Pauline Kael: What Made Her a Movie Genius

No one got the movies like critic Pauline Kael as a new biography and collection of her greatest work reminds Allen Barra.

AP Photo

Pauline Kael was barely five feet tall, but she bestrode the narrow streets of New York—a city she never particularly liked—like a colossus. For years, much of the excitement following the release of an anticipated film was waiting to hear what Kael had to say about it. Her readers loved her. Filmmakers held their breath hoping for her approval.

Many critics hated and feared her. Those who still bear the scars of her laser-like wit still do. Some wish that she had tangled with them even more. John Simon, for instance, who says that Kael didn’t spar with him in print because “She felt it would make me more important than I am.” (The truth is that if Kael had felt Simon was important, she would have sparred with him.)

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow, features editor for Opera News and author of Ethel Merman: A Life, resurrects all the old debates, controversies, and feuds from a time when it was exciting to love movies and know Pauline Kael. (For the best inside look, see James Wolcott’s heartfelt and hugely entertaining new memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York.) Kellow gives voice to dozens of people who had scores to settle with Kael. Lucky for them—how else would their names be remembered years from now?

In the interest of full disclosure, Kael was a friend of mine. Kellow interviewed me for his book, for which I contributed some photos. I met her in 1985 when, to my shock, she called me at the Village Voice—I had no idea she had read anything I’d written, which up to that time was mostly about baseball—and invited me to meet with some friends of hers at Cafe Un Deux Trois, a few doors from her beloved Algonquin. Bored by the conversation, I began tapping out the rhythm to a Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelli tune playing in the background. Across the table, Kael was looking at me, smiling and tapping out the same beat. She told me she had learned jazz violin playing in an all-girl jazz band. From then on, we were friends.

My wife, daughter, and I spent many weekends at her enormous Northern California-style house in Great Barrington, Mass. One Sunday morning, sitting on her front porch, I met Roy Blount, Jr., who came bopping up Kael’s driveway singing “An ordinary man would have given it up by now,” from Tapeheads, a movie, it turned out, we both loved. Another time my daughter, age 8, running around the house, turned a corner and collided into Wally Shawn. My daughter Maggie pointed at him and said, “You were in The Princess Bride.” Shawn beamed.

Maggie was the last person to interview Pauline. (Written for her middle school paper when Maggie was 10, the interview was reprinted on Salon following my review of Francis Davis’ Afterglow, A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael) My wife and I went to movie screenings with her, saw several plays with her, and even watched boxing matches (Pauline’s favorites were Evander Holyfield and Oscar De La Hoya).

As I didn’t write very often on film, my give and take with Kael might have been different from those of the film devotees who surrounded her. We disagreed often and the first time we had a sharp difference of opinion—I liked Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers a great more than she did—my experience was similar to one recalled by Joe Morgenstern. After their first verbal tussle, Pauline laughed and said, “That was fun, honey. Let’s have a cup of coffee!” I found her, as Shaw found Chesterton, “to sometimes be at his best when you disagreed with him.”

Once, at a party for James Toback’s documentary, The Big Bang, I was moving from room to room, counting copies of a book by David Thomsen, Overexposures, which seemed to be one out of every 20 or 30 books Toback owned. “How many have you counted so far?” a lady asked me. “About 30,” I answered, “What’s up with this?” “There’s a profile of Toback in it,” she said. We started counting together. I think we got to 60. The woman introduced herself: she was the late, great humorist Veronica Geng. We told Pauline about our discovery, “Oh, God,” she said. “He must have every copy that was printed.” She added with a giggle, “I hope what Thomson wrote about Jim in there is more accurate than the crap he wrote about me.”

I have some serious problems with Pauline Kael, A Life in the Dark. He’s good about Kael’s early life growing up on a ranch in northern California and her beginnings as a writer among Berkeley bohemians in the 1940s and early 1950s. (From what Pauline told me, a quote from a friend of hers included by Kellow is accurate: “There’s nothing quite so hide-bound and stuffy as a Berkeley intellectual at that time.”)

