- Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
- Viking, 432 pp.
The Admirably Unpleasant Pauline Kael
The other night I mentioned to a family friend that I was reviewing a biography of Pauline Kael, the famous 20th century film critic.
“Oh, I met her,” he said airily. On closer examination, he told me that when he was a dean of a rather prestigious university, he had tried to interest her in coming to speak to students.
I asked him what he thought of her and – in three sentences – he and his wife summed up what Brian Kellow tries so hard to say in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.
“I liked her,” he said. His wife leaned in.
“Was she pleasant?”
So if she wasn’t pleasant, what was Pauline Kael? She was earthy; she was tough; she was not afraid of sex, drugs or Woody Allen. Cigarettes and bourbon were her loyal companions. The East Coast establishment and prissy editors her enemies.
As Jerry Lewis said, she was a “dirty old broad.” But he also called her “the most qualified critic in the world. “ Both, I think, she would have perceived as compliments.
The child of New Yorkers, Kael grew up western, a smart Jewish bookworm thriving on a chicken ranch in California. Her mother had brains, but never had the chance to use them; her father was a gregarious adulterer who brought Pauline along to his liaisons with a local widow.
When the Depression caught up with the Kaels, they shifted to San Francisco, exposing Pauline to the picture palaces of the 1930s. As Kellow points out, her favorites were the Warner Brothers gangsters and screwball comediennes, the fast-talking, wise-cracking characters who thought love was a four-letter word.
A stint at university and an affair with the bisexual Bob Horan followed. Though the philosophy degree never materialized – she lost interest in her final year – the relationship continued. They left for New York together, then split, leaving Kael to fend for herself in a series of disappointing jobs.
Life took an unusual turn when she moved back to San Francisco in the 1940s. She fell in love with another bisexual poet, James Broughton, became pregnant and was thrown out of his house. Alone, without steady employment and unsure about her future, she decided to bring up her daughter Gina on her own.
This is where we hit the first speed bump in Kellow’s measured account – Gina refused to participate in his book. And though Kellow has done an admirable job of tracking down friends and enemies, it means we have no family perspective on Kael’s slow climb to success, a fact that may account for the leanness of his early chapters (her birth to her thirties whips by in less than 100 pages).
Then suddenly, here we are with Kael in 1960s New York, one daughter in tow. Having proved her worth out west as a radio critic and writer, Kael snagged a job at The New Yorker, reviewing movies for half of the year.
It was a fateful time. Films and film criticism were exploding in new directions. Shorn of big studio sentiment, steeped in red blood and possessed of a manic energy, these were movies that Kael could sink her teeth into.
Which she proceeded to do, no more so than in her seminal review of Bonnie and Clyde:
“People in the audiences at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges – that they appreciate the joke – when they catch the first bullet right in the face.”
Kellow spends much of the remaining book quoting such reviews, and here is where we hit the second speed bump. For I have a sneaky suspicion that halfway through his research he discovered one important fact. Namely, that movies were Kael’s life and everything else was a piss in the pan.
There were literary battles, of course, especially with the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn. He balked at her language; she barked at his edits. And there were long nights with acolytes – called “Paulettes” – aspiring critics like David Denby who:
“…assumed an enviable position in the Kael circle, spending many late nights into morning at the Turin, listening in rapt fascination as she debated with her other guests and, as Denby recalled, mowed down ‘the reputations of virtually every writer in town.’”
But for the most part, it was the warm, seedy darkness of a New York movie theater that kept Kael alive. The thrill of watching a peep show about the lives of others; the voyeuristic pleasure of sharing an intimate moment with a passel of strangers.
As Kellow illustrates, she was the right critic for the time. Along with the drug deaths, graffiti and disco, the 1970s brought her M.A.S.H., The Godfather and Sam Peckinpah. With her pungent, piquant reviews, she became the hot sauce that people want to have on everything.
Kael wasn’t interested in the morality of movies; she was interested in how movies made her feel. And the movies she responded to most were those that spoke to her personality – brash, bold and frankly sexual, unafraid to risk and always free of syrup.
She played favorites – Altman and Streisand were two of the blessed – and held grudges. Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore earned a demerit point for “playing against something instead of playing a character,” Hitchcock was a phony and Star Wars was deemed a dud.
But she was also refreshingly fond of what snootier folks might call trash. She had good words for E.T., adored Last Tango in Paris and saw a lot of herself in The Way We Were.
The 1980s were bound to be a disappointment. While she watched, the blockbuster became sheriff and the cinema cowboys were put out to pasture. Though Kael tried to “go Hollywood” – taking a producing-type job with the assistance of Warren Beatty – she was unhappy in Southern California. She returned to writing, and railing, until Parkinson’s caught up with her.
And despite Kellow’s admirable effort, it’s really Kael’s reviews that tell us the most about herself. Like all critiques, they often reveal more about the author than he or she might have intentioned. We see she preferred grit in her coffee, favored the little guy over the big’un and was always open to raw emotion.
She was, as her daughter pointed out, a woman with a remarkable “lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint or hesitation,” but, as Gina also said in her memorial, it also gave her the guts to say what she thought.
Pleasant people can’t often say the same.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.