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

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By the end of 1979 Pauline had not renewed her five-month contract with Paramount, and her Hollywood episode came to an end (though she always claimed that she had received other offers that would have enabled her to remain in Hollywood). To the press she remarked that she hadn’t had enough energy to accomplish her goals at Paramount. “Frankly, many producers aren’t doing the job that they should; the director is asked to carry too large a burden,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. She put the blame for the high quotient of misguided movies on the producers: often, actors were miscast, rewrites were abandoned, the thread of the movie was lost, simply because the producer had failed to do his job.

She contacted Shawn and told him that she would like to return to her old post—a proposition that was much more attractive to her now that Penelope Gilliatt’s future with the magazine was in question. It wasn’t a matter, however, of simply saying she wanted to come back. Shawn had to decide what to do about Roger Angell, Susan Lardner, and Renata Adler, all of whom had taken a turn writing “The Current Cinema.” Pauline headed back to New York and waited to hear how Shawn would prepare for her reentry. She busied herself with lecture appearances, including a visiting writers’ symposium at Vanderbilt University on March 26, at which she spoke of the decline in quality movies. “You work for a long time to become a writer,” she complained to the audience, “and then your subject is cut out from under you.”

She was stunned when she discovered that Shawn did not want her to rejoin the staff. She had assumed that, given her reputation, it would be relatively easy to work out the details. Her fame was at its height. Her new publisher, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, was preparing to bring out her new collection. And now, after all she had done to raise the magazine’s visibility and attract younger readers, Shawn was saying he didn’t want her.

Pauline delivered the shocking news to the staff editor William Whitworth, who immediately went to Shawn’s office to discuss the matter. It was an unwritten rule that one was not supposed to question Shawn’s staff decisions, but Whitworth managed to bring up the matter of Pauline tactfully. “He went into a long explanation that she had corrupted herself by adopting the ways and standards of Hollywood,” Whitworth remembered. “He talked for some time. When something was immoral, that was one of the magic words for him—‘corrupted.’ He would explain it to you like a teacher or a theologian—at length. I went away just stunned. It was so unexpected and impractical. This was when movies were really something in the culture. I just thought she was tremendously important to us.”

Whitworth appealed to Shawn a few days later, pointing out that the leave of absence that Pauline had taken implied that she would be able to return when her Hollywood period was finished. It was the kind of point of honor on which Shawn was always quite vulnerable, and after listening to Whitworth’s entreaties, he reluctantly agreed that Pauline could resume her position. Eventually it was worked out that she would begin writing full-time for the magazine in the fall of 1980.

In the years to come Pauline would always be extremely reticent about the details of her time in Hollywood. If pressed by an interviewer, she would give her own carefully orchestrated version of what had transpired, but the experience had clearly left its mark on her. As author Jeanine Basinger said, “I had the feeling that what had happened to her there shocked her. She was not a woman who failed at things. She had a sense of shame and failure, and I think she buried it.”

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