Back to IndieWire

An Excerpt from Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael Biography “A Life in the Dark”

An Excerpt from Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael Biography "A Life in the Dark"

One of the most important and divisive voices in film criticism, Pauline Kael spent over two decades writing reviews for The New Yorker. Now, ten years after her death in 2001, a new biography about the film critic is hitting stores today.

Brian Kellow’s “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” offers an in-depth portrait of Kael, who Roger Ebert said “had more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.”

indieWIRE is sharing an excerpt from the new book. Here, Kellow discusses Kael’s difficult relationship with New Yorker editor William Shawn and her admiration for actress Veronica Cartwright.


In addition to her growing dissatisfaction with the run of new movies, Pauline was not particularly happy with her situation at “The New Yorker.” She continued to do battle with William Shawn over tone and language in her copy, and after more than ten years of the same arguments, she was suffering from battle fatigue. Shawn, for his part, was just as exasperated as he once had been about Pauline’s insistence on using sexual and scatological language that he deemed inappropriate for the magazine. Their arguments had lost none of their sting over the years; as always, Pauline seemed to enjoy pushing Shawn to the limits, trying to find a crack in his gentlemanly decorum. “I can remember a couple of times, at least, seeing him turn so red when they would start arguing,” remembered William Whitworth, who served as Pauline’s immediate editor for a time in the 1970s. “She would never let it go. Shawn had had a heart attack, and I thought a couple of times that he might fall over on the floor right there in the office. She was the only person in the process who didn’t treat him the way the world of journalism did, and the way the rest of us did, as a very special little person— which he was. She treated him like one of the guys and talked to him that way, with a lot of wisecracks.”

One memorable confrontation with Shawn came in late 1978, when Pauline submitted her review of “Goin’ South,” a raucous Western comedy starring and directed by Jack Nicholson. “The problem Shawn had with her over and over had to do with her trying to sneak naughty words into the text and being really overtly, lip- smackingly appreciative of any sexual situations in the movie and wanting to make those as vivid as possible,” said Whitworth. In the opening sentence of her review of “Goin’ South,” Pauline rendered a vivid description of Nicholson, an actor she was still trying to come to terms with: “He bats his eyelids, wiggles his eyebrows, and gives us a rooster- that-fully-intends-to- jump- the- hen smile.” Shawn’s note in the galley margin read, “This piece pushes her earthiness at us, as if she wants to see how far she can push us, too. It’s the tone of the whole review.”

Later in the same review she wrote of the actor, “He’s like a young kid pretending to be an old coot, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom close to the earth.” Shawn wrote in the margin, “Her earthiness, her focus on body functions.” The description of Nicholson’s bottom being close to the earth was deleted, as was a later reference to Nicholson’s being “a commercial for cunnilingus.” Shawn circled the phrase and wrote, “This has to come out. We can’t or won’t print it.” Whitworth recalled that in all the years he worked at “The New Yorker,” he never saw Shawn make such an adamant decree; it was his customary style to try to get his way via gentle persuasion.

At year’s end Pauline saw the most purely enjoyable movie she’d seen in years— Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 low- budget science fiction classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The original version, about a community being systematically supplanted by pods from outer space that hatch perfect, desensitized human replicas, had been a surprise hit when it was released and was still a favorite in campus revivals, as it had come to be read as a biting commentary on the McCarthyist paranoia of the ’50s. The remake swapped the original’s small- town California setting for San Francisco but retained the paranoid atmosphere.

Pauline thought that for pure movie thrills, the new “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was “the American movie of the year— a new classic.” She also had special praise for Veronica Cartwright, who played the film’s second female lead. Cartwright was an actress whose work Pauline had been following closely for some time. In her review of Cartwright’s 1975 film, “Inserts,” Pauline had compared her to Jeanne Eagels—“a grown-up, quicksilver talent.” Writing about “Invasion,” she observed that Cartwright possessed “such instinct for the camera that even when she isn’t doing anything special, what she’s feeling registers. She doesn’t steal scenes— she gives them an extra comic intensity.”

Not long after her review of “Body Snatchers” appeared, Pauline had the opportunity to meet Cartwright in New York. They had a drink at the Plaza, and Pauline was full of questions and advice on what Cartwright might do next. James Toback joined them briefly, because Pauline wanted him to interview Cartwright for a possible role in an upcoming film. “She was obsessed with James Toback,” Cartwright remembered. “I mean obsessed. It was almost motherly. She wanted to make sure a meeting was set up between us, and it was almost like she was trying to guide him through something.” When Toback left for another appointment, Pauline and Cartwright remained behind to finish their cocktails. Evening was coming on, and Pauline invited Cartwright to attend a screening with her that night. Cartwright, who was having difficulties with her then- boyfriend, thanked her but begged off, mentioning her need to deal with her problems at home. Pauline could not hide her disappointment. “I had the weirdest feeling she was off ended,” Cartwright observed. “I don’t know quite what happened, but she never reviewed me after that. She mentioned me, but she never picked me out in anything else. She was determined not to say anything.”

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” Copyright © 2011 by Brian Kellow.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Uncategorized and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox