"Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head. The Indians should have called him 'Plays with Camera.'" -- Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 –September 3, 2001) was an American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. Earlier in her career her works were published by City Lights, McCall's and The New Republic.
Kael was known for her "witty, biting, highly opinionated, and sharply focused" reviews, her opinions often contrary to those of her contemporaries. She is often regarded as the most influential American film critic of her day.
She left a lasting impression on many major critics, including Armond White, whose reviews are similarly non-conformist, and Roger Ebert, who has said that Kael "had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades." Owen Gleiberman said she "was more than a great critic. She re-invented the form, and pioneered an entire aesthetic of writing. She was like the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism."
"A book might be written on the injustice of the just.""A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is.""Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.""I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.""In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.""It seems likely that many of the young who don't wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don't have the patience to make art.""Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.""One of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.""The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.""The first prerogative of an artist in any medium is to make a fool of himself.""This movie is a toupee made up to look like honest baldness.""Trash has given us an appetite for art.""Where there is a will, there is a way. If there is a chance in a million that you can do something, anything, to keep what you want from ending, do it. Pry the door open or, if need be, wedge your foot in that door and keep it open."
Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to Isaac Paul Kael and Judith Friedman Kael, Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her parents lost their farm when Kael was eight, and the family moved to San Francisco, California. She matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1936; she studied philosophy, literature, and the arts but dropped out in 1940 before completing her degree. Nevertheless, Kael intended to go on to law school but fell in with a group of artists and moved to New York City with the poet Robert Horan.
Three years later, Kael returned to San Francisco and "led a bohemian life," marrying and divorcing three times, writing plays, and working in experimental film. In 1948, Kael and filmmaker James Broughton had a daughter, Gina, whom Kael would raise alone. Gina had a serious illness through much of her childhood,; and, to support Gina and herself, Kael worked a series of such menial jobs as cook and seamstress, along with stints as an advertising copywriter. In 1953, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael arguing about movies in a coffeeshop with a friend and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. Kael memorably dubbed the movie "slimelight" and began publishing film criticism regularly in magazines.
Even these early reviews were notable for their informality and lack of pretension; Kael later explained, "I worked to loosen my style...to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice." Kael disparaged the supposed critic's ideal of objectivity, referring to it as "saphead objectivity," and incorporated aspects of autobiography into her criticism. In a review of Vittorio De Sica's 1946 neorealist Shoeshine (SciusciÓ) that has been ranked among her most memorable, Kael described seeing the film
Kael broadcast many of her early reviews on the alternative public radio station KPFA, in Berkeley, and gained further local-celebrity status as Berkeley Cinema Guild manager from 1955 to 1960. As manager of a two-screen theater, Kael programmed the films that were shown "unapologetically repeat[ing] her favorites until they also became audience favorites." She also wrote "pungent" capsule reviews of the movies, which her patrons began collecting.
Kael continued to juggle writing with other work until she received an offer to publish a book of her criticism. Published in 1965 as I Lost It at the Movies, the collection sold 150,000 paperback copies and was a surprise bestseller. Coinciding with a job at the high-circulation women's magazine McCall's, Kael (as Newsweek put it in a 1966 profile) "went mass".
During the same year, she wrote a blistering review of the phenomenally popular The Sound of Music in McCall's. After mentioning that some of the press had dubbed it "The Sound of Money," Kael called the film's message a "sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat." Although, according to legend, this review led to her being fired from McCall's (The New York Times printed as much in Kael's obituary), both Kael and the magazine's editor, Robert Stein, denied this. According to Stein, "I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day's Night."
Her dismissal from McCall's led to a stint from 1966 to 1967 at The New Republic, whose editors continually altered Kael's writing without permission. In October 1967, Kael wrote a lengthy essay on “Bonnie and Clyde”, which the magazine declined to publish. William Shawn of The New Yorker got hold of the piece and ran it in the New Yorker issue of October 21. Kaels review raved about the then controversial film Bonnie and Clyde. According to critic David Thomson, "she was right about a film that had bewildered many other critics." A few months after the essay ran, Kael quit the Republic "in despair," Kael was asked by Shawn to join The New Yorker staff as one of its two film critics (she alternated every six months with Penelope Gilliatt until 1979, after which she became sole film critic),
Initially, many considered her colloquial, brash writing style an odd fit with the sophisticated and genteel New Yorker. Kael remembered "getting a letter from an eminent New Yorker writer suggesting that I was trampling through the pages of the magazine with cowboy boots covered with dung." During her tenure at the New Yorker, however, she took advantage of a forum that permitted her to write at length and with presumably minimal editorial interference; and Kael achieved her greatest prominence. By 1968, Time magazine was referring to her as "one of the country's top movie critics." Kael noted that, during this period, her reviews were so interesting because the movies were so compelling.
In 1970, Kael received a George Polk Award for her work as a critic at the New Yorker. She continued to publish hardbound collections of her writings, many with (deliberately) suggestive titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,When the Lights Go Down, and Taking It All In. Her fourth book, Deeper into Movies (1973), was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award.
