The Perils of Reading About Pauline Kael

After reading Brian Kellow's biography, I still adore film critic Pauline Kael. But I’m glad I didn’t know her.

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MARTHA HOLMES / Time Life Pictures

Film critic Pauline Kael at home on May 1, 1968.

Not long after I became a movie critic, a journalist friend told me he was considering taking a trip to see Pauline Kael at her home in Great Barrington, Mass. He didn’t know Kael, other than as the most famous movie critic of all time, but she was a sitting duck, retired, old, infirm (she had Parkinson’s Disease) and apparently welcoming enough. “You should come too,” he said. “We could road trip to Pauline’s”. This was around 2000, a year before her death and not long after I had read a New York Times piece by Wes Anderson, in which he recounted in agonizing, impolite detail how he’d traipsed up to show Kael his second film, Rushmore. “Aren’t you her biggest fan?” my friend said. “Don’t you want to meet her before she dies?”

I did not. I would liked to have known her, but I had no desire to invade her space and impose some need of mine upon her as Anderson had. She certainly didn’t seem dazzled by the future director of The Royal Tennenbaums and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and he had come bearing a movie, the thing she loved most. What would I bring, my reviews? No way; I was still trying to feel my way into a beat I’d been lucky enough to land with more desire than qualifications. Besides, she’d probably heard every variation on “your writing changed my life” before. There was a whole generation of critics known as the “Paulettes” (a name ginned up, no less, by my witty colleague, TIME’s Richard Corliss), people who had been inspired by her and maybe tried to write like her and eventually came to travel in the same circles as she did.

Beyond not wanting to bother Kael, I had reservations about having any interaction that might interfere with my enormous affection for her work. She was so open on the page, so passionate and seemingly incapable of being circumspect, that readers felt they knew her. That’s almost always a mistake. Generally, it is safer to keep one’s idols at a remove. Reading Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, which is thorough and respectful but still full of depressing revelations, brought Kael the flawed human being a little too close.

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For starters, she was an ethical disaster, not just fraternizing with the talent, but advising them and then, later on, reviewing them. In 1979, more than a decade after she propelled Bonnie and Clyde into cinematic history with a single, joyous review, Warren Beatty convinced her to come work with his production company in Los Angeles. She lasted less than a year, went back to The New Yorker and then weighed in on his next movie, Reds in 1981. Kellow writes that Kael believed herself incapable of being corrupted or writing with bias. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t know, on some level, that this was impossible.

Kellow also presents compelling evidence that Kael made off with the research of a young UCLA professor named Howard Suber, paid him a pittance, strung him along on the hope of a shared byline and then used his work in Raising Kane, her infamous essay on the making of Citizen Kane, without credit. Maybe it wasn’t outright intellectual theft (more leasing to own), but it was definitely wrong.

She was also fond of bashing the viewpoints of other critics in print, bad behavior The New Yorker’s gentlemanly editor William Shawn eventually put a stop to. Still, her word on something was the word. “She insisted that she was right about everything, and you would be right, too someday, if you worked like hell and stayed loose,” David Denby wrote of Kael in his 2003 essay “My Life As a Paulette.” Being right is rewarding when it comes to measurable things. But engaging in movie criticism towards that end would be a miserable calling. In this business there are no right rights, only louder ones.

In that essay, Denby acknowledged the eventual souring of their mentor-mentee relationship. Kellow’s A Life in the Dark includes enough other bleak tales of Kael mentoring gone wrong to make it seem that this too was a habit. When critic Carrie Rickey, who recently announced her retirement from the Philadelphia Inquirer after 25 years, got her big break in 1980 writing about movies at The Village Voice, she told her mentor Kael the good news. “They didn’t ask me,” Kael told her. “If they had, I would have told them to hire Jim Wolcott,” referring to Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott.

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Yet even after reading all that I still feel oddly protective of Kael. Some of it stems from my continued love of her writing, even as I now see about fifty things that could have been trimmed from every piece. Some of that stems from a granddaughterish pride. Even though Kael never identified herself as a feminist, she was a powerful woman whose intelligence and wit swayed readers in an era when this was still unusual. I admire any single mother who holds down a full-time job. This one just happened to change the face of American arts criticism while raising her daughter Gina James. And home schooling her. How was that possible? If my kid falls sick and stays home one day, my schedule falls apart. (Although Gina, who declined to speak with Kellow, also functioned as her mother’s unpaid assistant, so maybe Kael’s home schooling was cinema-centric.)

It’s likely that the Wes Anderson piece, so bratty and ageist, stirred my first defensive impulse toward Kael. It deepened at a dinner party for Manny Farber, another famous critic now gone. One of the other guests mentioned he’d known Kael. He seemed disposed to brag about his inside knowledge and had been drinking, a winning combination where journalists are concerned, so I encouraged him by asking what she was like.

“Well of course she was very ugly,” he said. “No one wanted to sleep with her.”

That was the lead in his Kael story? That she was undesirable? Kael sold 150,000 copies of her first collection of criticism, I Lost It At the Movies, before she’d even joined The New Yorker. She excited and engaged readers like no other critic. She was exceptional. She remains exceptional. But how natural it was for him to reduce this woman to her sex. If Kael had ever written as a woman bitter and deprived of love, physical or otherwise, this perspective of his might have seemed pertinent.

But whatever her status (married once, and briefly, to Edward Landberg, with whom she ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild in the 1950s) she wrote with an open heart and a steady sensuality. This is the woman who said to Landberg, Mae West-like, when his hand brushed her breast for the first time by accident  “What have you got to lose?” And this is the woman who apparently, in her youthful days in Sausalito, liked to stand at the window of her house in her bra. On one occasion, she waved it at someone walking by. There’s undeniably some dirty laundry in Kellow’s book. That bra might might be my favorite piece.

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