He is also good on some of the tough and independent-minded actresses whom Pauline loved and admired and whose personas personally influenced her, including Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis. He is very good at sizing up some of Kael’s personal virtues: “She managed the difficult feat of being brutally honest with her friends about their creative work while at the same time showering them with generosity.” Bullseye. She would read to you some clunker of a sentence, and you’d feel devastated. Then, she’d lift you up by saying, “Really, you can do a lot better than this.”

She would also give you a chance to shoot back. Once she asked my opinion on a paragraph in a review which had just been typed by her daughter Gina. “Be honest, sweetie. Did I go over the top? Should I use this?” “I’m really not sure,” I told her, “but if you don’t use that line, I’ll steal it.” She kept the line. (As a reward for my “editing” she gave me her copy of Erich Segal’s Love Story with all her handwritten notes. My favorite: “He’s written the generation gap Madame X—this kind of schlock can only be written by the true schlock artist who can feel it all as true.”)

Kellow nails it when he writes that a 1956 essay (the first piece included in the new anthology of her work, The Age of Movies) was “Pauline’s credo that a critic’s voice should never be objective.” But he knows disappointingly little about her intellectual influences; he doesn’t mention how much she loved Stendhal and Tolstoy (Gina, who chose not to talk to Kellow for the book, was named for a character in The Charterhouse of Parma). More important, Kellow fails to cite her favorite cultural critic, who she often named as an influence, Robert Warshow. For some reason, Graham Greene and Otis Ferguson, who contributed nothing to Kael’s style and thought processes, are mentioned.

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But these are relative quibbles.

Kellow gets wrong, though, most of the major controversies in Kael’s career. The most famous example is Pauline’s tiff with Andrew Sarris—or rather, Sarris’s ongoing tiff with Kael. Film historians assume that there was some kind of feud between them, but there was no feud at all. (You can see an animated depiction of them debating the auteur theory.)

Kael only wrote about Sarris one time, a piece which dismantled the “auteur” theory included in her landmark first volume, I Lost It at the Movies. Or at least, Sarris’s version of it. Over the years, he was the one who suggested there was some kind of feud; I think he must have written about it at least six times. In person, Pauline would always say something like “And he’s a pretty smart guy,” and then add something like “when he’s not theorizing.”

It was Pauline’s resistance to theory and dogma which exasperated so many at the Village Voice in the 1980s. Kellow writes that in 1985, when the firestorm over Shoah was at high heat, the Voice had become “her by-now regular adversary.” I was there for those years, and not a month went by when I didn’t pick up on some hostile remarks about Kael from someone in the arts section (many of them from the arts editor, Karen Durbin). Durbin is identified in A Life in the Dark as having known Pauline when they both worked at The New Yorker; did Durbin neglect to mention to Kellow that she was one of the major reasons that the Voice seemed to be constantly attacking Kael in those years? “The reason the Voice hated her,” David Edelstein tells Kellow, “was that she wasn’t politically correct. It’s as simple as that ... they were cultural commissars there.”

Shoah, by the way, is a topic that Kellow would have been well advised to avoid. Claude Lanzmann’s turgid nine-and-a-half hour Holocaust documentary was praised by, among others, The New York Times, which, as James Wolcott notes in Lucking Out, “awarded special dispensation to any Holocaust-related work.” Kael’s dislike of the film—“I found Shoah logy and exhausting right from the start, and when it had been going on for an hour or longer, I was squirming restlessly, my attention slackening”—enraged many, most notably the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, who suggested that, as Kellow writes, “She didn’t see Shoah’s worth because the movie refrained from depicting the violence to which she was so obviously addicted.” (Hoberman’s complaint was an odd one coming from Clint Eastwood’s biggest cheerleader.)

In a condescendingly insulting tone, Kellow writes, “While Pauline’s intellectual honesty is admirable, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that her thinking [about Shoah] is influenced by other factors, of which she is only partly conscious.” One might ask how Kellow knows what the factors were that Kael only “partly conscious” of; his qualifications for this aren’t obvious.

He quotes Lillian Ross (a noted expert on Jewish self-hatred?) as saying, “It might be that Kael’s own Jewish heritage accounted for her need to harbor complicated and perverse way of demonstrating that she was free of the painful abhorrence of the Holocaust felt by other people.” Yes, and it also might not be. It might just be that she didn’t like the movie. (Kellow writes that “Perhaps she tired of the way her thoughts on Shoah shadowed her ...nearly a decade later when For Keeps, a compendium of her selected criticism was published, the review was not included.”)