Kael also wrote philosophical essays on moviegoing, the modern Hollywood film industry, and the lack of courage on the part of audiences (as she perceived it) to explore lesser-known, more challenging movies (she rarely used the word "film" to describe movies because she felt the word was too elitist). Among her more popular essays were a damning review of Norman Mailer's semi-fictional Marilyn: a Biography (an account of Marilyn Monroe's life); an incisive look at Cary Grant's career; and an extensively researched examination of Citizen Kane, entitled Raising Kane (later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book). She argued that Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane's co-screenwriter, deserved as much credit for the film as Orson Welles, a thesis that provoked controversy and hurt Welles to the point that he considered suing Kael for libel.
Kael battled the editors of the New Yorker as much as her own critics. She fought with William Shawn to review the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat, though she eventually relented. According to Kael, after reading her negative review of Terrence Malick's 1973 movie Badlands, Shawn said, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me." Kael responded, "Tough shit, Bill", and her review was printed unchanged. Other than sporadic confrontations with Shawn, Kael said she spent most of her work time at home, writing.
Upon the release of Kael's 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down, her New Yorker colleague Renata Adler published an 8,000-word review in The New York Review of Books that dismissed the book as "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." Adler argued that Kael's post-sixties work contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," and faulted her "quirks [and] mannerisms," including Kael's repeated use of the "bullying" imperative and rhetorical question. The piece, which stunned Kael and quickly became infamous in literary circles, was described by Time magazine as "the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years." Although Kael refused to respond, Adler's review became known as "the most sensational attempt on Kael's reputation"; twenty years later, Salon.com (ironically) referred to Adler's "worthless" denunciation of Kael as her "most famous single sentence."
In 1979, Kael accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to be a consultant to Paramount Pictures but left the position after only a few months to return to writing criticism.
In the early 1980s, Kael was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As her illness worsened, she became increasingly depressed about the state of American movies, along with feeling that "I had nothing new to say." In a March 11, 1991, announcement which The New York Times referred to as "earth-shattering," Kael announced her retirement from reviewing movies regularly. At the time, Kael explained that she would still write essays for The New Yorker, along with "some reflections and other pieces of writing about movies." During the next ten years, however, she published no new work besides an introduction to her 1994 compendium, For Keeps. In the introduction (which was reprinted in The New Yorker), Kael stated, in reference to her film criticism, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have."
Though she published no new writing of her own, Kael was not averse to giving interviews, in which she alternately praised and derided newly released films and television shows. In a 1998 interview with Modern Maturity, she said she sometimes regretted not being able to review: "A few years ago when I saw Vanya on 42nd Street, I wanted to blow trumpets. Your trumpets are gone once you’ve quit." She died at her home in Massachusetts in 2001, aged 82.
Kael's opinions often ran contrary to consensus critical opinion. Occasionally, she energetically championed movies that were considered critical failures, such as The Warriors and Last Tango in Paris. Soon after the latter film's release, Kael won the 1973 Harvard Lampoon Bosley Award, named after New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther and given to "that critic who consistently explores the farthest limits of bad taste." She was described by the Award's judges as "Pauline Kael, whose hysterical encomium loosed Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris on an all-too-trusting world." She was not especially cruel to some films that had been roasted by many critics, such as the 1972 Man of La Mancha, in which she praised Sophia Loren's performance. She also condemned films that elsewhere attracted admiration, such as It's a Wonderful Life, West Side Story, and Shoah. The originality of her opinions, as well as the forceful way in which she expressed them, won her ardent supporters as well as angry critics.
Notable movie reviews by Kael included a venomous criticism of West Side Story that drew harsh replies from the movie's supporters; ecstatic reviews of Z and MASH that resulted in enormous boosts to those films' popularity; and enthusiastic reviews of Brian De Palma's early films. Kael's scathing critique of Ryan's Daughter (1970) allegedly dissuaded director David Lean from making a film for fourteen years afterwards. Her 'preview' of Robert Altman's 1975 movie Nashville appeared several months before the film was actually completed, in an attempt to prevent the studio from re-cutting the film and to catapult it to box office glory.
Views on violence
Kael had a taste for anti-hero movies that violated taboos involving sex and violence, and this reportedly alienated some of her readers. She also had a strong dislike for films that she felt were manipulative or appealed in superficial ways to conventional attitudes and feelings.
She was an enthusiastic supporter of the violent action films of Sam Peckinpah and early Walter Hill, as evidenced in her collection 5001 Nights at the Movies, which includes positive reviews of Hill's Hard Times (1975), The Warriors (1979), and Southern Comfort (1981), as well as Peckinpah's entire body of work. Although she initially dismissed John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) for what she felt was its pointless brutality, she later acknowledged it was "intermittently dazzling" with "more energy and invention than Boorman seems to know what to do with...one comes out exhilarated but bewildered."
