A Critic and a Poet

Pauline Kael showed us how to talk about popular art and fall in love with movies.
Deborah Feingold/Corbis

When she was at the height of her fame, in­fluence, and accomplishment as a film critic at The New Yorker, I thought the world of Pauline Kael. After I met her, I thought rather less of her, mainly because she seemed to nurse inexplicable hatreds that were bodied forth as voodoo spells. I spent one evening at her house in Great Barrington when she chanted the name of the actor Hal Holbrook as if intent on reducing him, at long range and by the power of thought waves alone, to the size of a mouse. In the sulfurous light of such a close-up reve­lation of weirdness, I later found it no surprise when she went to Hollywood to be courted for her opinions as part of the filmmaking process, and was forced to retreat when she realized that she was only a critic after all.

The New Yorker took her on again, but her status was somewhat diminished. Now this selection from her writings reveals that no real diminishment was possible, that thinking the world of her was the proper way to think, and that one’s original judgment of her prose was accurate: her film criticism, though not stylish in the usual sense, was the triumph of a thoughtful manner. What a woman, although in some respects possibly a bit batty.

Kael was in her mid-40s before she succeeded in contributing to any publication that would pay her enough to live on. Until then she did all kinds of jobs—nanny, cook, violin teacher, seamstress—while writing scattered pieces that improved only in the sense that she learned to get more in. William Shawn, whose most original single move as the editor of The New Yorker was to take her on, deserves eternal commendation for hiring a writer who was unlike any other that the magazine had ever had. In any piece she wrote, the argument could go alarmingly sideways in search of corroborative material. She exaggerated so wildly that it was tame: the reader soon learned that a construction like “[Jeff Bridges] may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived” meant that Pauline Kael thought Jeff Bridges was pretty good. Going overboard about Last Tango in Paris, she did not aid her case by saying, “It may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.”

Exaggeration, in fact, blurred her argument instead of focusing it: a reverse effect, of which those who never take the trouble to refine their rhetoric tend to be unaware. In conversation we all say that the latest movie we liked is the best movie we’ve ever seen, but if you write things like that down, they sap your authority. Famous as a prose stylist, she actually wrote a prose riddled with stuff that would have weakened it fatally if she had not been so passionately full of fact and judgment. Luckily she was, and the presence of so much intelligence made up for any absence of witty concision.

She could show wit in flashes. Occurring quite early in this collection, a stroke like “the worst of the past is preserved with new dust” is almost funny. But she never quite gets you laughing, even when she spots the facial resemblance of Klaus Kinski to Bette Davis. She escalates the idea, so that Kinski resembles Bette Davis playing Rutger Hauer, but still the laugh doesn’t come, because she paid no attention to timing the observation so that it would end with a snap. It’s a pity, because the funny judgment is usually the one that packs the most information. But she has so much information crowding sentence after sentence that the absence of vaudeville timing is a side issue, and indeed while she was going at full steam you would swear there was no other means of transport: this, she convinces you, is the way to talk about popular art.

She could talk well about popular art because she had not only seen all the movies that there were, she would have gone to all the opera performances that there were if she had not been so burdened with tickets to the cinema. When she talked about Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, her remarks were up there with the professional dance critic Arlene Croce’s because she, Kael, had been a connoisseur of dance all her life. She knew her way around a jazz band. Apart from mental equipment like that, her reading was prodigious in its volume, and fully serious in its content. Her house had all the Oz books in first editions—I saw them, and marveled; they looked as beautiful as her Tiffany lamps—but she was by no means restricted just to film-linked popular literature. When she reviewed a Russian movie based on a Dostoyevsky story, she could refer with daunting ease to anything by Dostoyevsky, including all the major novels chapter by chapter. Toward the end, this collection includes an outstanding piece about the Michael Cacoyannis movie of The Trojan Women: she draws, apparently without effort, on what seems a wide knowledge of Greek tragedy.

