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Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark: Book Review

It wasn't until the mid-'60s, however, that Pauline entered the fray of film criticism on a national level. Already personally acquainted with current or emerging heavyweights such as Dwight Macdonald, John Simon and Andrew Sarris, whose formulations of the "auteur theory" she had famously attacked in 1963, she scored a triumph with her first book of collected essays, I Lost It at the Movies, and shortly secured a high-profile berth at, of all places, McCall's. But the gig lasted all of three issues, following pans of the enormously successful Doctor Zhivago and, especially, The Sound of Music that the mainstream women's magazine simply could not abide.

After The New Republic rejected it for overlength, William Shawn agreed to run Pauline's landmark essay on Bonnie and Clyde in The New Yorker in October 1967, a piece widely perceived to have turned around the controversial film's shaky commercial career and which helped create a climate more congenial for artistically serious American films. Thus began a tenure that was remarkable if, as revealed by Kellow, more strained than it ever appeared from the outside, given Pauline's resentment over some of Shawn's puritanical editing and, especially, over having to alternate six-month stints with Penelope Gilliatt, whose drunken excesses are startlingly detailed.

Although this long-sought eminence is what Pauline and, presumably, the reader have been waiting for, the book changes once she has reached the top, becoming something of a compendium and reconsideration of some of the critic's notable pieces. To a point, Kellow reviews the reviews, a rather curious undertaking, but this admittedly takes on pertinent meaning when Pauline becomes friendly with some of her favorite directors or, more questionably, reviews some films -- notably Taxi Driver -- whose scripts she consulted on before production.

Pauline's judgment and, one could say, pronounced moral relativism comes disturbingly into play in regard to her infamous essay "Raising Kane," not only for her highly selective research techniques but also for her unconscionable, uncredited and insufficiently renumerated use of the massive information about the creation of Citizen Kane accumulated by UCLA academic Howard Suber.

Kellow is very good at parsing distinctions among the various "Paulettes," young admirers and acolytes who variously sought, craved, accepted or, in some cases, ultimately rejected the queen bee's friendship, approval and/or job recommendations. He is equally on the money characterizing her quickly untenable tenure as a Hollywood producer and executive at the behest of close friends Warren Beatty and James Toback, an unrealistic idea finally squashed, in the author's view, by Don Simpson.

More than once, Kellow insists that Pauline was always surprised when "friends" she went on to attack in print -- Woody Allen, for example -- took offense at her criticism, as she somehow imagined they would understand it wasn't personal, that she had to be completely honest in her reviews. There is a touching moment toward the end when Pauline and director George Roy Hill, both terribly debilitated by Parkinson's disease, met by chance in a small-town Massachusetts restaurant. Their previous personal contact had been some 30 years earlier when the director, responding to her unkind and, in one respect, uninformed review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, had begun with the salutation, "Listen, you miserable bitch." Ignoring this, "Pauline clutched his hand warmly and gave him the name of her massage therapist, promising him that the therapy would do him a world of good."

I never knew Pauline but was in her presence twice, first at a luncheon for the jury of the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, where she argued so relentlessly with the aging and ailing jury president Roberto Rossellini for two weeks that the uncharitable accused her of killing the revered director, who died the following week.

The other occasion was in the waiting atrium at the Nice airport a few days later. Altman's 3 Women had been in competition that year, and the director, whose work Pauline had tirelessly championed since MASH, was counting on her support. However, Altman had found out she didn't much like the film, which had to settle for a best actress prize (Shelley Duvall). Spotting Pauline at the airport, the director erupted into a public tirade, sputtering vicious obscenities for everyone to hear. To this day, I've never witnessed anything like it, yet they eventually patched things up.

Kellow admirably brings Pauline's wit, insight and passion to life on the page and has made at least one critic nostalgic for the days when heavyweight critical battles raged and at least one of us lived a life worthy of a biography.