How Hollywood Seduced and Abandoned Critic Pauline Kael (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

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Brian Kellow's new biography reveals how the New Yorker critic was lured to L.A. by Warren Beatty but soon sidelined at Paramount by Barry Diller and the late Don Simpson.

There is a famous story about Fred Zinnemann, the veteran director of From Here to Eternity and The Nun’s Story, being interviewed in the 1980s by a young, arrogant studio executive with no knowledge of movie history, for a job directing a major new studio film.

“So,” said the executive, having done no homework whatsoever on the director’s distinguished career. “Tell me—what have you done?”

“You first,” said Zinnemann.

While Pauline Kael’s desire to go to work in Hollywood was unquestionably driven by her long-held ambition to have an effect on how movies got made, she had a much simpler motivation as well—money. Her half-year’s salary at The New Yorker, where she alternated every six months with Penelope Gilliatt, was still insufficient for her and her daughter Gina to live at any consistent level of comfort, and as she approached sixty, she became increasingly concerned about building up a nest egg. She worried that her meager earnings at the magazine would never be enough to provide Gina with any kind of inheritance. And now she faced the prospect of more money than she had ever seen in her life.

Her attorney Kenneth Ziffren’s negotiations with Warren Beatty’s lawyer, David Saunders of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, were complicated and protracted. “Now I know what Warren meant when he said that his attorneys must get paid by the word,” Ziffren wrote to Pauline, adding that it would “probably take the whole weekend” to examine the contract that Saunders had sent over. In the end Ziffren worked out a very attractive deal for her: She would receive a salary of $150,000 a year, payable in monthly installments. Her first project was to be James Toback’s Love and Money. The agreement stipulated that if one of the films she worked on wound up being produced, her annual salary would rise to $175,000 for the second picture and to $200,000 for the third and any succeeding ones. Ziffren also secured a payment of $750 weekly for Richard Albarino to act as Pauline’s associate producer on Love and Money. She was granted the right to remove her credit on any picture, provided that Beatty decided to remove his. And there were various other perks thrown in, including reimbursement for transportation, since she still didn’t drive.

One thing was clear to everyone close to her: Despite the fact that she had left the door open by only requesting a leave of absence from The New Yorker, she was not at all sure she would ever return. Pauline viewed her job with Beatty as the first step in a complete career change but was careful in her comments to the press, saying that if the job didn’t pan out, she would return to criticism. Ziffren recalled, “She was keen to break loose from what she had been doing all her professional life and to try to do it from another chair, or another typewriter, so to speak.”

Pauline’s work on Love and Money began in Great Barrington, before she moved west. To Albarino, James Toback was someone who viewed himself as a kind of laboratory for his own fantasies. “He never wrote or made anything that he hadn’t experienced first,” observed Albarino. “He can’t write fiction; he can only write diaries, and dramatize them.” The immediate problem was that Pauline thought the script for Love and Money was a mess. She and Albarino would have late-night meetings at her room at the Royalton Hotel to discuss the script’s problems. Eventually the deadline for submitting the script loomed, and Pauline panicked. Horrified by the thought that the first picture her name would be linked with might be a dud, she telephoned Albarino and told him that she needed him to rewrite the script in ten days. Over a meeting at the Harvard Club, Toback agreed to let them rework it. Albarino quit his job, drove up to Great Barrington, and went to work. At that time of year it was bitterly cold in Massachusetts, and he and Pauline stayed up for several nights, fortifying themselves with brandy as they worked away. She seemed oddly protective of Toback at times: When Albarino devised a lengthy, Bertolucci-like tracking sequence around a bungalow, of which he was rather proud, Pauline rejected it, protesting that Toback would never know how to direct it.

As the week wore on Albarino realized that the current ending didn’t work. At around ten o’clock one night, he drove to a local supermarket, where he suddenly came up with a way to fix it. He rushed back to Pauline’s and told her his idea. She approved of it, and he sat down to write. “I typed about four words,” said Albarino, “and she burst in and said, ‘Is it done?’ I broke down crying. That’s how fraught this circumstance was.”

With the script completed, Pauline and Albarino flew out to Hollywood together. A few evenings later she reported to him that the script had met with general enthusiasm.

Pauline found a second-floor apartment in Beverly Hills. It was a lovely old-style L.A. setting, and she quickly made herself at home there. She took taxis to and from her office at Paramount, where Beatty was headquartered, and enjoyed getting caught up with old friends such as critic Joe Morgenstern and his wife, actress Piper Laurie, studio executive Marcia Nasatir and directors Paul Mazursky and Irvin Kershner.

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