom Kael once advised to find another line of work. She called editors to order that a protégé be hired—or in Rickey’s case, not (“I was fine when I was acolyte, but she didn’t want me as a peer”). Her old friend, critic Joe Morgenstern, remarks, “She needed the idolatry.” Kael’s daughter felt they used her.
Kael read scripts and gave her sought-after opinions, then later reviewed the movies without batting an eyelash (Kellow tells of Kael curled up in bed with the script for Taxi Driver). All of this blatant log-rolling tarnished her reputation, yet people couldn’t stop reading her. She had bruising fallings-out with acolytes who diverged from the Kael party line—either written a review that raised her hackles or fawned over her too obviously.
She claimed to hate sycophants but encouraged their worship, only to sometimes freeze them out, as she did Woody Allen after he committed some artistic sin; prior to that, he sent her scripts and sought her suggestions. Movies for Kael were a litmus test of character. If anyone disagreed with her on more than three movies, she said, they were banished from her circle. She took negative reviews of directors she had anointed as a personal attack; despite her wicked verbal assaults, she also played the victim.
Kael could be both a bully and a grudge-holder. After she retired from the New Yorker, my editor had me call her for an interview, but Kael refused. “Why would I want to talk to you after what you wrote?” She remembered my review of a lecture she had given many years earlier, when I kidded her odd attire—sneakers and a smock (she dressed like a gym teacher). Kael hadn’t forgotten. She dished it out but couldn’t take it.
In her private life, she could be adoring but petty. She made life difficult for her daughter, Gina James, whose unwed father was poet-filmmaker James Broughton and who lived with Kael into her 30s, acting as chauffeur, typist, messenger, editor, and amanuensis. Kael became totally dependent on her. “She owned Gina,” a friend said. James wouldn’t talk to Kellow for his book, though almost everyone else of significance did, but he reprints her candid eulogy for Kael. (“She turned her lack of introspection into a triumph.” That lack of self-awareness, noted James, gave her “supreme freedom to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.”)
Despite her failings and faulty judgments, her over-the-top assertions and dogmatic preachments, Kael was so often right, or at least entertaining, you forgave her almost everything. She wrote with a natural grace, power, humor, and guts, and she could describe a performance or get inside a director’s or actor’s head like few other critics. Of James Mason in Lolita, she writes how “[his] handsome face gloats in a rotting smile.” Ava Gardner “never really looked happy in her movies; she was never quite there.” Julie Andrews, she said, “does her duties efficiently but mechanically, like an airline stewardess.” She compared Natalie Wood to a Princess telephone (“beautifully constructed but so perfectly banal she destroys all thoughts of love”). Kael was so on the nose at times she could almost change your mind about a film you thought was pretty good until she took it apart with a scalpel or a wrecking ball.
Perhaps only John Simon came close to equaling Kael’s critical bravado, or was as ardently read. In Kellow’s book, Simon says Kael’s ambitions to be a power broker compromised her judgments. Even so, she did for movie criticism what Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson did for reportage—turning a movie review into autobiography. She took movies personally, and she took us with her. Best of all, she makes you want to see the films again, even the crummy stinkers and the messes.
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H/T to National Review Online