It’s important to note that none of this erudition seems dragged in. If she had dragged it in, there would have been furrows. Hers was the style least calculated to conceal pretension. In fact, in that sense, there was no style there at all. One thing you can trust her for throughout her work is a genuine enthusiasm for the arts, of which she so resoundingly took cinema to be one: something new, but something that fitted right in there beside the high traditions and that might include them all. You can trust her for that, and you can trust her diligence. The question is whether you can trust her judgment.

Hal Holbrook, on the night he shrank to the size of a mouse, might not have agreed with me; but I think—at this late stage, after years have gone by—that her judgment was, on the whole, pretty good. It was always firm: you always knew what she thought. When she hailed Last Tango in Paris as the greatest thing since sliced bread, I thought she was bonkers. Today I think almost anyone agrees that the film was yet another opportunity for Brando to hog the screen while brooding darkly, but with the help of this collection, it’s easier to see the outlines of the battle she thought she was fighting by backing Brando even at his most absurd.

She thought Holly­wood was fundamentally distorted by a mindless business ethic and that Brando was helping to straighten it out. You and I might have thought that he was demonstrating the muscular connection between sinuses and eyebrows, but she thought he was in a war against the suits. This was a worthwhile argument, and she marshaled the evidence in a permanently useful way. She didn’t just get on with her pioneering work of taking original movies seriously; she gave the Hollywood movies that were unjustifiably proud of their seriousness the kicking they deserved. She knew exactly how the Hollywood movie of West Side Story betrayed the concept on which it was supposedly based.

The irony of this hyped-up, slam-bang production is that those involved apparently don’t really believe that beauty and romance can be expressed in modern rhythms—for whenever their Romeo and Juliet enter the scene, the dialogue becomes painfully old-fashioned and mawkish, the dancing turns to simpering, sickly romantic ballet, and sugary old stars hover in the sky.

Not exactly a whiplash of a sentence, but it does the job.

The would-be serious movies didn’t have to be made in America. She saw through Antonioni’s Blow-Up at a time when it was still thought that Antonioni could do no wrong. On the other hand, she saw instantly that Bonnie and Clyde, made in America, was the full equivalent, for inventive brio, of anything that had been done abroad. Shawn gave her extra room to rave about that movie, and the result initiated her career-long love affair with Warren Beatty. Beatty’s acting style was based on modifications to a basic look of puzzlement, but from Kael’s fervent encomiums, you would have thought that he, to borrow Kael’s favorite formulation, may have been the most expressive actor since Laurence Olivier.

The book has large arguments and smaller perceptions. Some of the large arguments were adventurous at the time and remain sound. In the grand scheme of things, she could see that Holly­wood was pursuing the wrong course by continuing to develop a system in which very little that was original could happen. She could see that most of the standards of originality were provided by foreign movies. She wanted Holly­wood writers and directors to be as liberated as their European contemporaries, and she helped to bring this about. She had an unrivaled eye for what she called “pleasure-­pain bookkeeping,” the mechanism by which conventional movies ensured that every sin was expiated with suffering. In an ethos where no illicit joy, no matter how fleeting, may go un­punished, the ruling spirit is not morality, but opportunism. The great playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg—had known all that, but Kael got it into the discussion about movies, where it was sorely needed.

She loathed what she called Hollywood’s “big-shot show-­business deep thinking.” She could spot it when it infected a movie she otherwise liked, as with Bad Day at Black Rock, in which the Japanese American victim of race prejudice has to be a war hero instead of just an ordinary farmer. On the other hand, she would not forgive a young American rebel’s movie if one of the things it was rebelling against was America. Easy Rider, Petu­lia, and Midnight Cowboy were all found guilty in that regard: they were the kind of movie that you might have guessed she would have liked, but she loathed them all, and especially Petulia, despite the presence of Julie Christie, who, when she appeared in McCabe & Mrs. Miller or in Shampoo, was hailed by Kael as the greatest thing since you-name-it.

