Taste is the Great Divider: On Pauline Kael

By Laurie WinerDecember 2, 2011

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow

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 and The Bicycle Thief. Now he was exposed as perilously out of touch. He was such an advocate of film as a force for betterment that he could hardly tell one violent movie from another. He called Bonnie and Clyde "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredation of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-up in Thoroughly Modern Millie." The resistance to this position was so strong that he wrote a second screed, precipitating his forced retirement as a film critic at the end of 1967.

Kael's response to Arthur Penn's film was so visceral because she sensed it marked a change in her own life as well as a change in movies. She was 48 years old, the single mother of a daughter, a person who had come from a West Coast farming family and who had struggled long and hard and with precious little recognition. With Bonnie and Clyde she finally came into her own as a critic of stature, someone who could influence the course of events, and she was eager to insert herself into the cultural moment: "The audience is alive to it," she wrote of the film, as if anyone with sense felt her excitement:


Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours — not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.


Here she assumes a complicity between her own passion and that of her readers — the very technique that drew some of her fans so close and alienated others so thoroughly.

In describing why the film was as controversial as it was, Kael introduced what would become one of her favorite and most successful devices: she widened the screen of the review to examine the space between cinema and real world, and she claimed the enlightened perspective as the one she experienced.


Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about. And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or "knowing," group. But even for that group there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture.


Viewers of Bonnie and Clyde were not "given a simple, secure basis for identification," she wrote, "they are made to feel but are not told how to feel." As for the violence, she found it a crucial component of the film's greatness. "The dirty reality of death — not suggestions but blood and holes — is necessary," she wrote, before going on to pen a defense (much as Crowther had done in his time) against the censorship of filmmakers.

Kael was extremely compelling as a public intellectual, a woman who enjoyed arguing with conviction and flair. She seemed to be having much more fun than, say, Joan Didion or Mary McCarthy, and her appetite for language both sensual and sensuous showed that she equated being lady-like with being half a person. Her lack of self-doubt seemed almost superhuman. "I want that!" I thought, and I know many other young women at the time did, too. We heard the stories of her legendary independence — that her lukewarm review of Terrence Malick's debut film Badlands displeased William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker. Shawn told her that Malick had been to Harvard with his son Wallace and that "perhaps you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me." Her response: "Tough shit, Bill." I was in awe. I wanted to be like her, although I didn't want to have to be rude to a sweet old man, and I wondered if I would have to be. 

I believed fully in her version of herself: a critic of near perfect integrity, a person who was unable to write anything but what she felt in her bones to be true. The proof, I believed, was in her prose, where she displayed the fierce and singleminded veracity of a great fiction writer. When I nervously approached her to sign a copy of When the Lights Go Down at my college bookstore, I remember telling her how she reminded me of Virginia Woolf (my other favorite writer at the time) because of the way she righted wrongs in her work. When I think now, from this distance, about how she regarded my no-doubt adoring face, I read her reaction thusly: I will not tell you, poor thing, that public selves are always constructions, built to hide desperate doubts and longing that can still be felt, if not seen. Should you live long enough, you will find out for yourself.


Back then, I had little knowledge of the internecine power struggles being played out among Kael and other film critics, and I was young enough to want to believe in the purity to which she laid claim. Of course I had no idea that Kael had essentially tricked Howard Suber, an assistant professor at UCLA, out of his research in order to write "Raising Kane," her essay that championed Herman Mankowicz as the true auteur of Citizen Kane. If someone had told me about Kael's manipulation of Suber, I either would not have believed it or I would have agreed with Kael's likely rationalization: that whatever Suber was going to do with the material would never matter in the way her work did, and that she was right to steamroll him. Making omelets, breaking eggs, and all that. I was just learning that we sometimes overlook behavior in our heroes that would otherwise cause outrage. I believed (and probably still believe) that people intent on a very high level of achievement often have to sweep a lot under the carpet. Greatness, like wealth, is not necessarily an attractive thing en route.

And greatness itself, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. As Kael told Dick Cavett when he expressed astonishment that she had broken up with a boyfriend over the movie West Side Story, "Well, you know Dick, taste is the great divider." She had the devotion to an ideal shared by geniuses and sociopaths. Which brings us to the strange tale of Pauline's only child, Gina James, as told to Kellow by a wide range of Kael's friends. In 1948, at age 29, Kael got pregnant after she "talked her way into moving in" with James Broughton, a bisexual poet living in Sausalito. By Kellow's account, Broughton was furious at the news of Kael's pregnancy; he felt trapped and tricked by her. One of Broughton's friends reported that he kicked Kael out of his house. She moved to Santa Barbara to have the baby. The birth certificate listed the father as "Lionel James, a writer".

