Born 19 June 1919, Petaluma, California
Daughter of Isaac P. and Judith Friedman Kael; children: Gina
Pauline Kael grew up in California and attended the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in philosophy. She began her critical career as a freelance film reviewer for various monthlies, along with experimental filmmaking and playwrighting. Her work appeared in the San Francisco City Lights, Sight and Sound, Partisan Review, Kulchur, Film Culture, and Moviegoer, with a regular series in Film Quarterly. She was manager of the Berkeley Cinema Theatres through the early 1960s, inaugurating one of the first programs of film revivals, which featured W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Busby Berkeley musicals, supplying her own program notes. Kael was also a frequent lecturer on film at various California universities. She has received a Guggenheim fellowship (1964), and several awards (a National Book Award, the San Francisco International Film Festival's Mel Novikoff Award, the Newswomen's Club of New York Front Page Award, and others), as well as eight honorary doctorates from colleges and universities across the nation.
With her first collection of reviews, the best-selling I Lost It at the Movies (1965), Kael began her rapid ascendancy to dean of American film critics, her reputation already well on its way in film circles. Film critic for McCall's (1965-66) and New Republic (1966-67), she soon found a more prominent association with the New Yorker.
Kael is indisputably the most influential and innovative film critic of the 1960s and 1970s, one of the new breed of film critics led by a contingent of articulate women writers, which emerged with the coming of age of film as an intellectual as well as popular art form. From the beginning of her writing career, she was hailed as one of the most articulate and sensible in the field, although some fellow critics dissent. Her witty, candid, caustic, and opinionated style and encyclopedic knowledge of film history and of the film industry as a social institution gave her work immediate appeal and authority and served as a dominant model for the succeeding generation of young critics.
In her embrace of movies as part of popular culture, rather than as a rarefied cult of fine film, Kael's opinions are often at odds with those of more conservative reviewers working out of the tradition of drama criticism. Her very personal approach to film—as a dynamic between art and audience—disturbs those who consider the art a more objective matter of aesthetic standards.
The Citizen Kane Book (1971) is perhaps her crowning achievement. In this intensive case study, the depths of her historical and analytical powers are shown to greatly exceed the conventional limits of film criticism. Here her style, a compound of what one critic recognized as "journalism, biography, autobiography, gossip, and criticism," created a new model of film biography. A storm of controversy followed her attack upon the long-standing legend of Orson Welles as the animating genius behind the film.
Concerned that "movies should be a great popular democratic art form," of social and mythic as well as aesthetic interest, Kael's authority as the "Great Pop Critic" is the hallmark of her leadership of a field which has rapidly become the newest preserve of hip intellectual snobbery, pretentiousness, and a "new wave" of cultural elitism. In an age of the popular arts of the mass media, it is fitting that, as the leading critic of film, Kael should have command of both the strictly aesthetic vision and a wider, holistic, and interdisciplinary vision of film. She offers a promising model, a synthesis of the elite and the popular, for the study of contemporary life.
"It is unlikely that anyone in the world has reviewed more movies than Pauline Kael," William Shawn noted. "The quintessential movie lover" retired in 1991 at the age of seventy-one after a long and distinguished career. Kael's announcement she would be leaving the New Yorker after 24 years as its film critic was a shock to the movie industry.
Kael raised expectations for criticism as well as moviemaking. She was the primary advocate of the "cinematic pleasure principle," as she called it, and she truly believed that moviegoers should not settle for mediocrity. Her reviews bashed the Hollywood "cloning process" where filmmakers try to sell the same film over and over again under a different title.
In the 1970s, many films had risen to Kael's heightened expectations of them. She praised bright young innovators such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in her book of collected reviews, When the Lights Go Down (1980), as "directors who weren't afraid to excite your senses." If the 1970s proved anyone was listening to Kael, the 1980s seemed to prove no one was listening but everyone was making money.
Kael's reviews during the 1980s responded to the film standards of the decade. She criticized Hollywood for trying no bold undertakings, instead producing only cheap imitations of old clichés with overexposed actors regurgitating mass-produced messages. Four books assembling her 1980s reviews reflect her disgust, while noting the occasional successes. Taking It All In (1984) and State of the Art (1985) cover the early 1980s. Hooked (1989) includes reviews from 1985 to 1988, a period occasioning some of her most congratulatory comments. In the author's note, she comments that the films "began rather lamely, and then suddenly there's one marvelous movie after another," citing as examples Blue Velvet and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Movie Love (1991), incorporating her reviews from the late 1980s to her retirement, contains only a few complimentary reviews and many examples of her distaste for the films of the 1980s. Although she was criticized for overbashing the popular film about Native Americans, Dances with Wolves, her response to it is a good example of her attractive irreverence and intolerance for films made simply to be "do-gooders."
Although many viewers have disagreed with Kael's opinions, her reviews have had an important impact on the way movies are viewed. She has forced moviegoers to react instead of merely to watch. Kael's contributions to the movie industry will continue to affect both moviemakers and moviegoers.
For Keeps (1994, 1996) is a monumental anthology including the best of Kael's 10 volumes of reviews and essays published between 1965 and 1991. A compendium of arguably the best and most thoughtful (if often irreverent and politically incorrect) criticism of a generation of filmmaking, Kael never fails to approach film as an art form to be dealt with on its own terms and within its own framework. She causes readers to consider the manner in which movies interface with life, the culture at the time, and the psyche of the populace. Kael has announced this is her last book because she is in her seventies and in failing health.
In a 1998 interview with Newsweek reporter Ray Sawhill, seventy-eight-year-old Kael discussed the changes she has observed in the film industry over the years. When asked what critics are guilty of, she remarked, "We tend to exalt the works that we're emotionally and intellectually ready for" and noted that what appeals to the critic may not be what appeals to the audience. Regardless of the critic's feelings, Kael says, "Only a twerp would castigate an audience for its enjoyment of something.… The most a critic can do is to try to understand the audience's responses—and maybe enlarge them a teeny bit."
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1960). Going Steady (1970). Deeper into Movies (1973). Reeling (1976). 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982, expanded, 1991).
CA (1974). CB (Mar. 1974).
American Scholar (Winter 1989). Book World (23 Feb. 1969). Boston Globe (8 Sept. 1991). Commentary (April 1995). Kaleidoscope (Apr. 1989). Mirabella (Aug. 1992). Newsweek (18 Mar. 1991, Summer 1998). New York (5 Aug. 1974, 14 July 1975). Post (11 May 1966). PW (24 May 1971, 22 Aug. 1994). SR (Apr. 1973). Time (12 July 1968).
—MARGARET J. KING,
UPDATED BY SARAH E. MASON
AND REBECCA C. CONDIT