Kellow’s constant probing of Kael’s psyche leads him into some blind alleys. This is especially evident when he quotes James Toback—now there’s a guy you want messing around in your head—who was famously chummy with Pauline for many years but who apparently harbors some grudges. Toback doesn’t sound like he has forgiven her for writing of his first film, Fingers, that “normality doesn’t interest Toback. He’s playing the literary adolescent’s game of wanting to go crazy so he can watch his own reaction.” Never mind that she meant that as a convoluted compliment. Never mind, too, that Toback owes a large chunk of the good press he ever got to Kael. He doesn’t miss a chance to stick it to his former movie-screening partner: “There was no way, he tells Kellow, “that she was going to be able to see [Warren Beatty’s] Reds with an open mind.” Yet, Kael’s review of Reds was both sympathetic and insightful and certainly could not be blamed for the film’s financial failure.

More disturbing, though, about A Life in the Dark is that Kellow takes numerous opportunities to second-guess Kael’s judgment. He’s a little annoyed at her treatment of Stanley Kubrick, particularly, of all choices, Barry Lyndon, that absurdly solemn epic. Kellow thinks “moved at a perfect adagio tempo that was nevertheless surprisingly novel and hardly ever dull.” (I’m hard put to remember a scene that wasn’t dull.)

Why, he asks did “Pauline prefer [Brian] DePalma’s work to Hitchcock’s when the younger director was essentially reworking over many themes developed by the master?” For the simple reason that Kael did not regard Hitchcock as “the master.” As Graham Greene wrote in a passage quoted by Kellow, Hitchcock “amuses but he doesn’t excite .. he hasn’t enough imagination to excite; he doesn’t convince.” Kellow is certainly entitled to disagree with Kael’s interpretation of iconic directors, but, reading his opinions, one wonders what motivated him to write this book.

Kellow goes so far as to suggest that Kael was getting revenge on producer Don Simpson (who gave her trouble during her brief stint in Hollywood) by writing a negative review of the crappy Tom Cruise action film Top Gun, calling it “a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” Has Kellow ever seen Top Gun? Does he really think that she wouldn’t have written exactly the same review if she had never met Simpson?

He does so much second-guessing in A Life in the Dark that at times it appears Kellow’s primary aim is to restore critical opinion back to where it would have been if Kael had never lived.


Pauline retired from active reviewing in 1991 and, plagued by Parkinson’s and other health problems, died 10 years later. Looking back over film criticism since her death, isn’t it about time we dispensed with the nonsense about her negative influence over younger writers? In one of our last conversations, she asked me, “Why does no one ever ask why my influence is supposed to be something bad? Haven’t some of the writers I’ve tried to help turned out pretty good?”

They sure did. The film critics most often associated with Kael—David Edelstein, Michael Sragow, Terrence Rafferty, Peter Rainer, David Denby, Hal Hinson, Charlie Taylor, Stephanie Zacharek, Joe Morgenstern—have been the best writers and most independent voices writing on film. And what other film critic had so much influence on writers on the other arts, such as humorist Polly Frost, theatre historian and critic Steve Vineberg, book critic Craig Seligman (author of Sontag & Kael, Opposites Attract Me), rock critic Griel Marcus (whose tribute to Pauline on Salon was particularly moving), music critic Francis Davis (who repaid his debt to her with Afterglow), and cultural critic James Wolcott (who recreates her lovingly in Lucking Out). The work of all these writers and many more are part of Kael’s lasting legacy, and they have little in common other than being very good at what they do and being free of the ideological cant and faddish notions of critical theory.

sReally, would anyone still remember Renata Adler’s vindictive comments about Kael in The New York Review of Books (Kellow does a fine job of detailing the background behind the personal attack) if it wasn’t so spectacularly wrong? Reviewing Kael’s 1976 collection, When The Lights Go Down, Adler called it “Jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” The irony is that looking back on the book 35 years later, it might have been Kael’s best collection. When The Lights Go Down provided much of the best material in the Age of Movies, including the great essays “Fear of Movie,” “The Man From Dream City” (Cary Grant), “Fear of Movies” (Bertrand Blier), and “Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah” as well as the famous reviews of Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Julia (in which she anticipated Mary McCarthy’s later exposé of Lillian Hellman).

