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Book Review: ‘Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark’ Is A Compelling Look At The Famed Critic

Book Review: 'Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark' Is A Compelling Look At The Famed Critic

Pauline Kael famously once said that people keep asking her to write a memoir, but she had to stress to them that she already had – her life was in her work, in her vivid, long-form essays and critiques (most notably for The New Yorker) on her favorite subject: film. As Brian Kellow‘s new biography, thrillingly written and exhaustively researched shows, there was a whole lot more to Kael that what was in her reviews.

Kael wrote for The New Yorker for more than twenty years, broken only by an unsuccessful six-month stint in Hollywood (more on that in a minute), or, as Kellow likes to point out, from “Bonnie and Clyde” to “L.A. Story,” and her impact can be felt to this day, in the likes of contemporaries and protégés like Owen Gleiberman and David Edelstein who continue to review films with many of the techniques that Kael instilled in them, and her legacy endures as the most unforgettable voice in the history of American film criticism. What might not be known, for all her brassy, outspoken bravado, is what a complicated, deeply conflicted woman, one whose singular drive often got in the way of her interpersonal relationships and whose morally muddy chumminess with certain filmmakers never deterred her position as a critic.

Kellow’s approach is fairly straightforward – he charts young Pauline’s life, first growing up in California (she was actually born in New York), then struggling through the rigors of academia, before trying out life as a New York intellectual before slinking back to California, where she co-managed a rep theatre and cut her teeth writing about film. This eventually led to spotty freelance jobs at places like Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound and The Partisan Review while appearing on local San Francisco public radio (an unpaid gig she endured for the exposure). After a brief stints at McCall’s (she was reportedly fired for panning “The Sound of Music” – a gossipy aside that this book was too studious to reprint) and The New Republic, she was hired by The New Yorker. This was to be the turning point – the beginning of a long career in which she would ascend to the top of the world of film criticism.

Part of the genius of ‘A Life in the Dark’ is the way that Kellow quotes from Kael’s reviews and essays as a way of illuminating what was going on in her own life. Initially Kael was only on-staff for half the year (she swapped with another critic who she generally disliked), and it’s telling that she continued to struggle, financially and professionally, for the entire year. (Amazingly, she was 40 before she had a stable source of income, and even that required an extensive patchwork of lecturing gigs and freelance assignments. Despite her continued distrust of academia, she needed the money.) Her initial reviews and essays upon returning usually burst forth with ideas and commentary since she had been away for so long, squirreling away her quips and criticisms. This linear path also lets you follow the grooves in her tastes and the way she developed favoritism towards filmmakers and performers she thought would benefit from the added spotlight of her positive reviews and how deeply hurt she felt if some of these people would take a creative downturn; people like Robert Altman and Barbara Streisand who had initially galvanized her, then left her cold.

We also get to watch the public reaction to her reviews shift and mutate. Initially her reviews and collected works were met rapturously, as the breath of fresh air that they clearly were (deeply personal, nimble and jazzy and tangential). But as her career lengthened, and her reviews became more bombastic and excitable, her prejudices and favorites more easily felt, the reaction from her contemporaries cooled. Pauline’s relationship with the larger world of criticism is a fascinating and vital one. Early in her career, Kael would take swipes at other critics within her reviews (a practice that ended once she reached the austere halls of The New Yorker) and as her stature rose, it gave others a chance to get their jabs in too.

Some of these instances were warranted; in her pursuit of using the catchiest of-the-moment vernacular, she often came across as homophobic or (in the case of her infamous “Shoah” review) culturally insensitive. There was also, despite her leftist leanings, a dogged refusal to join anything resembling a “movement;” most distressingly her lack of engagement with feminism, which some saw as showing itself in her steadfast commitment to the films of Brian De Palma (which reached a tipping point with her laudatory review of the largely, if unfairly, derided “Casualties of War“).

Kael loved movies that were snappy and sensational (she gave early raves to things like “The Warriors,” “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” “Convoy” and De Palma’s “The Fury“), which dismayed her peers and, what’s so amazing given hindsight and historical context, is that she would champion a film like “Jaws” – fizzy pop entertainments that would ultimately doom the creative fertile period in American film of the early 1970s that she so adored.

Her relationship with filmmakers often bordered on the inappropriate, most famously when she screened an incomplete work print of “Nashville” and reviewed it months ahead of other publications, heaping praise on Altman. She regularly went out with filmmakers whose work she also reviewed (she had a particularly tight relationship with James Toback, whose crime film “Fingers” she adored). There’s an even story in the book of how she essentially cast Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Liaisons” after director Stephen Frears had slotted another actress in the role.

But her relationship with the business went from blurry to nonexistent when, after filing her review of “The Warriors” (her last of 1979), she took a job offer from Warren Beatty and headed west to be a producer on the Paramount lot. It was an ambitious plan, one that was more based in money than status, and once she was out there it quickly turned disastrous. Her position as a producer was quickly bumped down to a nebulously defined “creative consultant,” and most of her opinions or suggestions were blocked by production head Don Simpson, who, as a producer with Jerry Bruckheimer, would forever change the way movies were made and marketed. Kael was disgusted by the way movies were produced, recounting a story about a producer asking a group of men which actress they’d most like to fuck (if you know your behind-the-scenes history, this quote can most likely be credited to Michael Eisner). Only one of the movies she shepherded would wind up as a decently watchable movie (David Lynch‘s “The Elephant Man,” which she of course had no qualms about reviewing). Her brief stint in Hollywood would remain the most ill-defined and painful stretch of her long and illustrious career, and even now it’s the fuzziest section in the book.

When Kael returned from Hollywood, she got The New Yorker gig full time (in part because of a plagiarism scandal that gripped the other top tier critic) and had something of a career resurgence, even as the quality in films noticeably dipped in the ’80s, emphasizing oversized spending, flash and spectacle over anything resembling human feeling. It did, however, give her a public forum to repeatedly attack the films of Don Simpson; revenge-in-print.

As the decade wore on, her health declined and she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a painful neurological disease that would eventually (tragically) lead to her inability to view movies in a theater and rob her of her sharpness and memory. She still kept in touch with many of the young critics she guided and nurtured, a group who had informally been dubbed Paulettes until former protégé James Wolcott‘s infamous 1997 Vanity Fair piece “Waiting for Godard” (which painted the Paulettes as a sycophantic cult) right until the end. And, really, anyone who read Kael became a kind of everyday Paulette – you could agree with her one week, feel contemptuously opposed the next, but every day come back for more. Thanks to Kellow, though, we now have a better understanding of the complicated woman we were arguing with, and how impactful her life truly was. [A-]

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