Tough Movie Love: Pauline Kael 

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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.

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