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Pauline Kael’s Legacy Built By Straying From Herd

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 4, 2011

Pauline Kael, long-time New Yorker film critic, was famous for her scathing, but honest movie reviews. She took digs at many popular films like The Sound of Music and Star Wars with no inhibitions. Yet her enthusiasm for films like Bonnie and Clyde gave some movies a new lease on life.

Brian Kellow has written a new biography on Kael called A Life in the Dark. He tells Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that though Kael eventually became one of America’s most famous critics, her career didn’t take off until she was in her 40s.

“Pauline had a very tough time getting her plane off the ground,” Kellow says. “She began her writing life thinking she was going to be a creative writer — a playwright, and perhaps a screenwriter. She made several attempts in that direction, and I think she just discovered early on that she wasn’t very good at it.”

A Contrarian Streak

Kael eventually made her way to the New Yorker as a part-time film critic in 1968. It was there that she established herself as a fiercely independent and honest voice. Kellow says though she criticized American favorites like It’s A Wonderful Life, she wasn’t opposed to all popular films.

“One of her ongoing concerns was that the movies she believed in the most didn’t reach a wide public. And she didn’t like a lot of the studio hacks — the people who knew how to play politics and get their films made and then, in her opinion, didn’t come up with anything terribly interesting,” he says. “But I do think she also did love to go against the grain and stray from the herd — that was definitely part of her appeal.”

Like her early career, Kael’s personal life was also fraught with failures. Kellow says “she had a habit of falling for gay men” earlier in her life because “they tended to share her passions and enthusiasms.” She had a daughter, Gina James, with one of them, experimental filmmaker James Broughton.

Gina James declined to talk with Kellow for his book, but the author says Kael and her daughter had a sort of symbiotic relationship.

“Pauline did not type, Pauline did not drive — Gina performed both those functions for her. And Gina was a very good critic of Pauline. She got to see Pauline’s copy before anyone else did and she often had very, very important and influential things to say,” he says. “But Pauline really wasn’t wild about the idea of Gina breaking away and having her own life apart from her, and she didn’t do anything really to encourage her in that direction as far as I can see.”

Ethical Misstep Overlooked

Kellow says he also uncovered a hidden bit of history about Kael as he was researching the book. In 1974, she wrote a well-received essay about the history and impact of Citizen Kane. The piece was filled with interviews of people who had worked on the film. But Kellow found out they weren’t conducted by Kael — they were done by a UCLA film professor named Howard Suber. So he tracked down Suber, who was still on the school’s faculty.

“He was at first rather hesitant to talk about this whole matter … [but] he finally came out with the whole story which was that, in fact, she had filched this research from him,” he says. “She had led him to believe they were going to collaborate on this essay for the New Yorker and he very enthusiastically agreed and turned over all his material to her — and then she didn’t give him any credit.”

Kellow says Kael “was running a tremendous risk” and he still can’t understand why she did it.

“I was really careful about this. I corroborated the story in as many was as I could,” he says. “But I also really do have to say one of the odd things about this is that I think it was an aberration. Because I think for the most part she was an extraordinarily ethical person.”

Changing Face Of Film Criticism

Even after writing her biography and digging up a handful of unflattering anecdotes, Kellow says Kael is still a heroine to him.

“I have even greater respect for her now that I have seen up close the struggles that she went through. To chase after this dream and this career while raising Gina all by herself … I had great admiration for Pauline and I think it comes through on every page. But you know, you have to tell the story of the life,” he says.

Kellow says film criticism has changed dramatically in the decades since Kael’s heyday. Critics now have their own websites that reach far more people than she ever could.

“But for me, so many of these things don’t have any depth or breadth to them and I think she would have really been disgusted by that because she worked very hard to get where she was,” he says. “She read widely, she was a brilliantly informed woman. I prefer her kind of film criticism, what can I say?” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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