Pauline Kael Biographer: Why Writing About the Legendary Film Critic Was a 'Tremendous Challenge' (Q&A)
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.
Brian Kellow has been receiving praise for his biography of legendary film critic Pauline Kael, which hits stores Thursday. In the book, titled Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, the writer sheds lights on light on the voice that championed Bonnie and Clyde,"her failed Hollywood adventure and her battles with William Shawn.
Kellow sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy to talk about the challenges involved in writing the book, her naivete when it came to Hollywood and what didn't make the book.
The Hollywood Reporter: What first lit up the idea in you to embark on this project?
Kellow: I began reading Pauline Kael's reviews when I was around 13. She had a voice that spoke to me immediately. I read her for years and committed great chunks of her reviews to memory. I prefer to write biographies that to some extent represent fresh territory. Setting down Pauline's life seemed like a tremendous challenge -- which it was, as it turned out.
THR: Has there ever been a biography of a film critic before? What about critics in other fields? What made writing about a critic, someone who by nature is a reactor, different from the other subjects you've tackled?
Kellow: I don't know that there has been a biography of a movie critic until now. There have been biographies of theater critics -- Kathleen Tynan wrote a wonderful one about her husband, Kenneth. One of my favorite aspects of working on Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark was the chance to track the influences that helped form her taste and style. Also, writing this book gave me a great opportunity to delve into the film history of the 1960s and '70s. It was exciting to show how what was happening on the screen really was, to a great extent, Pauline's life.
THR: Other than Pauline's published writing, what other material existed in archives or her personal collection for you to draw upon? Letters, diaries, datebooks, etc.?
Kellow: I had great luck in having access to Pauline's extensive archive at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. It's a treasure trove. There are very few letters from Pauline herself, but she seems to have saved nearly every letter she received -- even letters from fans and readers. She always said she didn't want a biography written, but she certainly saw to it that her life was meticulously catalogued, so I'm not sure I believe her.
THR: The early life material is particularly fascinating. How did you learn about her childhood, family, early responses to literature and movies, her difficult relationships at Berkeley and subsequent struggles before belatedly breaking through professionally?
Kellow: Research. I went to Petaluma, Calif., and learned a great deal about the community of Jewish chicken ranchers in which she grew up. I was also very lucky: I found her ex-husband, Edward Landberg, who was still living in Berkeley. He was her only husband, although she liked to confuse people by telling them she had been married three times. As her daughter Gina said, "She loved a good story." I was also very lucky in rounding up a lot of people who had worked with her when she was programming the Berkeley Cinema Guild, the nation's first twin art house. That period of the mid- to late 1950s is one of my favorite parts of the book.
THR: I never got the sense that Pauline was ever really in love with anyone. And nearly all the relationships she did have, with men who were essentially gay, were set-ups for disaster. How did you come to see view her emotional life? Did she just sublimate everything else to movies?
Kellow: I think Pauline was in love early on. I certainly think she was in love with the poet Robert Horan, who was gay. But I think she felt, quite early, that love between two people never lasted. And let's face it, often it doesn't! I think she learned early on not to trust in love. Her love of the movies was something else. That she could count on, and trust. I've tried not to hammer the whole seduction-of-the-movies idea too hard in my book. But there's no escaping it.
THR: You mention that in earlier years she was constantly writing little plays, stories, screen ideas she'd send to Hollywood and so on. Did you read much of her creative writing in these areas? Was there any merit to any of it? Any way you can describe it?
Kellow: Pauline would be the first to admit that her attempts at creative writing weren't very good. And they aren't. I've read carefully through all the pieces that survive. They're arch and full of ideas and attitudes, but they just don't move dramatically. The characters just don't have the breath of life.