I was such an unusual little child; receiving a subscription to The New Yorker magazine as a gift from an aunt when I was 10 years old. She knew. I started with the cartoons, but by the time I was 12, I was also devoted to the theatre and film listings and all the reviews. When Pauline Kael (1919-2001) joined The New Yorker in 1968, I was totally onboard. I was 14 years old, and I fell in love with her witty, biting, highly opinionated and sharply focused film reviews. She was such an enormous influence that I became the movie reviewer for my high school newspaper, where I tried to ape her style.
Kael was a critic at the New Yorker until 1991. She insisted that she was also writing about life “in the sense of the way movies interacted with public life”. She was also writing about the sense of how films interacted with her own life.
She was open about her own temperament, personality, experience and prejudice, with her sharp, funny, decisively individual reactions to going to the movies. She felt that her readers should be interested in her, I know I was.
Like me, she was an avid reader and film enthusiast from an early age, encouraged by her movie fan father. From 1936 to 1940, she studied Philosophy at UC Berkeley from 1936 to 1940, but she did not graduate. She was going to go on to law school, but lost interest after falling in with a group of artists and writers types. She tried experimental film-making, managed art house theatres, and did odd jobs to survive.
Kael thought of herself as a West Coaster ready to take on that snobby East Coast cultural establishment. I always thought of her as the very essence of a Manhattanite, but she only moved to New York City when The New Yorker hired her at 50 years old.
She was in her mid-30s when she began writing about films, doing program notes for college and film society screenings, plus doing small pieces for small periodicals. The first was for San Francisco’s City Lights magazine. She was fired from McCall’s magazine (she likes to boast) after she wrote a bad review of The Sound Of Music (1965).
Her first review for The New Yorker was a 6,000-word piece about Bonnie And Clyde (1967), which she named “the most excitingly American movie since The Manchurian Candidate“.
For some time, she shared the film column with Penelope Gilliatt, a very unlikely pairing. The editor of The New Yorker at the time, William Shawn, had promised her the freedom to write as she wanted, but her style was tough on the magazine style checkers, who tried to make her blunt assertions into polite assumptions. Kael:
“I literally spent more time and effort restoring what I’d written than writing it.”
I read her reviews and then still purchased her published volumes of her collected essays and reviews: I Lost It At the Movies (1965), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968), Going Steady (1970), Deeper Into Movies (1973) and Reeling (1976). Her final book, For Keeps, was published in 1994. I still have them. They remain a fine way to experience how movies seemed, to a sharp-eyed fan, during a period when films seemed to offer a proud sense of possibility and promise.
Kael owned up to her own weaknesses as a writer:
“…reckless excess in both praise and damnation … Writing very fast and trying to distil my experience of a movie, I often got carried away by words.”
Her enthusiasms could be kind of crazy. For Last Tango In Paris (1972), she wrote:
“Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.”
She wrote that its film’s premiere “should become a landmark” comparable to the first performance of Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite Of Spring.
She could be so rough on films, that sometimes I was left with sympathy for a crappy film.
Kael’s caustic comments caused many riffs with filmmakers, including with Warren Beatty over Reds (1982), and with Woody Allen over Stardust Memories (1979), plus she did not appreciate the work of Stanley Kubrick or Clint Eastwood. She did champion certain directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Robert Altman.
David Lean claimed that her criticism of his work “kept him from making a movie for 14 years”, referring to the 14-year break between Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 and A Passage To India in 1984.
She was easier on actors, her favorites were Marlon Brando, Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks, Tommy Lee Jones, Paul Newman, Nick Nolte, Al Pacino, John Travolta, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Joan Cusack, Diane Keaton, Anjelica Huston, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver and Debra Winger.
She seemed to draw from her huge range of film references and from her awareness of the world. Never worried about being fashionable, she boasted that:
“…not many reviewers have a real gift for effrontery. I think that may be my best talent.”
Kael was criticized by colleagues in the 1970s when she resigned from The New Yorker to become an executive at Paramount Pictures. It didn’t last long, returning to the magazine in 1980, disenchanted with the politics of studio moviemaking.
In the late 1980s, at her most popular, she seemed to maybe be losing some of her edge. It was an era of huge budgets, loads of violence, and new, jazzy special effects, Kael felt that there was simply less to write about. In 1994, three years after a “forced retirement” from The New Yorker, Kael wrote:
“Movie criticism now is often a report on a vacuum.”
Luckily, film fans had Kael at a time when we deserved her. She had real power. Hollywood executives took note of what she wrote. If a director was praised by Kael, they got work. Even after she retired, studios sought her opinion, even if they didn’t always take it her advice.
In a 1983 interview with Kael for the gay magazine Mandate, film historian Sam Staggs wrote:
“She has always carried on a love/hate affair with her gay legions… like the bitchiest queen in gay mythology, she has a sharp remark about everything”.
In response to her review of the great gay director George Cukor‘s final film, Rich And Famous (1981), Kael faced accusations of homophobia which did some real damage to her reputation.
In her review, Kael called Rich And Famous: “more like a homosexual fantasy“, saying of one female character’s affairs: “They are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into“. The Celluloid Closet‘s Vito Russo wrote that Kael equated promiscuity with homosexuality: “…as though straight women have never been promiscuous or been given the permission to be promiscuous“.
In her review of the classic gay-themed film The Children’s Hour (1961), Kael wrote:
“I always thought this was why lesbians needed sympathy—that there isn’t much they can do”.
Her criticism of the British film Victim (1961) was that the film sought to treat gay people “…with sympathy and respect—like Negroes and Jews”. Yikes!
Yet, I always thought that Kael was capable of cracking jokes during a period of deep homophobia, when most reviewers felt that if being queer were not a crime it could spread like a virus. Kael:
“I don’t see how anybody who took the trouble to check out what I’ve actually written about movies with homosexual elements in them could believe that stuff”.
She liked to confuse people by telling them she had been married three times. But, her only husband was poet Edward Landberg, who was gay. Nearly all the relationships she had were with gay men.
She was diagnosed in the late 1980s and was finally taken by Parkinson’s disease in 2001. Kael was 82 years old when she went.
Check out the documentary What She Said: The Art Of Pauline Kael (2018) by Rob Garver, with the voice of Sarah Jessica Parker standing in for Kael as the narrator: