Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
By Brian Kellow
The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Sanford Schwartz, Ed.
Library of America, 10/27/2011
From her expansive, personal review of Hud (1963), which ran in Film Quarterly in 1964, to the crowning achievement of her career, the review of Casualties of War (1989) that ran in the August 21, 1989 New Yorker, Pauline Kael approached film reviewing with the ardor, the violence and sometimes the shyness of a lover. She was the most subjective of writers, but she often used “you” instead of “I” because she so much wanted us to share her enthusiasms. It’s impossible to pigeonhole her on just about any issue because she was always restlessly, even furiously making her points and then moving forward; her positions were forever in flux and alive, shifting even as she wrote. She became obsessed with sensations, sex and the impudent laughter of sheer survival and was deeply suspicious of anything that smacked of over-solemnity, so that Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni usually didn’t make her cut, but Jean Renoir did, and Max Ophuls.
She approached film mainly from a scriptwriting point of view, always circling back to “the material,” and she outright says in her essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” that she isn’t too interested in analyzing visual technique (although she could, if it struck her hard enough). She died in 2001, and she left behind her a whole school of critics, the Paulettes, to carry on her voice and sensibility. I won’t name names, but there are many film writers of a certain age who knew Kael and got their first jobs through her, and I can always hear her voice in their writing. It’s in technical issues, like her use of “you,” the rhythms of her declarative sentences which call the film in question “it” for a couple of descriptive jabs, and even the use of outdated 1930s slang that can’t possibly be their own. But no one has carried on the way that Kael brought her knowledge of literature, theater and music into her writing on film, and nobody can write now with her hyperbolic surety that a movie was “the greatest” ever made on a given topic, as if she’d seen every film ever shot. It’s not quite right to say that she kept the personal out of her reviews, but she did fight to make her personal responses a kind of whack-a-mole design for living for all of us. She was in her mid-forties when her first collection of film reviews, I Lost It at the Movies, became a bestseller, and she was always vague about how she had spent her twenties and thirties. The first one hundred pages of Brian Kellow’s new biography of Kael fill in the gaps in her early history, and they have value if we want to try to understand what made her who she was.
Kael was the fifth child of Polish Jewish immigrants who settled in California and raised chickens on a farm in Petaluma. As a kid, she was frustrated that the inter-titles in silent movies were held too long after she had finished reading them, and she never lost that kind of peppy, childlike impatience. Kael told several stories about why she never graduated from Berkeley, where she studied philosophy, but the plain truth seems to be that she was bored by formal education, and this boredom informs so much of her best work, especially her splendidly angry review of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary High School (1968). Kael’s two older sisters were teachers all their lives, and she reacted against them; she always resisted anything even remotely pedagogical.
Kael led many to believe that she had been married three times during her youth, but actually it was only once, to the manager of the Cinema Guild movie theater, Ed Landberg. In maybe my favorite passage from Kellow’s bio, Landberg describes how on their first meeting he grazed her breast with his hand, and she looked up at him and said, “What have you got to lose?” It’s a sizzling moment, a moment that proves that Kael could sometimes speak in movie dialogue herself, but it was pretty much her last effort in that direction. Before Landberg, Kael had mainly been frustratingly involved with gay male artists like Robert Duncan and Robert Horan, with whom she hitchhiked from California to New York. They were homeless for a time, but Horan was picked up by composer Samuel Barber and quickly moved in with him and his lover, Gian Carlo Menotti, leaving Kael in the lurch. There are gaps here, of course, but the sense I get from Kellow’s bio is that Kael in her twenties and thirties had to put up with the worst kind of indecision, poverty and neglect. It was Manhattan during the war, and it just wasn’t a good place for Kael or for anyone, really. By 1946, Kael went back to California in defeat.
She took up with another gay or bisexual man, poet James Broughton, and became pregnant with her only child, Gina, who she raised by herself. Gina needed money for a heart operation shortly after she was born, but Kael had to wait because she didn’t have enough money; she never had enough money for almost all of her life. And Kellow intimates that that gun moll movie moment she had with the unappealing Landberg was a ploy to get a little more money so that Gina could have that operation she needed (it worked). Gina didn’t talk to Kellow for this bio, and her silence hurts the book, but it’s also suggestive, for it seems clear that her mother made her name because she was so entertaining and she couldn’t shut up, whereas Gina kept in the shadows as her all-purpose typist, driver and helpmate.
