They don’t make movie critics likes this anymore.
If Pauline Kael had ever reviewed her life, she might have labeled it “a mess,” her favorite rebuke for a film that had failed to measure up. Yet Kael often reveled in movies she thought were a mess, just as anyone who reads Brian Kellow’s incisive, detailed biography of America’s most impassioned and influential movie critic, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, 417 pages, $27.95), is sure to be absorbed, sucked in, by Kael’s cluttered hodge-podge of a life—personally, professionally, emotionally, aesthetically.
Like many larger-than-life public characters, Kael was a jumbled contradiction of traits and motives. She was a vibrant, autocratic, quotable, quirky critic who elevated movie reviewing to an art but broke ethical journalistic rules left and right, as if she were above the fray and the law. Kael’s brilliant, penetrating mind had a startling command of movie history and pop culture, undercut by schoolgirl crushes on certain actors and directors. She launched personal crusades for films directed by friends and felt no troubling pangs palling around with screenwriters, directors, and actors whose films she later reviewed—often negatively (perhaps her rationale for engaging in flagrant outlaw behavior). No other major movie critic could have gotten away with it. She was a diva.
Kael, a tough cookie, brazened through it all as she had everything else in her life until she landed at the New Yorker at 48 after knocking around for years as a low-paid critic for esoteric film journals. Before that, she worked at everything from seamstress and cook to violin teacher, and once spent the night at Grand Central Terminal with a poet friend (and bisexual lover) she had traveled with to New York. Kael hated New York and soon returned to the Bay Area, where she wound up co-owning a twin art house in Berkeley, the Cinema Guild & Studio, which showed the American classics she adored and emerging new films from Europe and Asia that excited her. She had found her calling, and serious moviegoers had found her.
With her husband Ed Landberg, Kael programmed the films and wrote movie notes that first displayed her compelling, informed, highly readable style—slangy, knowledgeable, hyperbolic, often more entertaining than the films themselves. She mixed highbrow theories with lowdown lingo (“lousy,” “crummy,” “stinker”). The tiny movie house on Telegraph Avenue (which I frequented in the mid-1950s) was a pair of black boxes, among the first double-screen theaters. Kael’s biting, pithy movie notes later got her on the air at KPFA, Berkeley’s leftwing Pacifica radio station, where she delivered reviews in her pugnacious, persuasive, quavery voice and distinctive speech patterns (she pronounced movies “mewvies”); Kael spoke as bluntly as she wrote.
As Kellow reveals in his even-handed, anecdote-jammed biography, Kael was a rebel Westerner. Her mother and father, Polish-Jewish immigrants, landed in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, and ran a chicken ranch. Pauline, the youngest of five, doted on her father, a prosperous serial philanderer who lost his money in 1929. Kael liked to cite, even flaunt, her rural roots in reviews, as if to separate her from the elite Eastern critical bloc. She went to (but didn’t graduate from) the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in the philosophy of history and minoring in pop Americana, which she absorbed through her pores. In Kael’s reviews, there are references from Proust to Popeye. Her tossed-off review of Ten from “Your Show of Shows” is maybe the best thing ever written about Sid Caesar; she also loved TV, especially prize fights.
There is so much packed into Kellow’s rich book (maybe a tad too much—rehashes of old movie plots and tussles with other critics, fascinating to me and other journalists but maybe nobody else) that her life story seems an epic script. The juiciest parts involve Kael’s in-house maneuvering at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt (with whom she shared reviewing chores) and editor William Shawn, who tried to tame her, to calm her street lingo and sexed-up descriptions.
Her editor William Whitworth says she pushed Shawn to the red-faced limit, and a later editor Daniel Menaker adds, “She loved to provoke [Shawn]. She’d even say, ‘This will get his goat.’” Shawn refused to let her review Deep Throat and objected to her bored dismissal of Shoah, the film about Nazi death camps. Kael, only nominally Jewish, was unmoved and never kowtowed to Shawn, or to anybody, notably her nemesis, the respected Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris, as benign and warm a soul as Kael was embattled and chilly, although many who knew her glimpsed a gentler, generous, motherly side hidden beneath the brash exterior.
