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

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One of the difficulties was that Simpson had not been involved in the hiring of Pauline; Beatty had cut the deal directly with Diller, who ultimately handed her over to Simpson. According to Toback, Simpson had been enraged, feeling that he had been treated like a studio errand boy. It was he who made the decision to kill Love and Money, and he decided, on principle, to block whatever Pauline proposed. Years later he told Toback that when Pauline was put under his supervision, “It was a cake put in my lap, and all I had to do was take out my knife. Rarely in life can you pay back an insult so easily and so quickly.”

Surviving studio correspondence bears out that this was the state of affairs in which Pauline found herself mired. She attempted to launch a number of projects after being taken off Love and Money. One was Quinces, an original script by her good friend and Great Barrington neighbor, the humorist Roy Blount, Jr. It went nowhere, and everything for which she subsequently expressed enthusiasm was routinely shot down by Simpson. “Dear Pauline,” he wrote to her in late July, “as we discussed last Friday night at the Brian De Palma movie, this is a piece of material that we are not interested in. We just don’t believe in it as a movie.” On another occasion, referring to a script called Dixianne, Simpson wrote, “Eisner and I have reviewed one more time and, unfortunately, it is still pass. Clearly this is a case of oversight versus foresight. At least, as Roy Blount Jr. would say, ‘You’re batting 500.’ Warmest regards, Don Simpson.”

Soon enough she realized that it was not possible for her to survive in this environment. She was appalled by the coarse behavior of some of the executives, particularly at one casting session, in which she witnessed a selection of actress’s eight-by-ten head shots divided into two piles: “Would fuck her” and “Wouldn’t fuck her.” She had assumed that people would want to listen to what she had to say, and she quickly understood that while they might be polite on the surface, they regarded her as completely disposable. She was hurt, angry, and humiliated, and in the end, only one project she was keen on—The Elephant Man, the story of Joseph Merrick, a deformed man who lived in London during the Victorian era—managed to find its way into production, under the brilliant direction of David Lynch.

Many people who knew her well speculated that her hiring by Paramount had all been part of an elaborate plan by Beatty after her damning review of Heaven Can Wait, his 1978 romantic comedy hit. “Warren’s power to charm cannot be overestimated,” observed the actor-writer Buck Henry. “Everyone he has ever worked with has had knock-down drag-out fights with him, and yet they—or at least many of them—come back for more. And the fact is that he is great fun to spend time with when there isn’t some horrible problem.” Pauline, however, seems never to have accused Beatty of tricking her. In interviews after leaving Hollywood, she always stressed how fairly and decently she had been treated by Beatty. She gently dismissed the whole matter by saying that she had underestimated the demands of movie producing—that she had realized, early on, that she was not the kind of person to corral a group of creative people and ride herd on them until they did what she wanted. “An awful lot of the time in Hollywood was spent mulling over the same things,” she said, “because you talk to people and two days later they come back and talk over the same problems, and I got very impatient. It’s hard not to show it.”

There was truth in all of this—but the biggest truth of all was that she simply missed writing, and the power base that had gone with it. Now that she gotten a close view of what went on in Hollywood, she felt that she had gained an advantage that no other film critic really had. Now she really knew something about how movies were—or weren’t—made, and she could impart that knowledge to her readers. She did discuss other career possibilities—Kenneth Ziffren recalled that there was some talk about how she might use her talents effectively in the theater—but in the end, she decided that what she wanted most was to return to The New Yorker.

While she was still in Hollywood, she had lunch with Paul Schrader at Nickodell’s, an old-time Melrose Place restaurant that was the unofficial commissary of Paramount Pictures. Once they had gotten settled in, Schrader explained his reason for wanting to see her. Pauline had commented to someone at an industry party that he was a good writer who would never make a good director. From Schrader’s viewpoint, this was extremely damaging: She was, after all, speaking not to her readers in the pages of The New Yorker but to people in the movie business who would make decisions about whether or not to hire him. “You are trying to destroy my career from the inside,” Schrader told her, “and I’ve got to call you on it.” Schrader recalls that Pauline gave him a “typical kind of mealy-mouthed response—‘I didn’t really mean it that way’—like any politician.”

In the meantime, The New Yorker was having some rather public problems of its own. In March, shortly after Pauline had written her farewell review of The Warriors, the magazine had published a profile of the celebrated British author Graham Greene, written by Penelope Gilliatt. In April, William Shawn received a letter from the writer Michael Mewshaw, who offered compelling evidence that Gilliatt was guilty of plagiarism: Entire sentences and phrases, as well as a number of paraphrased ideas and sentences, had been lifted directly from an article Mewshaw had written for The Nation in mid-1977, one that was later reprinted in both The London Magazine and the Italian publication Grazia. Gilliatt’s final paragraph had consisted of fourteen sentences, eight of which were stolen from Mewshaw. Mewshaw’s attorney had urged him to pursue high-cost damages, but because the magazine had a high reputation, and because it had run positive reviews of two of his novels, Mewshaw asked Shawn for only $1,000, in addition to a printed acknowledgment that Gilliatt had plagiarized his piece.

A few days later Shawn received a letter from Graham Greene himself, who stated that after he counted fifty errors and misquotations in Gilliatt’s published profile, he gave up reading it. It was a shocking embarrassment for The New Yorker, which, under Shawn’s guidance, had successfully maintained a reputation for irreproachable professional standards.  A key part of that reputation had been the magazine’s fact-checking department, which still kept up a watch so fastidious that it drove some authors to distraction. But it was not the first time Gilliatt had come under fire for “borrowing” from other writers. In 1974 Sandra Berwind, a professor of English at Bryn Mawr, had written to Shawn complaining that Gilliatt, in her review of Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, had borrowed heavily from W. B. Yeats’s Essays and Introductions.

Berwind’s complaints prompted a telephone call from Shawn, who obsequiously thanked her for her letter, then said, “I suppose, Professor Berwind, that in your line of work you come upon students who plagiarize. And I suppose you are understanding at times and forgive them?” Shawn vacillated throughout his conversation with Berwind, who remembered him as being “kind of patronizing. No indication of doing one thing or the other.”

In 1978 Andy Holtzman, film program coordinator for the New York Shakespeare Festival, accused Gilliatt of showing up twenty-five minutes late for a screening of the documentary film Deal, ignoring the festival’s attempts to schedule another screening, and then publishing a negative review in The New Yorker. Holtzman suggested reassigning the film to Pauline, but again, the complaint about Gilliatt fell on deaf ears.

For years Gilliatt’s drinking had been a well-known problem among film producers, publicists, critics, and The New Yorker staff. Critic Howard Kissel recalled a screening that he attended in the late 1970s. Gilliatt had failed to show up for it, and after delaying the start time as long as possible, a nervous team of publicists had screened the film without her. After the movie was finished, Kissel and his fellow critics attempted to exit the screening, but they couldn’t leave the room: Gilliatt, blind drunk, had arrived late and passed out against the door.

Not even Shawn, however, could completely ignore the Michael Mewshaw matter, and The New Yorker agreed to the writer’s demands for a $1,000 payment. But Shawn, in enabler mode, told Mewshaw that Gilliatt had been plagued by personal problems, and persuaded him to drop his request for a printed acknowledgment of her plagiarism. Instead, he placed her on a leave of absence from the magazine.