Kael, Pauline (1919—)

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Kael, Pauline (1919—)

American film critic . Born on June 19, 1919, in Petaluma, Sonoma County, California; daughter of Isaac Paul Kael (a farmer) and Judith (Friedman) Kael; graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, 1940; Georgetown University, LL.D., 1972; divorced (three times according to some published sources; four according to others); children: one daughter, Gina James.

Selected writings:

I Lost It at the Movies (1965); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968); Going Steady (1970); The Citizen Kane Book (1971); Deeper Into Movies (1973); Reeling (1976); When the Lights Go Down (1980); Taking It All In (1984); State of the Art (1985); Hooked (1989); 5001 Nights at the Movies (1991); For Keeps (1994).

Probably the most influential movie critic from the 1960s to the 1980s, Pauline Kael retired in 1991, age 71, because of increasing problems with Parkinson's disease. "It started to really give me trouble in 1990," she said. "You can't go shaking to screenings. I also froze in line a few times." Kael left behind a lengthy and distinguished career that included 24 years with The New Yorker. William Shawn, the longtime editor of the magazine, dubbed Kael "the quintessential movie lover" and noted that there was probably no one else in the world who had reviewed more movies or knew more about the film industry. "In herself, she is the international history, library, archive, encyclopedia of film—the cinemathèque," he wrote in the foreword of her 1991 book, 5001 Nights at the Movies.

Pauline Kael was born in Sonoma County, California, in 1919, the youngest child in a large family. She grew up on a sizeable farm, 30 miles north of San Francisco, until the family moved to the city when she was eight. "I remember my father taking me along when he visited our local widow," Kael wrote in her review of Hud. "At six or seven, I was very proud of my father for being a protector of widows.… My father, who was adulterous, and a Republican who, like Hud, was opposed to any government interference, was in no sense and in no one's eyes a social predator. He was generous and kind, and democratic in the western way that Easterners still don't understand." Kael was even closer to her mother.

In 1940, Kael graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and a passion for the arts and literature. After college, she tried her hand at writing (films, plays, and essays), while working at odd jobs to support herself and her daughter, Gina James . Kael would marry several times. She worked as a seamstress and had some success as a copy writer—too much success, she recalls. "The day they were putting up the partition and putting my name on the door I went in and quit in tears because I suddenly saw myself behind that partition for years. And I didn't want that, I wanted to write."

Kael's first piece of film criticism was written for City Lights magazine in San Francisco and was followed by articles in Partisan Review, Sight and Sound, Moviegoing, Kulchur, and the Film Quarterly, which ran her pieces on a regular basis. From 1955 through the early 1960s, she also managed two art film houses (Berkeley Cinema Theaters) and reviewed films on a radio show carried by several Pacific network stations. Her reputation grew steadily and a widely acclaimed collection of her articles in book form, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), led to assignments from mainstream journals such as Life, Holiday, and Mademoiselle. She was also the regular film critic for McCall's (1965–66) and The New Republic (1966–67).

In 1968, Kael joined The New Yorker, where she shared reviewing duties with Penelope Gilliatt for the next 11 years. In this somewhat unconventional arrangement, the two women split the year, each writing for a six-month period. Although Kael called her assignment with The New Yorker "the best job in the world," she sometimes had to fight to retain her edgy style. "The editors tried to turn me into just what I'd been struggling not to be: a genteel, fuddyduddy stylist," she explained. "Sometimes almost every sentence was rearranged." As regards content, however, she would not be pressured. When her much-respected New Yorker editor, Wallace Shawn, referred to her pan of Terrence Malick's Badlands with, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me," Kael replied, "Tough shit, Bill."

Over the years, her reviews were collected regularly in such volumes as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, and When the Lights Go Down. In 1974, Kael received the National Book Award for Deeper into Movies, the first book on film to receive the honor, but many point to The Citizen Kane Book (1971) as her crowning achievement. It grew out of a 50,000-word essay, entitled "Raising Kane," which was first published in two successive issues of The New Yorker, and was praised by one critic as "a mixture of journalism, biography, autobiography, gossip, and criticism, carried along by a style so exhilarating that one seems to be reading a new, loose kind of critical biography."

In the middle of 1979, Kael took a leave of absence from The New Yorker to work in the movie industry. Originally hired to assist Warren Beatty on a film, she wound up as an executive consultant of film projects for Paramount. "I was dying to leave after a few months," she said; "I missed writing terribly. Also, you see all the arrogance and the money- and honor-chasing. You find part of what makes someone a director is an amalgam of qualities not desirable in the home." She returned to The New Yorker in 1980 as the magazine's year-round film reviewer. Her Hollywood experience was valuable, however, because it allowed her to see the obstacles in movie making more clearly. "You have more sympathy for bad pictures when you see what people have to go through before they can get any picture under way."

Although many question Kael's opinions, most agree that she was a captivating writer. "Kael's reviews are a total turn-on," wrote Gary Carey in Library Journal,"a combination of uncanny perceptions and an idiosyncratic prose style that takes its rhythms and patterns from the movies themselves." Jack Kroll of Newsweek, called Kael "the literary intellectuals' favorite movie critic, a liaison woman between the sacred groves of academe and the plebeian, popcorn-redolent movie houses."

Kael viewed movies as a kind of sociological barometer of the times. In her introduction to Deeper into Movies (1973), she writes that the collection of reviews represent "a record of the interaction of movies and our national life.… I try to use my initial responses (which I think are probably my deepest and most honest ones) to explore not only what a movie means to me, but what it may mean to others, to get at the many ways in which movies, by affecting us on sensual and primitive levels, are a supremely pleasurable—and dangerous—art form."

"What's so dangerous?," asked an interviewer. "At a movie house, you feel alone with the image and you're affected deeply," replied Kael. "The different elements that go into movies—music, cinematography, actors, design—get to you very strongly. That's why so

many educated people disapprove of movies; they're not used to giving themselves over to that much emotion. They feel more at home with foreign films full of humane little lessons." She found screen violence objectionable only when the audience is manipulated into identifying with the killer. "There's a lot of violence at the beginning of Grand Illusion, but you're appalled by it," she noted. "Bonnie and Clyde suffered for their indifference and casualness about using weapons. Whereas in a Clint Eastwood movie, you identify with the guy with the biggest gun, not the victim. That's a big difference emotionally. Natural Born Killers is a horrible movie—the victims are purposely made ludicrous and pathetic, so you're supposed to cheer the killers on."

In 1994, three years into retirement, Kael came out with another collection, For Keeps, her largest and perhaps her best volume yet. Richard Corliss of Time found it intoxicating. "Reading For Keeps is like going on a toot with Mary McCarthy, Belle Barth and Billie Holiday ," he wrote. "It's movie analysis with a serrated edge; film criticism as stand-up bawdry; intellectual improvisation that soars into the highest form of word jazz."


Corliss, Richard. "That Wild Old Woman," in Time. November 7, 1994.

Evory, Ann, ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, Vol. 6. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.

Goodman, Susan. "She Lost It at the Movies," in Modern Maturity. March–April 1998.

Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason, eds. American Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1994.

Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies. NY: Holt, 1991.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Malko, George. "Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies," in Audience. Vol. 2, no. 1. January–February 1972.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts