PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK is a very good biography: well-written, carefully researched, admiring of its subject, but not at all taken in by its subject's many vagaries and, yes, several episodes in her career that deserve perhaps to be called sinful (or at least careless to a very large degree).
It is also, for me, an exceedingly depressing book. That's understandable. I have been a movie critic for national publications far longer than Kael was. Indeed, I am credited in Brian Kellow's book with helping her (belated) emergence as the force to be reckoned with as a reviewer because I wrote a piece in 1965 in The New York Times Book Review, praising (deservedly so, I still think) her first collection of movie articles, I Lost it at the Movies.
Kael was, at the time, 46 years old, and she had not published anywhere but in little magazines. Nevertheless, she had written, by her own estimate, something like a million words of film criticism, mostly for a radio program for which she supplied reviews or in the form of program notes for a theater she managed in Berkeley. She had, astonishingly, not been paid for most of this output — and what she did collect was more in the realm of "honoraria" than of healthy fees. I think the book I reviewed was pretty much a now-or-never proposition for her.
Which, of course, turned out to be now-now-now. After the success of I Lost It at the Movies, Kael got some short-lived reviewing gigs — at McCall's, at The New Republic. She even did a piece or two at Life, where I was the reviewer. Those pieces were supposed to be around 700 words, and she regularly turned in 2500 word reviews — which were, I was told, just too damned much trouble to edit down to the available space. Then, in 1967, one of her rejected New Republic pieces, about Bonnie and Clyde, was picked up by The New Yorker. The next year, she was appointed one of its regular reviewers, a post she held, except for a brief spell in Hollywood, until 1991. (She chafed at the fact that she was obliged to take six months off every year so that Penelope Gilliatt could take over, largely, I suspect, so that the editor, William Shawn, could have a peaceful period, free of his endless battles with Kael about the style and content of her pieces.)
Two things need to be said, I think, about her work in this period. The first is that her style in I Lost it at the Movies is rather staid. The pieces are well-written and lively, of course, but in manner they are very far from the "kiss kiss bang bang" manner of her New Yorker work. They are much more dependent on reasoned argument than on flashy phrases. You won't find her dismissing a movie as "a gloppy mess" in these pages. The second is the matter of her famous picture-saving notice of Bonnie and Clyde. We tend to remember the (deserved) praise in the review's first half (and its role in unseating the hopeless Bosley Crowther from his post as the New York Times critic), but tend not to remember the fairly serious reservations about the picture which she advanced in its second half. And that says nothing about her inducing Joe Morgenstern, perhaps the earliest of her many acolytes, to recant his negative first review in favor of a second, more favorable notice a couple of weeks later.
Put simply, from the very beginnings of her latter-day fame, Kael established the style with which she ...