Not long after joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1968, Pauline Kael wrote a review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), the popular western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Among other criticisms, she disparaged the script (“the tone becomes embarrassing”), the director (“he doesn’t really seem to have the style for anything”), and faulted the film for its facetious handling of the genre. “The dialogue is all banter”, she wrote, “all throwaways, and that’s how it’s delivered; each line comes out of nowhere, coyly, in a murmur, in the dead sound of the studio” (1). It was this last comment that most outraged Hill when he read it, for, as he would explain in a letter of palpable fury, he had taken special care not to shoot the film in a studio. “Listen, you miserable bitch”, he wrote, “you’ve got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply don’t have […]. You didn’t like the sound, say so, but cut out that bullshit about how you know where it was done and made.” (p. 127)
That Kael was not only unperturbed by this letter but relished it enough to giggle over it with friends tells you something about her critical sangfroid. Her love of cinema was matched only by an equal love of combat, qualities that quickly catapulted her to the pinnacle of contemporary film criticism. From her perch at The New Yorker, a position she held for nearly 25 years, she acted as the self-appointed referee of cinema, calling players for fouls, but also cheering ecstatically when they scored and even attempting to join the fray, all the while parrying charges that her decisions were based on her own arbitrary, and oftentimes contradictory, biases. Her suggestive titles, her bubbling enthusiasm, her stinging invectives, and her gossipy pen-pal prose style made her as familiar to a generation of filmgoers as Lee Marvin and Don Corleone. It wasn’t just that she ruffled people’s feathers, although she certainly did that – her excoriating of Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), the Holocaust documentary, drew piles of hate mail – but that she was so passionate about film. Kael took movies seriously, really seriously, and her fervour was contagious:
When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, “Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie”. I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? (2)
Kael was hardly the first critic to insert herself into her reviews, but she was, perhaps, the first to give herself over to it so completely, eschewing the formal, lordly vernacular of earlier critics like Bosley Crowther, whom she detested, for a more overtly personal style. She wrote many of her reviews the night before their deadline, fortifying herself with cigarettes and bourbon, and the frenzied nature of the endeavor often comes through in the prose. If you had to pick out a single distinctly Kael word, though – the word that reveals the perambulations of her mind as concisely as “twisted” does for Hunter S. Thompson – that word would be “schlock”. A natural pejorative, it could, by Kael’s deft manipulation, equally be turned into a compliment, as in the case of Now Voyager (“a schlock classic”) or Casablanca (a film containing a “special, appealingly schlocky romanticism”) (p. 28). She prized the lowbrow just as much as the highbrow, sometimes even more so, and championed the virtues of both. “Movies”, she said, “are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them” (3).
It is this constant pitching and rolling of her tastes, between the crests of art and the valleys of trash that makes her such an easy target for censure. “She has everything that a great critic needs”, Woody Allen once said, “except judgment […]. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising.” (4) Scroll through a list of her likes and dislikes, and you’ll be apt to agree with him. She hailed many a dubious project – Pretty Poison (Noel Black, 1968), The Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah, 1975), Convoy (1978), The Warriors (1979), The Stunt Man (1980) – while panning an equal number of classics: La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Raging Bull (1980). Yet she was neither undiscerning nor capricious. Quite the opposite: if there is an enduring principle in her criticism it is that we must guard against the sentimental, the moralising, and, most important, the pretentious. She heaped more scorn on Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) than The Planet of the Apes (Franklin J, Schaffner, 1968) not because its execution was less skillful but because, in its undeniably skillful way, it revealed the aspirations of a filmmaker desperately straining for profundity. While the former was meant to be edifying, the latter was unashamedly frivolous, a more forgivable sin in Kael’s eyes. By enforcing her artistic strictures so mercilessly she was not only sticking up for the lowbrow but also defending high art from what she considered its most insidious internal threats: dullness and pomposity.
The irony of this stance, as Brian Kellow makes clear in his excellent new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is that Kael, particularly in her formative years, was an intellectual elitist to her toenails. She was born on 19 June 1919 in Petaluma, California (“The Egg Basket of the World”), just north of San Francisco. Her parents, Polish-Jewish immigrants, had come West to make their fortune as chicken farmers, and for a time they did. When the stock market crashed, though, they were forced to sell their farm and moved to San Francisco, where they opened a grocery store. In 1936, Kael enrolled at UC Berkeley as a philosophy major, though literature would have undoubtedly suited her better. She devoured the novels of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, Woolf, and Henry James. For a mind so aesthetically grounded the strictures of philosophy were hardly agreeable. “Her professors criticized her for injecting her personal voice into her essays” (p. 16), Kellow reports, little needing to point out the beginning of a trend. In the fall of her senior year, she failed three of her classes, flunking out of college.
