BORDEAUX, France, January 4, 2012 — When Warren Beatty saw film critic Pauline Kael arrive with her entourage at a private New York movie screening, he whispered, “Here comes Ma Barker and her gang.”
This came after their disastrous association in Hollywood, which had damaged Ms. Kael’s credentials as a trusted neutral observer of the cinema. She had wrongly assumed that she could improve the movie business by getting directly involved. Beatty had opened doors for her, possibly to teach her a lesson in how hard it is to make a good movie.
Within a few months, she was back in New York as a critic, almost humbled.
The Hollywood misadventure was a turning point in Ms. Kael’s boisterous career as one of the country’s most influential movie critics – a fine writer who was loved and hated in equal measure by industry insiders, other critics, and casual movie fans. Suddenly she was tainted by the Hollywood foray.
In his new book Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking), Brian Kellow steps back and evaluates her life, spanning the period from her father’s Petaluma chicken farm to the top of the critical heap in New York. He brings a wise and sweeping vision to her artistic mentality and her enduring legacy.
Very few movie folk who crossed her path escaped eventual evisceration, usually performed in colorful, tough prose so compelling that even The New Yorker looked the other way.
In fact, a good bit of the appeal in this biography is the detail of her interaction with the magazine where she wrote essays and reviewed movies from 1967 to 1991. She was strong medicine for that strait-laced New Yorker of her day. Indeed, Ms. Kael seemed to delight in annoying the famously stiff editor William Shawn, in the first instance by addressing him as “Bill.” One New Yorker staffer recalled that she “loved to provoke Shawn. Pauline would put stuff in to madden him – I think she’d even say, ‘This will get his goat.’”
But Shawn stayed with her most of the time, confident that she was bringing in younger readers and giving his magazine a kind of zing that the traditional contributors lacked.
Kael’s Influence on Other Critics
The book is a prodigiously well-researched survey of the 1970-1980 era in which film critics were first recognized as powerful opinion-makers. Kellow tells the story through Ms. Kael’s work, her snap judgments on new films, and her climb from obscurity to fame. Her iron determination eventually drove her to the top, but only when she was in her 40s and after many years of writing for nothing or next to it. At her peak, she wielded such influence that other New York critics took sides in writing about her writing.
As she aged, she became almost too confident for her own good. From about the mid-1970s, Kellow writes, “Pauline often saw herself as more than a critic. Her reviews became more urgent, more emotional, more haranguing.”
She would be appalled if she were around today to see the amateurism the internet has spawned in her field. Her forte was putting a movie in context while venting her spontaneous reactions provoked by it. The amateurs who sometimes try to ape her style lack her depth, her passion, and her confidence in judgments.
Perhaps ironically, it was her enthusiasms that damaged her credibility. She favored the “historically significant,” the “best-ever,” the “worst ever” turn of phrase. Finally, the respected critic Robert Brustein faulted her with a hurtful opinion on “the promotional quality of her language and the way her enthusiasm is just beginning to fade into press agentry.”
Kellow threads his narrative through Ms. Kael’s entire life, revisiting her opinions in chronological order and critiquing her critiques. Many of her on-the-spot assessments seem at odds with the accepted view 30 or 40 years later.
Was Her Taste Questionable?
Her rhapsodic take on “Last Tango in Paris,” which she compared with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in the music world, has not held up well, nor has her unreserved admiration for Steve Martin’s “Pennies from Heaven”: “the most emotional movie I have ever seen.” And she was virtually alone in her dismissal of Alfred Hitchcock as a director. She was equivocal or negative about most of Stanley Kubrick’s and Oliver Stone’s works. She disliked “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Deer Hunter.” “It’s a Wonderful Life” was anything but wonderful.
Taking It All In, one of her many compilation books still in print, was criticized in The New York Times as containing reviews that were “fiercely impressionistic and aggressively untheoretical.” Kellow says the Times reviewer, film historian Gerald Mast “found her self-confidence in her own impressions somewhat exhausting at times — he felt that, occasionally, he longed for her to ponder the meaning of a film rather than state it boldly.”
Another of her books, Reeling, prompted critic John Simon to write, “She is a lively writer with a lot of common sense, but also one who, in a very disturbing sense, is common.” She had once given the erudite Simon the finger at a private screening.
Kellow’s research turned up such a plethora of material that he delivered a manuscript to Viking “considerably longer” than his contract called for. Viking trimmed it substantially, and it shows. Many of Kellow’s arguments, to borrow one of his phrases, “circle without landing.” Hollywood anecdotes pop up in odd places and disappear. Lapses in language slip by his editor, leaving in such verbs as “helmed” and “penned.” Typos and dropped words can be spotted occasionally.
Kellow also tends to seek out and amplify gay-related gossip or anecdotes, repeatedly returning to gay critic Rex Reed for no apparent narrative purpose.
But the greatness of Pauline Kael the writer shows through, and her impact survives today, ten years after her death. Moviegoers still turn to her books as guides to what a fine-tuned sensibility might make of a film. Agree or disagree, readers will always be rewarded by a strong dose of dazzling critical prose.
Michael Johnson is an American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.