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

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.   

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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? 

AP Photo

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.