The next dozen years or so were the most despondent of her life, filled with unsuccessful relationships and thwarted ambitions. Determined to make it as a serious writer, Kael tried her hand at short stories, plays, literary criticism, and even an original story for the screen, titled “The Brash Young Man”, with a highfalutin plot about literary talent and the perils of success. But no one was interested. Deciding that Berkeley was too much of a backwater, Kael and her boyfriend Robert Horan hitchhiked to New York, determined to make something of their lives. Horan soon found a niche for himself, selling some of his poems and rooming with a pair of gay composers (like more than one of Kael’s lovers, he was bisexual), but Kael merely spun her wheels, and in 1946, still unpublished, she returned to the Bay area and moved in with her mother.
The imprint of these failures on Kael’s subsequent life is twofold. Firstly, it infected her with a classic case of the autodidact’s inferiority complex. All her life, she would display an antipathy towards those figures whom she felt were part of the East Coast establishment: editors, academics, critics (see Bosley Crowther). You catch it in her prose, too, in what Kellow calls her “Magellan complex” (p. 146): her unwillingness to jump on the bandwagon for any filmmaker whom other critics had already gotten to first. Thus her aversion for Hitchcock (beloved of the French), John Ford (beloved of the auteurists), and Charlie Chaplin (beloved of all). The second effect was more constructive. Her criticism, for all its inspired defense of trash, is littered with highbrow literary references: Nabokov, Schnitzler, James: many of the same authors she’d adored in college. And when she set out to construct her film canon, this was the foundation she built it on.
The turning point for Kael came in 1952 when the editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin, overheard her arguing with a friend about a film they’d just seen in a Berkeley coffee shop. Impressed by her impassioned, articulate discourse, he asked her to review Charlie Chaplin’s new movie, Limelight (1952), which she did, eviscerating the movie for what she considered its intellectual snobbishness. Both the tone and the medium suited her well. By now she had been working at a series of dead-end jobs to support herself and her daughter Gina, whose father abandoned them when he found out Kael was pregnant. Though most of her work was published in small literary magazines, Kael quickly gained a following, largely through her appearances on a local radio station, KPFA. When she resigned over the air, the station was flooded by canceled subscriptions. By the late 1950s, she had gathered a coterie of cinephiles around her, young people from the university mostly, who adopted her as a kind of Gertrude Stein-like den mother. Their Shakespeare and Company was the Cinema Guild, a rundown movie house on Telegraph Avenue that Kael ran with her then husband Edward Landberg, devoted to showing the classics. Neither the theatre nor the marriage lasted but Kael had by now established enough of a national reputation to receive a Guggenheim grant, using the money to travel to New York and finish her first book, I Lost it at the Movies.
From here, things move quickly. She was hired as a movie critic for McCall’s, then fired just as quickly after she called The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) a “sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat” (5), worked a brief stint at the New Republic, and, finally, landed at The New Yorker, proving, as Anthony Lane once quipped, that The Sound of Music confers happy endings on all who touch its hem. Not everyone felt that way. William Shawn, the usually mild-mannered editor of The New Yorker, was at near-constant loggerheads with Kael, irked by her earthiness as much as her vernacular style. “She wants to see how far she can push us” (p. 261), he fumed in red ink after coming upon one of her more bawdy metaphors in galley proofs. It was this ability to provoke that helped make her such a success. Kael riled people more than any other movie critic had before, and readers responded, flooding the magazine with letters, both praising and condemning her. Any explanation of Kael’s pre-eminence in the film criticism of this period, however, must be two-pronged. On the one hand, her timing was excellent, arriving on the scene just when American audiences were taking movies most seriously, thronging to the films of Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini, and Kurosawa, and hailing them as masterpieces. On the other hand, Kael was at the vanguard of this very charge, her impassioned rhetoric rewriting the way people looked at both films and film criticism.
Kael had an undeniable vicious streak. Early in her career, she took barely-concealed pleasure in firing potshots at those reviewers whom she felt didn’t live up to their critical obligations: Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald, and her longtime bête noire Andrew Sarris. “Pauline acted as if I were a great menace to American criticism”, Sarris said. “I wasn’t even getting any money from these pieces” (p. 78). Later, as her success swelled, she developed a coven of followers (the “Paulettes” they were dubbed), young, hungry, likeminded critics, and she held court over them like a high school beauty queen, alternately propping them up and casting them aside as they rose and fell in her favour. David Denby was dumped when Kael decided he was becoming too imitative of her. After Paul Schrader turned down a job she found for him as a film critic to become a screenwriter instead, Kael took every opportunity she could to slash at him in print. “You are trying to destroy my career from the inside”, he said, confronting her over lunch in Hollywood, “and I’ve got to call you on it” (p. 275). More damning still was her treatment of Howard Suber, an assistant professor at UCLA. In 1969, Suber showed Kael an article he had written on Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). She talked him out of publishing it, duped him into collaborating with her, and then vanished with his research, using it for a piece of her own, “Raising Kane”. The article, published in The New Yorker in 1971, became an instant sensation. Bantam Books quickly reprinted it in hardback, along with the movie’s shooting script, firmly cementing Kael’s reputation as the foremost movie critic in America. Nowhere did it mention Suber’s name.