It is one of the disappointments of the book that Kellow shines little light on Kael's passion — or whatever it was — for Broughton, on how she processed that cruel rejection and on whether Broughton ever recognized Gina as his daughter. Kael's erotic life seems to have been a brief and intense thing; as Kellow points out, she responded deeply to stories of people unhinged by love. Last Tango in Paris, she wrote, "made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing." She described The Story of Adele H as François Truffaut's "most passionate work," the story of a woman "destroyed by her passion for a man who is indifferent to her — a woman who realizes herself in self-destruction." Kellow also cites Kael's fondness for the stories of Edna O'Brien, which she liked for "their fearless confrontation of the shocking messiness of love" and for her "perceptions of what I thought no one else knew — and I wasn't telling.'" One can't help wanting to know what Kael wasn't telling.

Though I felt that I was one of her spiritual daughters, I had no idea that Kael's relationship with her actual daughter was something out of a Tennessee Williams play, and not in a good way. Kael home-schooled Gina and, as the girl grew up, kept her close, as a typist, projectionist, driver and right-hand man, and she banished any friend who actively encouraged the young woman to break out on her own. Though she was in many ways a loving and committed mother, helping to raise Gina's son and always living nearby, one senses a Gothic selfishness in her mothering.

One of the great subplots in this biography is Kael's relationship with the peculiar William Shawn. Who knows how she would have made her career if he had not hired her in 1967, after she had parted ways with McCall's, a woman's magazine for which her work was clearly inappropriate, and the New Republic, which did not give her final approval over her copy. Kael was amused but not intimidated by Mr. Shawn's patrician demeanor; she alone on the magazine called him "Bill," and she constantly tested his patience with her opinions and language. She immediately remade the New Yorker's "The Current Cinema" into a must-read column and brought young readers to the magazine. But she had to share her reviewing duties with Penelope Gilliatt, an arrangement that made her chafe more year after year. Shawn was so devoted to Gilliatt that he pretended not to see that her prose was insipid next to Kael's or her well-known drinking problem. It seemed he kept Gilliatt at least in part to torture Kael, and only parted ways with her after a plagiarism scandal made it impossible to keep her on. 

Then, in 1980, Renata Adler — who had briefly replaced Crowther as film critic at the New York Times — penned her famous 8,000-word attack on Kael in the New York Review of Books. It was the literary dust-up of the decade. Adler was a fiction writer, critic and journalist. Unlike the self-made Kael, Adler had acquired a boatload of degrees — from Bryn Mawr, Harvard, the Sorbonne and Yale Law School. She looked a little like John Updike, with a long, pale, sensitive face, except that her trademark was a long braid she wore down the right side of her body. Like Shawn, she was disturbed by Kael's use of language, particularly her predilection for images of "sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement." Adler had written for Shawn; Kellow describes her as "an ardent admirer" of his editing style. In her piece, Adler suggested that Kael had taken advantage of the magazine's genteel ways. It sounded as if she was taking up arms in Shawn's defense. (Shawn's reaction to the broadside was suspiciously unperturbed. "That's just how Renata reacts to Pauline," Kellow quotes him as saying. "One has to permit all writers a certain amount of idiosyncrasy.")

Adler's slam echoed the complaints of critic John Simon, who described Kael as a Russian count might describe a clever serf: "She is a lively writer with a lot of common sense, but also one who, in a very disturbing sense, is common." Adler complained of Kael's "vulgarity," and she listed what she thought of as Kael's worst phrases, among them, "tumescent filmmaking" and "plastic turds." It's hard not to laugh now at Adler's discomfort, at her long lists of Kael's crimes. It's also hard not to see this attack as the age-old battle between the keepers of good taste and the antic comic spirit, with Adler taking the role of Margaret Dumont and Kael appearing as Groucho Marx. In the long run, of course, Groucho always wins.

It is always fascinating to re-evaluate an early love later in life. Reading A Life in the Dark, I felt disappointment at learning the sordid details of my long-ago heroine's failings, however much I expected the book to enlighten me on exactly those points. For years I had dismissed what I felt was the carping of others about Kael's work, but I could not dismiss Kellow's tale of Howard Suber and of Gina James. I think of Kael looking at me long ago in that college bookstore, and I imagine I understand her seeming sadness when faced with my adoration.

But to encounter again her fearless, uncompromising wit is one of the great pleasures of Kellow's biography. No surprise that The Library of America has just released The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael; I don't see anyone, by the way, reprinting the reviews of Renata Adler or John Simon. For me Kael is still the person who came out of nowhere, knowing no one, who spent her first few nights in New York sleeping at Grand Central Station, and who succeeded on the highest level due to sheer talent and force of personality. I say now, and I say with a deeper understanding than before, long live Pauline Kael.


LARB Contributor

Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


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