The Perils and Pleasures of Pauline Kael

Today marks the 100th birthday of one of our most influential film critics---whose wit and independence is becoming a lost art.

Pauline Kael with Tony Randall Rob Garver’s documentary, “What She Said.” (screengrab/Rob Garver /YouTube)

This June 19 marks the 100th birthday of the late, great film and arts writer Pauline Kael (she died a week before 9/11 in 2001). And though more than seven years have passed since then, her legacy has only become more relevant in light of #MeToo and the ongoing battle over free speech.

Kael was first and foremost a woman of contradictions. She was a Jewish farmer’s daughter who made her way to the pinnacle of the New York intelligentsia. She couldn’t bear uneducated people, yet she was fascinated on a Tom Wolfean level by the confettiscape of American life and was drawn to films, plays, and novels that celebrated that messy vitality. She also harbored an infamous disdain for the elitism in her reviews, which liberated her at a time when conventionality was becoming a hindrance to the craft.

She was what Frank Rich called a “fierce critic of all dogmas (including religion, feminism and liberalism)” and was not afraid to break molds—she was a working, unwed mother in the conformist late 1940s and 1950s. Yet later she famously alluded to her ascendancy into the elite East Coast literati she had always scorned, recalling her shock when Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide in 1972: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

Kael’s life followed a script—if indeed the movie was about a fiercely independent iconoclast who changed the way critics write about arts and culture.

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The great love of her life, according to Brian Kellow’s 2011 biography, was the young bisexual poet Robert Horan, whom Kael moved to New York City with after Berkeley and just before World War II. The draft-deferred Horan left her for the noted composing couple Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti, a fact that barely dampened Kael’s own friendship with Barber, as she worked dead-end jobs in book publishing to support herself and start her writing career.   

After returning to her native San Francisco, Kael got pregnant with her only daughter, Gina, by the experimental playwright and filmmaker James Broughton (who was a partner of “Radical Faeries” and Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay). She raised her daughter in this Father Knows Best era, ghostwriting business and advice books, giving violin lessons, taking in laundry and sewing, and even testing makeup for skating and film star Sonja Henie (their complexions matched) while working at a bookstore and commenting on film and books for San Fran’s legendary “Pacifica” radio station KPFA.  

Long before the restraints of political correctness and #MeToo, she wielded a sharp pen as well as an open mind. She never suffered fools (her review of Norman Mailer’s Marilyn Monroe: A Biography in 1973 is a feast; she doesn’t spare the actress, often using language that might get her “de-platformed” today, but she saves her real fire for Mailer, then the darling of the Greenwich Village literary scene).

In her most famous essay of all, 1969’s “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” she argued that movies and other forms of “low” culture (especially TV) can and should be enjoyed without guilt, so long as the junk food is balanced with a nutritious meal—and that what was considered the latter was often in reality the former. During her definitive late ’60s and ’70s tenure, Kael gave “permission” for film snobs to enjoy Fellini one week and a lowbrow comedy the next. Masterpiece Theatre and Great Performances on Sunday, followed by Laugh-In or The Gong Show on Monday.     

Kael also sexualized the very act of going to the movies or attending the live theater. Having come of age during the pre-war 1930s watching Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, and Carole Lombard delivering wisecracks, she had little use for soapy, turgid romances. She loved tough dames, noiry storytelling, and a Cary Grant/Montgomery Clift sense of cinema where the women were strong and the men were beautiful.  

She was willing to ascertain the value of violence to tell a story, even if that violence was directed at women. In her groundbreaking essay on Bonnie and Clyde, she thrilled to the film’s usage of violence as an imagery substitute for youthful joie de vivre (this reportedly cemented her perch at the New Yorker from 1967 to 1991), and later famously compared the debut of Last Tango in Paris to the first performance of Rite of Spring.  

Unsurprisingly, Kael’s career was not without its controversial moments. For years, it’s been alleged that she used, without credit, a body of research by UCLA professor Howard Suber to write her 1971 bestseller The Citizen Kane Book (and the attendant New Yorker feature, “Raising Kane”). The controversy was revived by a 2011 biography of Kael by Brian Kellow and interviews with Suber, who went on to become associate dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA.

Yet for all that was wrong with Pauline Kael (one New Yorker writer called her a bully who lorded her talent and influence over a group of sycophants called the “Paulettes” during the ’60s), what makes her still important is the tremendous amount that was right with her. Just before leaving San Francisco for New York and beginning work on her first major book, she delivered this impassioned commentary on politics and the arts on one of the final broadcasts of her public radio show: “Do you really want to be endlessly confirmed in the opinions you already hold? Don’t you even want to hear a good case made for other points of view, so that you can test and sharpen your own theories?”

Those words of over 50 years ago couldn’t hold more significance today in our era of safe spaces, cancel culture, trigger warnings, and debate over free speech. Kael helped redefine popular arts and media criticism by insisting on taking American films and TV seriously as a cultural—and political—force.

When Kael took over at The New Yorker, many longtime regulars preferred that movies be dispensed with in rather the same way they had always been—a cocktail party one-liner here, a witty paragraph or citation of merit there. American studio films (let alone TV shows) were bread and circuses, beneath “serious” discussion—escape from political and social realities rather than reflections of them.

To her great credit, Kael said, “Au contraire!” She was a not-so-invisible bridge between the era of the censorious Hays/Shurlock code and the counterculture—a cross between Dorothy Parker and Carmen McRae, with a side order of (her side-eyed rival) Joan Didion.

After redefining film and arts criticism, the ’80s proved to be anni horribili for Kael. Her decade began with a vicious takedown by fellow female-intellectual royalty Renata Adler. Her favorite directors, like Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, were all but forgotten by studio and network bigwigs. And in a direct foreshadowing of today’s comic booking CGI cinescape, Hollywood studios were concocting formulas that were virtually critic-proof—an action/FX heavy slate of Top Guns, Red Dawns, Navy Seals, Lethal Weapons, Die Hards, and Red Octobers.  

Having fought like a tigress to break through the glass ceiling of publishing “gatekeepers,” Kael could barely conceive of a world where those gatekeepers’ authority had all but collapsed—even if she’d inadvertently contributed to it. Towards the end of her life, she said to the effect that when she wrote “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” she’d never thought that the trash would completely take over the art, or worse, that people would stop even bothering to draw a distinction.

And though Kael seemed to revel in her later reputation as a tough old broad, she often said that even at the summit of her influence, she didn’t have the power to stop a bad movie or play from being made, a bad TV show from being a hit, or a bad book from being published. A critic’s first job, she always said, was to amplify and platform the truly good stuff out there, which would otherwise slip through the cracks.  

In today’s social mediaverse, no critic matches the power Pauline Kael once had. But for all of us who try to follow in her giant footsteps, we should always act as though we do.

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”

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