Yet, for all these faults, there is much to esteem in Kael. Fellow critics often condemned her for buddying up to the directors she admired – Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Woody Allen – but, when it came to reviewing their films, she showed no hesitation in goring them. And while her negative nitpicking could make her something of a killjoy at times, she was more than happy to cheer her lungs out when she found a movie or a director she liked, frequently throwing her weight behind smaller, little-known films in the hope that it might do them some good. It did. After her glowing review of High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968) appeared in The New Yorker, the film, Kellow reports, “turned up on about two hundred screens each month – amazing statistics for a documentary” (p. 130). Brian De Palma, likewise, can count his lucky stars that Kael came to see Greetings in 1968. After that, she became his most vocal supporter, launching him from art house unknown to major Hollywood director, helming such box office hits as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987). Ditto Barry Levinson. Diner (1982), his first film, was set to be buried in the studio vault until Kael discovered it and leant it her enthusiastic support (6). It’s now considered one of the best films of its generation.
This gets to the heart of Kael’s ethos as a critic. By actively promoting small, personal films over high-budget Hollywood gloss, she was not just staking out her territory as a critic, but actually attempting to steer the direction in which movies were headed. The culmination of this effort came in 1979 when Kael left her post at The New Yorker and tried to make it as a producer in Hollywood. She lasted less than a year. Upon returning to New York, she began what was to become, for her, a losing battle with the movie studios over the changing face of cinema, as the industry turned away from the idiosyncratic films of the 1970s she’d adored – McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) – towards the slick, marketing-driven films of the 1980s. Worn out and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, Kael became increasingly despondent about the state of cinema as the decade wore on. “Pauline’s biggest professional disappointment”, Kellow writes, “was that she lived to see the infantilization of the great moviegoing audience she had always dreamed of and believed in” (p. 359). Her last review came in 1991, when she reviewed L.A. Story (Mick Jackson), starring Steve Martin. Oddly enough, she liked it.
Of the literary critic Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin once said, “Some critics are boring even when they are original; he fascinates even when he is wrong” (7). The same could equally be applied to Kael, a critic just as bullheaded as Wilson and every bit as fascinating. Kellow’s accomplishment is to capture these opposing sides of her nature, neither trumpeting her virtues nor decrying her misdeeds, but fashioning a portrait of Kael that is vivid, sympathetic and human. He touches only lightly on her domineering hold over her daughter Gina James (probably because Ms. James declined to be interviewed for the book) but shows enough tenacity to call her on her more hyperbolic declarations. “Why,” he asks, “did Pauline prefer De Palma’s work to Hitchcock’s, when the younger director was essentially reworking over many themes developed by the master?” And he points out the frequent contradictions in her analysis: in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she called Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951) “one of the most profound emotional experiences in the history of film” (p. 307) but, in 5001 Nights at the Movies, chastised it for being insipid and boring. Yet, he concludes, “like a visionary novelist, she widened the scope of her art – she redefined the possibilities of how a critic could think, and how a critic’s work might benefit the art form itself” (p. 359).
Kael had her own idea of what a movie critic should be. Back in the mid-’60s, the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld once asked her what she thought the function of the critic was in society. They were having drinks at the time at the home of director Sidney Lumet, in New York. Lumet had just finished shooting The Group (1966), and had allowed Kael to join him on the set, reporting for Life. “My job”, Kael responded, jabbing a finger in Lumet’s direction, “is to show him which way to go” (p. 91). The evening ended peaceably enough, but after that Lumet made sure to stay far away from her. “I thought, this is a very dangerous person”, he explained. “Little did I know what I was dealing with.” (p. 91)
Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Viking, New York, 2011.
- Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1973, p. 6.
- Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1965, p. 114.
- Pauline Kael, Going Steady, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1970, p. 113.
- Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles, De Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. xxiii.
- Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Bantam Books, New York, 1968, p. 216.
- Stephen Lowenstein (ed.), My First Movie, Random House, New York, 2002, p. 190.
- George Perkins, Barbara Leininger and Phillip Perkins, Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins, New York, 1991, p. 1146.