She and Sarris feuded for decades over his “auteur theory” of filmmaking that maintains that the director, not the screenwriter, is a movie’s true author. Kael’s masterful lengthy 1971 essay on Citizen Kane—in which she claimed that the movie was mainly the work of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles—was a carefully wrought deconstruction of the classic, but it was later revealed that much of her scholarship had been swiped without credit from an unknown UCLA film scholar.
“RAISING KANE,” ALAS, ISN’T INCLUDED in a companion book published by the Library of America, a bulging anthology of pieces reprinted from ten collections of Kael reviews and essays. The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America, 828 pages, $40), edited by Sanford Schwartz, is a bit top-heavy with lengthy pieces on abstract themes. The rants and raves in her reviews are by far the most fun, despite some dubious choices (High School and Used Cars?), along with her lush but perceptive valentines to Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.
I would have liked more of her precision demolition jobs on junk like Airport 1975 and the shrill, overrated Network; nobody could destroy pure schlock and overblown icons with such sardonic scorn. Often she couldn’t wait to get into print and at screenings sighed audibly, howled at dialogue, or talked back to the screen. She claimed she never saw a new movie more than once (or ever changed her mind) but took copious notes.
Usually there is nothing moldier than a collection of ancient movie reviews from 35 years ago. Who cares? But once you plunge into these, Kael makes you care again, because they’re not just reviews of old movies, but of American life and culture at a certain time, a cinema history of a kind, a reminder of what films engaged us during her reign, 1968 to 1991; her rise perfectly coincided with the 1970s renaissance in filmmaking. She left the New Yorker at 71, exhausted and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She died in 2001 at 82; her final review, perhaps aptly, was L.A. Story.
Few critics of any art form have been so influential, powerful and widely read by the cognoscenti, but the rise of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s popular TV series, At the Movies, eclipsed her power. Before that, Kael was the last word on new movies, and you had to read her if you cared about them at all, even if (or maybe because) you disagreed violently. I never read Kael for her thumbs up or down but for how boldly she laid out her argument, for her enlightening insights and entertaining style—for her, really. Asked to write a memoir, she said, “I already have.” Her emotional and intellectual life was in her reviews; Kellow neatly fills in the messy personal blanks.
At a slow point in her reviewing life, which became the low point of her career, she took a leave from the New Yorker to work as a consultant for Warren Beatty (one of her screen faves) and soon found herself in over her head in the very heart of the commercial Hollywood she loathed. Says Newsweek’s David Ansen, she wanted to “change movies themselves, and us with them.”
She naively had hoped to set producers on the straight and narrow—part of her savior complex. Kael loved movies so much she wanted to be in the very thick of them, flattered by Beatty’s bold invitation to work for him for $150,000 a year; equally naively, he may have hoped to co-opt her. It was a dumb idea all around that wound up a sour joke on both of them. One studio executive said Kael “did a masterful job of alienating everyone within six weeks.” She was impatient with studio dawdling and soon discovered she had no real power, as she had had as a critic.
Equally startling, the New Yorker’s principled Shawn let her work for Beatty, a measure of her star power, and reluctantly let her return after she crept out of Hollywood, an embarrassing escapade that tainted her but didn’t faze her. She shrugged it off as an effort to observe the industry from within. Sue Barton, ex-Robert Altman publicist, told Kellow: “She was slightly star-struck…. She was this little person with her little glasses and her little bowl haircut. She was far from beautiful, and this aspect of her personality allowed her to be with beautiful and interesting people and have a lot of clout.”
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.
Gerald Nachman is a writer in San Francisco and most recently the author of Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America (University of California Press).
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