Kael responded negatively, however, to some action films that she felt pushed what she described as "right-wing" or "fascist" agendas. While praising Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) as "trim, brutal, and exciting; it was directed in the sleekest style by the veteran urban-action director...," she labeled it a "right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values". She also called it "fascist medievalism". In an otherwise extremely positive critique of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Kael concluded that the controversial director had made 'the first American film that is a fascist work of art'.
In her negative review of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Kael explained how she felt some directors who used brutal imagery in their films were de-sensitizing audiences to violence:
Accusations of homophobia
In preface to a 1983 interview with Kael for the gay magazine Mandate, Sam Staggs wrote that "she has always carried on a love/hate affair with her gay legions....like the bitchiest queen in gay mythology, she has a sharp remark about everything." In the early 1980s, however, largely in response to her review of the 1981 drama Rich and Famous, Kael faced notable accusations of homophobia. First remarked on by Stuart Byron in The Village Voice, according to gay writer Craig Seligman the accusations eventually "took on a life of their own and did real damage to her reputation."
In her review, Kael called the straight-themed Rich and Famous "more like a homosexual fantasy," saying that one female character's affairs "are creepy, because they don't seem like what a woman would get into." Byron, who "hit the ceiling" after reading the review, was joined by The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo, who argued that Kael equated promiscuity with homosexuality, "as though straight women have never been promiscuous or been given the permission to be promiscuous."
In response to her review of Rich and Famous, several critics reappraised Kael's earlier reviews of gay-themed movies, including a wisecrack Kael made about the lesbian-themed The Children's Hour: "I always thought this was why lesbians needed sympathy — that there isn't much they can do." Craig Seligman has defended Kael, saying that these remarks showed "enough ease with the topic to be able to crack jokes — in a dark period when other reviewers....'felt that if homosexuality were not a crime it would spread.'" Kael herself rejected the accusations as "craziness," adding, "I don't see how anybody who took the trouble to check out what I've actually written about movies with homosexual elements in them could believe that stuff."
Kael is frequently quoted as having said, in the wake of Richard Nixon's landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, that she "couldn't believe Nixon had won", since no one she knew had voted for him. The quote is sometimes cited by conservatives (such as Bernard Goldberg, in his book Bias), as an example of the alleged cluelessness and insularity of the liberal elite. There are variations as to the exact wording, the speaker (it has variously been attributed to other liberal female writers, including Katharine Graham, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion), and the timing (in addition to Nixon's victory, it has been claimed to have been uttered after Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984.)
There is, in fact, no record of Kael stating or writing this exact sentiment. The story most likely originated in a December 28, 1972 New York Times article on a lecture Kael gave at the Modern Language Association, in which the newspaper quoted her as saying, "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."
Almost as soon as she began writing for The New Yorker, Kael carried a great deal of influence among fellow critics. In the early seventies, Cinerama distributors "initiate[d] a policy of individual screenings for each critic because her remarks [during the film] were affecting her fellow critics." In the seventies and eighties, Kael cultivated friendships with a group of young, mostly male critics, some of whom emulated her distinctive writing style. Referred to derisively as the "Paulettes," they came to dominate national film criticism in the 1990s. Critics who have acknowledged Kael's influence include, among many, A. O. Scott of The New York Times, David Denby and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, David Edelstein of New York Magazine, Greil Marcus, Elvis Mitchell, Michael Sragow, Armond White, and Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com. It was repeatedly alleged that, after her retirement, Kael's "most ardent devotees deliberate[d] with each other [to] forge a common School of Pauline position" before their reviews were written. When confronted with the rumor that she ran "a conspiratorial network of young critics," Kael said she believed that critics imitated her style rather than her actual opinions, stating, "A number of critics take phrases and attitudes from me, and those takings stick out...they’re not integral to the writer’s temperament or approach."
When asked in 1998 if she thought her criticism had affected the way films were made, Kael deflected the question, stating, "If I say yes, I’m an egotist, and if I say no, I’ve wasted my life." Several directors' careers were indisputably affected by her, though, most notably that of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, who was accepted at UCLA Film School's graduate program on Kael's recommendation. Under her mentoring, Schrader worked as a film critic before taking up screenwriting and directing full-time. Also, film critic Derek Malcolm claimed that, "If a director was praised by Kael, he or she was generally allowed to work, since the money-men knew there would be similar approbation across a wide field of publications." Alternately, Kael was said to be able to prevent filmmakers from working; David Lean claimed that her criticism of his work "kept him from making a movie for 14 years." (He was most likely referring to the break between Ryan's Daughter in 1970 and A Passage to India in 1984.)
Though he began directing movies after she retired, Quentin Tarantino was also influenced by Kael. He read her criticism voraciously growing up and said that Kael was "as influential as any director was in helping me develop my aesthetic." Wes Anderson recounted his efforts to screen his film Rushmore for Kael in a 1999 The New York Times article titled "My Private Screening With Pauline Kael". He later wrote Kael that "your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that."
In his 1988 film Willow, George Lucas named one of the villains "General Kael," after the critic. Kael had often reviewed Lucas' work without enthusiasm; in her own (negative) review of Willow, she described the character as an "hommage Ó moi."