Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Pauline Kael
AP Photo

Kael wrote movie reviews for The New York Times for 24 years.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.