Adler apparently meant it as a criticism when she wrote “reading Pauline in book form was a very different experience from reading her from week to week.” Yet an entire generation has grown up that never read Kael in magazines and have read her in book form while the review collections of John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, and, let’s say it, Renata Adler, are long forgotten.

What’s amazing about reading Kael in book form 25, 40, and even half a century later is that her reviews retain the same power to excite and anger as when they were written. (And it’s bracing to be reminded that one of Kael’s greatest strengths was puncturing liberal pieties.)

For instance as we approach what will surely be an unbearable 50th anniversary for West Side Story, it’s refreshing to reread her on what is surely the most insufferably self-important musical ever made:

“Consider the feat: first you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and remove all that cumbersome poetry. Then you make the Montagues and Capulets really important and modern by turning them into rival street gangs of native-born and Puerto Ricans. (You get rid of the parents, of course, America is a young country—and who wants to be bothered by the squabbles of older people?)”


“The only difference between these two gangs of what I’m tempted to call ballerinas is that one group has faces and hair darkened, and the other group has gone wild for glittering yellow hair dye ... They’re about as human as the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.”

No critic approached her in the ability to pinpoint faddism and deflate movie icons when they became too puffed up for their own good.

On Antonioni’s Blow-Up:

“For reasons I can’t quite fathom, what is taken to be shallow in his hero [David Hemmings] is taken to be profound in him [Antonioni]. Maybe it’s because of the symbols: do pretty pictures plus symbols equal art?

On Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

“It has the dreamy somewhere-over-the-rainbow appeal of a new vision of heaven. 2001 is a celebration of cop-out ... There’s an intelligence out there in space controlling your destiny from ape to angel, so just follow the slab. Drop up.”

“The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world. ... They can go to heaven in Cinerama.”

And on A Clockwork Orange:

“Literal-minded in its sex and brutality, Teutonic in its humor ... [it] might be the work of a strict and exacting German professor who sat out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy.”

On Clint Eastwood:

“[He] isn’t offensive, he isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor ... Eastwood couldn’t do grief any more than he could express tenderness. With a Clint Eastwood, the action film can—indeed, must—drop the pretense that human life has any value.”

On Raging Bull:

“What DeNiro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’ll not sure what it is. DeNiro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with; his [Jake] LaMotta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt.”

“The tragedy in Scorsese’s struggles with the material ... is that he’s a great director when he doesn’t press so hard at it, when he doesn’t suffer so much. He’s got moviemaking and the church mixed up together. He’s trying to be the saint of cinema.”

On Woody Allen’s Interiors:

“The people in Woody Allen’s Interiors are destroyed by the repressiveness of good taste, and so is the picture. Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play ... and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however, the eroticism of Bergman. Interiors looks so much like a masterpiece and has such a super-banal metaphysical theme (death vs. life) that it’s easy to see why many regard it as a masterpiece: it’s deep on the surface.”

Interiors is a handbook of art film mannerisms.”

On Fellini Satyricon:

“We seem to be at a stoned circus, were the performers go on and on whether we care or not.”

“Maybe if Fellini personally didn’t impress people so much as a virtuoso they’d become conscious of the emotional and intellectual shoddiness they’re responding to in his films.”

Of Norman Mailer’s book, Marilyn:

“Who knows what to think about Marilyn Monroe or about those who turned her sickness to metaphor? I wish they’d let her die.”

“It’s a metaphysical cocktail table book.”

And yet, despite the brand some have put on her, Kael was so much more than a critic who enjoyed shooting down otherwise critically acclaimed films. Let’s review some of her words of praise:

On Scorsese’s Mean Streets:

“The picture is stylized without seeming in any way artificial. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen that achieves the effects of Expressionism without the use of distortion.”

