How Hollywood Seduced and Abandoned Critic Pauline Kael (Exclusive Book Excerpt)
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.
In a short time, Pauline demonstrated her lack of finesse at the game of studio politics. It led her to deliver a number of blunt judgments to various executives, who weren’t used to being spoken to quite so sharply. She and Toback also had major disagreements about various aspects of Love and Money. Disagreements, of course, are a standard part of the production process in Hollywood, but Pauline had had no experience in this atmosphere. Her battles with New Yorker editor William Shawn over copy may have been ongoing, but the process of putting together a movie involved far more people and ideas, and she was not accustomed to such a complex mix of opinions and points of view from creative, marketing, and merchandising personnel.
One principal conflict between Pauline and Toback involved the sanctity of the script. Toback looked at it in much the same way that director Robert Altman did—as a constantly evolving work in progress. He knew that on the set any number of changes would be made, because he regarded a script as nothing more than “a blueprint which may or may not work.” Pauline, however, thought that her greatest asset as a producer was attentiveness to the screenplay; she believed that many potentially good films of recent years had gone off the rails because the producers hadn’t cared enough to weigh in on the writing. “I found it impossible to work with her,” Toback remembered, “because she was fetishistic about the script. There are certain things that work theoretically that don’t work practically. She was insistent on mapping things out, with the most precise and neat sense of certainty, in a way that made me feel she had never actually been on a set.”
Both Pauline and Toback were also becoming increasingly anxious about another project that was occupying more and more of Beatty’s attention: a large-scale drama based on the lives of the socialist revolutionary John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant. It had became clear, once Pauline arrived in Hollywood, that Beatty was far more interested in making that film than he was Love and Money. She was dead set against the Reed film and repeatedly tried to talk Beatty out of doing it, warning him that it was a pompous, grandiose idea, and accusing him of trying to reinvent himself as the new David Lean.
After several weeks of arguing with Pauline over the script of Love and Money, Toback went to Beatty and told him that he was not going to be able to function with her as the film’s producer. Beatty assured him that it would be foolish, if not suicidal, of him to drop the most powerful movie critic in America from his movie, but Toback was adamant. Beatty finally agreed to accede to his demand, on the condition that he be allowed to tell Pauline that the whole idea of dropping her was Toback’s and that he, Beatty, did not support it.
A meeting was called at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, with Beatty, Toback, Pauline, and Albarino. “I feel very badly,” she said when informed of the decision. “This is not the way I wanted it to work out. I don’t feel it’s necessary to stop working, but if Jim does, I guess I have to accept it.” Beatty was true to his word, telling her repeatedly that her dismissal was not his idea and that he thought it was a mistake.
The firing of Pauline from Love and Money also presented Beatty with a very real practical problem: He had sold Paramount’s CEO, Barry Diller, on the idea of Toback and Pauline as a team. By 1980, Diller, in his late thirties, was riding high. As CEO and chairman of Paramount Pictures, he was a wizard at promotion, and he saw to it that Paramount’s marketing budgets were beefed up to unheard-of levels. He also rejected the notion of opening big movies slowly and gradually, allowing word of mouth to build. Diller felt this process backfired more often than it succeeded, and drove home the new method of mass release, getting audiences into theaters before a wide received opinion had been formed.
At Paramount, Diller had scored enormous successes with Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He was a great admirer of Pauline’s, and both his and Beatty’s reputations had risen even higher when word got out that they had managed to sign up the country’s most important critic. It was seen as a joke on the New York establishment: Hollywood money was still all-powerful—even Pauline Kael could be bought. Now, however, Beatty would have to inform Diller that he was delivering only half of the package, and predicted that Diller would withdraw financing for Love and Money, which is ultimately what came to pass. The project bounced over to Lorimar, where it eventually got made. But Pauline’s name -- along with Albarino’s -- was removed from it.
Only one trace of her influence on the movie remained: She had insisted that Toback cast her old comedy idol Harry Ritz in a key role. Even that fizzled, however: Toback went to Las Vegas, interviewed Ritz, and agreed that he would be fine in the part. Once filming began at Lorimar, though, Ritz lasted only a single day. “He was confused,” recalled Toback. “He had a lot of trouble with his lines. He didn’t know whether he was any good.” At the end of the day’s shooting, Ritz called Toback into his trailer and begged to be released from the film. “You have to let me go back to Las Vegas,” he said. “I can’t do this. I’m going to embarrass you. I’m going to embarrass the movie. I’m not up to it.” He was replaced by the director King Vidor.
In order to allow them all—Diller included—to save face, Beatty arranged a new deal for Pauline with Paramount. She was to stay on as a “creative production executive,” helping to develop a number of potential screen projects. The new contract stipulated that she would suggest ideas for films, read novels and scripts, comment on works in progress, and suggest directors, actors, producers, and other talent for specific projects. She started the new post on May 1, 1979. Her contract ran for five months, at a salary of $50,000—a considerable drop from her producer’s salary, but still far more than The New Yorker had paid her. Pauline later recalled that this position consisted of sitting in an office and talking to various producers who happened to drop by, offering her opinions on a wide range of story ideas. She remembered that most people were extremely courteous—partly, she thought, because they respected her, but also because they feared her and the possibility that she might write poisonous things about her experience in Hollywood.
News of Pauline’s difficulties was inevitably leaked to the press, and Newsweek quoted one studio insider as saying that she “did a masterful job of alienating everybody within six weeks.” Pauline claimed that she was pleased to be relieved of her producing duties because “producers just stand around and wring their hands,” and asserted that her new post was much more to her liking. But her new job soon became even more problematic than the old one had been. There was a distinct hierarchy at Paramount: Diller was the studio chief; Michael Eisner, an old ABC TV colleague who had helped launch the monster hits Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and whom Diller had induced to join Paramount, was CEO; and Donald Simpson was senior vice president of worldwide production. Unfortunately for Pauline, Simpson was the one who effectively ran studio operations—and the executive to whom she was directly answerable. Simpson would soon become a Hollywood legend, one of the individuals who changed the industry permanently with his “marketing first, production second” paradigm. He helped refine the idea that a movie blockbuster did not require careful planning before being presented to the studios; a mammoth hit could spring from a pitch that lasted no more than thirty seconds. Sometimes it could even spring from a single line, a single idea—as long as it was something the marketing executives could sell. This became known as “high concept,” memorably described by Simpson’s biographer, Charles Fleming, as “a supercharged, simpleminded creature, an Aesop’s fable on crystal meth.” Pauline’s own notions about developing properties ran completely opposite to Simpson’s, and she soon found herself caught in the crossfire of studio politics.