Kael worked in publishing sometimes, but she also ran a laundromat and worked as a seamstress. Took in washing, scrubbed floors, you get the picture. She labored on writing plays and screenplays, but they never quite turned out. The most revealing thing in this book is a screenplay synopsis she tried to sell around 1950 called The Brash Young Man, where an older male writer named Benjamin Burl is miserable after finally achieving literary success until he meets a ferocious female critic, Amanda Magill, who sasses him in print and then stands over him as he writes and tells him what he’s doing wrong, to his delight. Kael might not have sold this screenplay, but it’s a template for how she saw herself in her glory days at The New Yorker, where she had lots of male film director pets who she nurtured and criticized out of what she felt was love.
As Kael reaches middle age and her career as a film writer finally gets going, a lot of life drains out of Kellow’s book as he conscientiously keeps up with her reviews of movies and situates them in the landscape of their time. Most of these stories from this period, the 1960s and 70s, have been told before elsewhere. At Warren Beatty’s invitation, Kael went to Hollywood to try to produce films in 1979, but nothing much came of that because she was reporting to cokehead jerk-wad Don Simpson and he had it in for her. It was the first serious money she had ever been offered, she was sixty years old, and she felt that she could make a difference; the timing just wasn’t right. If she had gone out a few years earlier, Kael might have made some of the tough, small ensemble pictures she so treasured.
Her writing in the 1980s got predictable on a stylistic level; movies were approvingly described as a “bliss-out” or a “trance-out,” that kept you “off-balance,” and she really overused her device, “The movie is saying” or “The movie is trying to say” or “The picture seems to be saying.” The later Kael is easy to parody, but she herself predicted that in her writing on what happened to major actors like John Barrymore, Bette Davis and Marlon Brando as they aged and started to caricature themselves. What she wrote about Brando can also be applied to her: “even when he mocks himself, the self he mocks is more prodigious than anybody else around.” William Shawn, her long-time editor at The New Yorker, thought she had been “corrupted” by too much contact with filmmakers and too much power over her acolytes, and he was right in his stuffy terms, but Kael herself might have answered that to be a little corrupt is to be more human and more open; to her, it was better to be a little corrupt than to be a prig. She battled ceaselessly with Shawn over her copy, but he would not let her review the porno chic hit Deep Throat (1972), nor would he allow her to describe Jack Nicholson’s face as “a commercial for cunnilingus” in her review of Goin’ South (1978).
I idolized Kael in high school and beyond, but I had to set her aside when I realized that I was copying her. You don’t have to have known her personally to be a Paulette or an incipient Paulette; all you have to do is pick up one of her books and be seduced. Kael is very seductive, very jazzy, very unafraid. She could be viciously bitchy, writing and publishing observations that a more cautious person might have left unsaid, or just left as a devastating remark in a gossip session with friends. The thing is, her bitchery always had at least the ring of truth, and she herself naively saw it as helpful. Kael was once on a radio show with Judith Crist and Ginger Rogers where Crist asked Rogers about her Oscar-winning role in Kitty Foyle (1940). Rogers beamed and said that her agent didn’t want her to do it, but thank heavens she did, and then Kael took a moment, looked at Ginger and said, “Your agent was right.”
Parkinson’s disease slowed her down, and she stopped writing about movies in 1991 and retired to her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Kellow doesn’t give us much about her last ten years, but there are a few gems. When Kael was coming out of anesthesia after an operation, she heard the nurses talking favorably about Matthew Modine. “He’s never any good,” she insisted, rightly, of course, through the ether. Maybe the most intriguing thing in Kellow’s book is a pair of photographs taken at different times of her life. In her high school graduation photo from 1936, Kael looks like a prim old lady in her glasses and sensible sweater. But in 1980, when she really was an old lady, Kael stares at the camera with her eyes wide open and her hand out dramatically, and suddenly she’s stylish, sharp, a star, beautiful, even. We don’t get enough of a feeling for how that transformation occurred in this dogged but cautious biography. Kellow is writing about the ultimate chance-taker; he could have afforded to take more chances himself.