On the Taviani Brothers’ Night of the Shooting Stars:

“It’s so good it’s thrilling ... [it] encompasses a vision of the world. Comedy, tragedy, vaudeville, melodrama—they’re all here, and inseparable.”

On David Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

“It’s vision isn’t alienating: this is American darkness—darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be he first popular surrealist—a Frank Capra of dream logic.”

On Pennies From Heaven:

“ ... is the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen. It’s a stylized mythology of the Depression which uses the popular songs of the period as expression of people’s deepest longings—for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time.”

On Satyaji Ray:

“No artist has done more ... to make us evaluate the commonplace.”

On Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II:

“The violence in this film never doesn’t bother us—it’s never just a kick. For a movie director, Coppola has an unusual interest in ideas and in the texture of feeling and thought. This wasn’t always apparent in the first film, because the melodramatic suspense was so strong that one’s motor responses demanded the resolution of tension (as in the restaurant scene, when one’s heart almost stopped in the few seconds before Michael pulled out the gun and fired). But this time Coppola controls our emotional responses so that the horror seeps through everything and no action provides a melodramatic release.”

And then there are those absolutely brilliant essays where you can see she’s struggling to say something nice but can’t quite say it.

On Marguerite Duras’s The Truck:

“There are some people who are too French for their own good ... [The Truck] is accessible, but it’s accessible to a piece of yourself that you never think to take to the movies.”

Of course, there the passages on actors. Was there ever a critic who could conjure up a great performance like Kael?

On Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City:

“He uses his big, strong body so expressively that if this were a stage performance the audience would probably give him a standing ovation.”

On Brando in The Godfather:

“He has not acquired the polish of most famous actors, just the opposite—less mannered as he grows older. He seems to draw directly from life and from himself.”

“Brando doesn’t dominate the movie, yet he gives the story the legendary presence needed to raise it above gang warfare to archetypal tribal warfare.”

On Faye Dunaway on The Eyes of Laura Mars:

“More womanly and more neurotically vulnerable—even tragic—than before, she looks as if she’s lived a little and gone through plenty of stress. She’s gloriously beat out ... no Hollywood sex goddess ever presented so alluring an image of kinky Death herself.”

On Richard Pryor in Live on The Sunset Strip:

“When Chaplin began to talk on screen, he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his lowlife, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor, who’s all of a piece—a master of lyrical obscenity.”


Writing on another subject, Renata Adler once said, that that no essay “becomes as quickly obsolete as an unfavorable review.” Once again, Kael refutes her by continually coming back into print. Her negative reviews – of Mailer’s Marilyn, of woody Allen’s later films, of Kubrick, of Terrence Malick, of even some of Robert Altman’s misfires—seem new today precisely because they pinpoint the kind of errors which critics go right on making.

She was, of course, so much more than a critic who wrote famously negative reviews. the great essays, “Movies, The Desperate Art” (“Americans are susceptible to the widespread democratic propaganda that the really great artists of history were simple and lucid.”), “Trash, Art and the Movies” (“There is so much talk now about the art of film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”), and the one she wrote after her failed attempt at working in the movie business, “Why Are Movies So Bad?” (“It’s not just that the decisions made by the executives might have been made by anyone off the street—it’s that the pictures themselves seem to have been made by anyone off the street.”) are all collected here. And the affectionate and shrewd interlocution by Sanford Schwartz is much appreciated.

I rather wish, though, someone had simply reissued For Keeps, Thirty Years at the Movies, which is nearly 500 pages longer and includes many important reviews and essays omitted in The Age of Movies, including famous pieces on films such as Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madam Du, Griffith’s Intolerance, Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, Altman’s M*A*S*H and Thieves Like Us, John Frankheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, DePalma’s Carrie, Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi’s Honor.

The Age of Movies also omits are some famous negative reviews which are landmarks in the history of right-minded contrarianism, such as Miller’s The Road Warrior, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and Stone’s Platoon.

Perhaps most missed are Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and Altman’s Vincent and Theo; Philip Kaufman is only represented by Kael’s great piece on Invasion of the Body Snatchers while longer essays on two even better films, The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, are left behind on the cutting room floor.

Pauline never much cared for sequels (except for The Godfather Part II), but anyone who reads The Age of Movies certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a volume two.