WHEN I DISCOVERED PAULINE KAEL circa 1977, I loved her immediately and deeply. I read every word she wrote and carefully followed whatever was written about her. If she was going to appear on The Dick Cavett Show on Thursday night, I stayed home on Thursday night to watch it. Kael made criticism sexy. When she reviewed a film she also reviewed the director's predilections, the actor's relationship with the audience, the audience's pretensions and subconscious desires, and the studio executives who produced the film. She appraised multitudinous forces swirling in the zeitgeist. She showed that a magazine writer can make her "beat" as large as she is capable of imagining it to be. Movies were her subject but the world was her purview. And, as tremendously knowledgeable about culture as she was, her main subject was always the finely tuned pitch pipe of her own sensibility. In For Keeps, the final published collection of her work in her lifetime, she wrote: "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have."
In a way Kael remained always the 8th grader cracking wise in the back row while the teachers droned piously at the blackboard. For those of us who cherish the high of communal, illicit laughter — because it rejects tedium as a requirement of living — Kael remains a constant comrade in arms. A Raisin in the Sun, she wrote, proved that "a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family." About Network she wrote: "[Paddy] Chayefsky doesn't come right out and tell us why he thinks TV is goyish, but it must have something to do with his notion that all feeling is Jewish." Her pans were hilarious and liberating. Because I loved musical theater and to me the director Harold Prince was god-like, I was terribly interested in her review of A Little Night Music. I remember gasping when I read the line: "This picture has been made as if Harold Prince had never seen a movie." Later, when I experienced the film's stultifying literalness, I realized the brilliance of her insult.
Brian Kellow's fascinating new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is as thorough, for the most part, and fair-minded as any Kael fan could wish for. Kellow keeps careful track of both the critic's triumphs and her crimes. He captures her best passages and most heartless insults and puts them in context. He does all this without conveying judgment, though his subtitle does hint that he may not recommend her personal life as a model for happiness.
Kael assumed national prominence in 1967, exactly when movies were taking quantum leaps in depictions of sex and violence, causing, as such leaps always do, anguish among cultural gatekeepers. Her review of Bonnie and Clyde marked Kael's real debut in the New Yorker — she had previously published one article there about movies on TV. With his review of the same film, Bosley Crowther saw his 27-year reign as movie critic at the New York Times come to an end; Kael knew how to read the new graphic nihilism, and Crowther, her avowed nemesis, was left in the dark. Crowther had long been a powerful critic, and he had had his day, opposing Joseph McCarthy and censorship, and helping Americans to accept foreign films such as Open City...