Pauline Kael's Editor: 'She'd Laugh at 'Black Swan,' Vote for 'The Fighter'

Paramount Pictures

Daniel Menaker channels Pauline Kael's votes on the 2011 Oscar race: "I don't think she'd like The King's Speech."

Menaker edited Pauline Kael, Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, "Michael Eisner's quote book unquote," and David Foster Wallace and Spider-Man 2 writer Michael Chabon, whom he discovered.

THR: What would Kael think of this year's Oscar contenders?

Menaker: She'd laugh at The Black Swan, I can tell you that. She used to make me go to some horrible movies -- at some Visconti one, she just laughed throughout it. It was kind of embarrassing. Black Swan has no meaning, because it tries to have so many. Its message is, Check your back for feathers.

THR: Producer Brian Oliver told me a studio chief asked him, "Explain Black Swan to me." It inspires many theories: Barbara Hershey's character doesn't actually exist, Mila Kunis doesn't exist, it's all in her mind. Oliver says the secret of Black Swan's success is, "People spend more time talking about it afterward than they did watching it." But Kael wouldn't?

Menaker: She wouldn't like many of the movies out there. Except when she was helping to write the screenplay, as with Personal Best, which I called Personal Breast, which she raved about without compunction, she liked for the most part unselfconscious movies. In her famous piece about Animal House, she said, "I stand with the slobs." All these movies, including 127 Hours, have a certain self-consciousness. Except for True Grit, which is almost like a deliberate abrogation of self-consciousness.

THR: Would Kael side with The King's Speech or The Social Network?

Menaker: I don't think she'd like The King's Speech. She would complain about the lighting and get tired of the stuttering. Social Network -- I think she would like that movie. I think it should probably win.

THR: How about Inception?

Menaker: Oh, please! It's the boyfriend of Black Swan, it's not about anything. In a New York screening, when they said, "Is this real or is this a dream?" the audience roared with laughter. You can't follow it!

THR: How about The Fighter? It's about slobs -- would she stand with it?

Menaker: Yes. First of all, it's an underdog in the race. She would've said it's a mess, and it is. She would've liked that. She'd say, "It's four different movies, it's an inspirational movie, it's a character study, it's a drug movie, six different genres are in that." Christian Bale overdoes it a little. But then you see the guy at the end and you wonder if he did. I would vote for that movie, because the others, they're too precious -- thought-y. I enjoyed every second of The Fighter even though it kept shifting gears. I think she would've liked it.

THR: She liked what was messy, like early Woody Allen. Messy and vital.

Menaker: That's right.

Menaker is now teaching humor writing at Columbia and composing his memoir, My Mistake, about being told to leave The New Yorker (which took him 26 years) and other gaffes. Its first words: "'Who do you think you are?'"

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