Pauline Kael Biographer: Why Writing About the Legendary Film Critic Was a 'Tremendous Challenge' (Q&A)

5:00 AM PST 10/27/2011 by Todd McCarthy
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Penguin Group USA

In an interview with THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy, Brian Kellow also discusses her naivete when it came to Hollywood -- and what didn't make the book.

THR: I believe the only person who would not cooperate with you was Pauline's daughter, because she said it would stir up too many difficult memories and emotions. Yet you don't hesitate to say Pauline was very controlling of Gina, not really allowing her to have a life of her own. Is there a lot more to this story you really weren't able to write about?

Kellow: I was sorry not to secure Gina's cooperation. But she's been incredibly respectful and nice, from a distance. Gina's reasons for not wanting to talk to me are hers. She implied that it was just something she didn't want to revisit. She did give the whole matter serious thought, which I appreciate. She has done nothing at all to stand in my way; in fact, she nicely granted me permission to quote from the materials in her mother's archive. She seems to me a very sweet person. I don't think I've cheated anything in the story of Gina and her mother. What anyone needs to know is there. 

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THR: Once Pauline becomes installed at the New Yorker in the narrative, you begin reviewing her reviews, after a fashion. Was it difficult to decide what reviews you would discuss, and did you debate with yourself how to handle the discussion of her work? Do you believe some of her strongest supporters might feel you are being too judgmental of her reviews?

Kellow: The decision about which films to discuss was a lot of fun, actually. I was a bit of a bad boy with Viking -- I turned in a manuscript that was considerably longer than what was called for in the contract. I just found this such a fascinating story, and it was so hard for me to cut it back. My editor, Rick Kot, did a masterly job of cutting and shaping the manuscript. He took out a lot of discussion of entire films; I put some back and took out others. I was especially sorry to lose Carnal Knowledge, Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Cries and Whispers, The Last Detail, Mommie Dearest. There was a lot more about the Altman films in the original manuscript -- more backstory. But I think I needed to keep the narrative moving. I felt Pauline sitting over my shoulder, telling me, "Don't bore them." As far as delving into the reviews, I wasn't at all trying to inflict my views on the reader; I was simply trying to get inside Pauline's head. At that point, her life was really going to the movies and writing about them. I was trying to bring that to life. 

THR: How do you personally feel about her article "Raising Kane"?

Kellow: "Raising Kane" is a lively, perceptive piece of work. Being such an admirer of Pauline's, it was very tough for me to confront the fact that she did pinch part of the research for the piece from Howard Suber. I was very, very careful about checking this in every way possible. I was left with the inescapable conclusion that she did behave rather badly in this instance. I think she felt that this information would have much greater impact coming from her, and of course she was right. "Raising Kane" is a strange aberration. In general, I think she was a highly ethical person. 

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THR: How do you view Pauline's time in Hollywood? Was there any way this could have worked out? My feeling is that you don't believe Warren Beatty deliberately set her up to fail or was playing a trick to silence her, but does any part of harbor suspicions this could be true?

Kellow: There are a million conspiracy theories about Warren Beatty and Pauline. Didn't he have better things to do than to lure her out to Hollywood to clip her wings? I didn't get Beatty's point of view, because he declined to be interviewed. I think the real point here is that the whole undertaking as an enormous miscalculation on Pauline's part. She really thought she was going to go out to Hollywood and make a difference. Very naive of her. 

THR: Do you believe Pauline was naive in thinking she could remain friends with filmmakers whose work she ultimately had to attack in print?

Kellow: Yes. Pauline had such a tough attitude about this kind of thing. She really believed that she did what she did, and moviemakers did what they did, and that they should understand that nothing was personal. She had this sort of "Oh get on with it," strict fourth-grade teacher attitude about things like that. But when you've worked so hard on something, you are of course highly sensitive about it. We should probably have this discussion again after my book is published!

THR: What do you believe are the most enduring strengths of Pauline's work and why should people still want to read it today? 

Kellow: Pauline had a great visceral reaction to what was going on up there on the screen. She responded to it whole-hog, without second-guessing herself or thinking herself into a corner about how her opinion was going to be received. When I see how afraid people are to jump on a pandering, meretricious movie like The Help because of how they will be perceived, I always find myself thinking, what would Pauline think if she were here? We're so afraid now. I think her best reviews have that exhilarating sense of the flush of her first, honest, undiluted reaction. Re-reading them for the umpteenth time, I still find them incredibly exciting and inspiring. 

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