Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark: Book Review

Penguin Group USA
The biography of the controversial film critic reveals the life behind the wit and passion.

Brian Kellow's biography of the legendary New Yorker reviewer sheds light on the voice that championed Bonnie and Clyde, her failed Hollywood adventure and her battles with William Shawn.

For a film critic, it's a new sensation to read a biography of another film critic. I don't believe there has ever been one before, at least in English (James Agee doesn't count, due to the wide-ranging nature of his career). By and large, critics of any sort don't lead notably adventuresome lives; they're reactors more than actors, writers known for their opinions of others' work rather than having created anything of their own.

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But while it's possible to regard the subtitle of Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark as subtly snide, author Brian Kellow strongly suggests that Pauline, as she was called by everyone and is invariably referred to in these pages, lived most intensely in a darkened theater. As a film critic for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, she responded to movies with an unmediated emotion that was perhaps absent from her personal life (she is never described as having been in love with anyone after college), and her reactions could even be physical; one friend swears Pauline levitated at one screening, and her companion at Last Tango in Paris, about which she wrote her most famous review, said she was "drenched" afterward, unable to talk.

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Pauline is very fortunate in her biographer. Kellow, an erudite movie lover, features editor at Opera News and author of a book about another formidable woman, Ethel Merman, writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading of his subject's youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth. To an impressive degree, he gets inside the head of a precocious, fearsomely smart young woman from small-town California and is able to describe what drove her, which authors turned her on (James, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Woolf, Proust), her love of jazz and her distaste for aesthetic, religious and political dogma. So thoroughly does he portray the development of Pauline's character and passionate engagement with matters aesthetic that it comes as no surprise she was able to burst onto the scene, at the relatively advanced age of 48, as one of the most dynamic cultural arbiters of the past century.

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Even to close friends, Pauline revealed little about her early family life. Many did not even know she was Jewish, so it's fascinating to learn that her hometown of Petaluma, a chicken-farming community 35 miles north of San Francisco, was a hotbed of the Labor Zionist movement and Progressive-era left-wing politics when she was a little girl in the early 1920s. As a child she was immersed in a world of literature, issues and argument and remained so her entire life. The youngest of five children of Polish emigres, Pauline couldn't stand her mother but adored her father, a self-confident ladies' man she once likened to Paul Newman's Hud, which provides plausible insight into her later attraction to macho Westerners like Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman.

At university at Berkeley, she continued to read ravenously and was fatally attracted to poets, bright and sensitive young men who were essentially gay but either not quite ready to admit it or willing to try the alternative with Pauline. These fraught relationships never worked out, but with one of these fellows, Robert Horan, she moved to New York in 1941. Within days, Horan became the kept man of famous composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, leaving a penniless Pauline to scramble for work and lodgings. Struggling all the while, she spent the war years developing a pronounced and permanent aversion to "New York artistic circles" and the publishing field she so keenly wished to enter, populated as it was by shiny blond Smith and Wellesley graduates willing to work for $25 a week.

Returning to the Bay Area with her tail between her legs in 1945, Pauline became involved with the incredibly effeminate avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton. He managed to impregnate Pauline but threw her out as soon as she told him, whereupon she moved to Santa Barbara to give birth to her daughter, Gina, in 1948 and quietly raise her for a while.

For anyone interested in Pauline, the intellectual climate of the period and the slim prospects even for ultra-smart and ambitious young women of the time, Kellow's account of these early years makes for fascinating reading. The author is able to document Pauline's youthful taste in movies and stars -- she loved I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Grand Illusion, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and the Ritz Brothers but disliked The Grapes of Wrath, Mrs. Miniver, Chaplin and Norma Shearer. She also started following film critics, becoming partial to Agee, Graham Greene, Manny Farber and Otis Ferguson while developing a strong aversion to "saphead" Bosley Crowther of The New York Times.

Finally, in the 1950s, Pauline began to generate a bit of traction as a critical voice in small magazines, as an unpaid film critic on Berkeley's KPFA-FM and by writing program notes for the city's pioneering twin art house, the Cinema Guild, run by Ed Landberg, a remote, difficult man to whom she was married for about a year.

The review continues on the next page.

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