But already we’re getting down to details: she was good on the big trends, but on the individual movies, she was unbeatable, even when she was wrong. And usually she could identify quality, no matter how it was wrapped.

Kael wrote a prose riddled with stuff that would have weakened it fatally if she had not been so passionately full of fact and judgment.

Her range of appreciation, however, shows up in its full generosity when she heaps praise on a movie that had less-­prominent initial billing and might have been lost in the shuffle. There are scores of examples. She knew straightaway that The Battle of Algiers was a cinematic masterpiece about which you had to argue the aesthetics as well as the politics, which would have dominated the discussion if she had not stepped in. A movie could go all wrong in most departments and she could still see through to its creative center if it had one: of Lady Sings the Blues, she said, “Factually it’s a fraud, but emotionally it delivers.”

Suitably impressed, she could go against her own inclinations: Pennies From Heaven, a clear case of Hollywood stealing a British idea, knocked her out, so she said so. She also must have had to summon some nerve to praise Tootsie, since it was a Hollywood factory product in almost every sense, with Dustin Hoffman bringing in his own writer to join all the other writers—so many of them that the arbitration for screen credits went on forever. But she loved Tootsie the way she loved Yentl, and not just because both of them were drag acts. She was yielding to the soul of the movie, which with Yentl was made more difficult by the awkward fact—here her musical sense was not to be denied—that the songs were dull.

Kael’s enraptured acceptance of Streisand, however, gets us down to the last detail, the detail that underlies the individual movies: the individual creators and performers. On this level she is possibly, as she might have put it, the most fully informed person since the creation of the universe. In his excellent introduction, Sanford Schwartz tells us that Kael was watching silent movies in the 1920s from her parents’ lap. She had seen everything, starting with Intolerance (“perhaps the greatest movie ever made”), and she had remembered every­one. This head full of performances grew a perfect set of antennae for judging performers, and she is scarcely ever to be faulted about any of those faces up there in the light.

Listen to Kael giving the works to Ali MacGraw. “She is a truly terrible actress, of the nostril school. (Did she study under Natalie Wood?)” That’s a double-barreled blast that takes care of Natalie Wood as well. But really the attack mode wasn’t typical. She was too full of admiration.

She adored Robert De Niro right from his first appearance, and the adoration gave her the nerve to say, truly, that his fat-boy transformation in Scorsese’s Raging Bull was a mistake. (“Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable.”) Her negative remarks about actors add up to a long proof that love is a better basis for criticism than scorn.

Always with the exception of Godard, whom she thought brilliant even at his most infantile, she could have a refreshingly picky way with an icon. Orson Welles was one of her great heroes, but in her famous New Yorker essay “Raising Kane,” and in the book on Welles that grew out of it, she went out of her way to give the writer Herman J. Mankiewicz a more-than-fair share of the credit for Citizen Kane, almost as if the brilliant young Welles had needed his hand held and couldn’t have made the movie without the guiding vision of a New York wit. Alas, the essay hasn’t been included here. There are a few remarks on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, however, to prove that she knew his qualities: reading those remarks, I wanted to see the battle scene again straightaway. But underneath his uniqueness, she could sense his weakness. Though she professed to blame Hollywood for wasting his potential, she knew he was a giant with nothing bigger about him than his inability to protect his gift.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, knew everything about protecting his. Perhaps, according to her, he knew too much. Grant emerges as the star of this book, the star of stars, because Kael can find nobody better at looking the part while controlling his career. She thought he overcontrolled it toward the end, but toward the end is where some of the great Grant movies came. Her praise for him in North by Northwest is all the more striking because she had no automatic regard for Hitchcock. I share that suspicion, and I was always delighted when she mentioned Charade as at least equal with the Hitchcock movies it was copying. Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade are a dream of winter-spring romance that Hollywood shouldn’t have been still having, and Kael, of all people, shouldn’t have been falling for, but she couldn’t help it and neither can I. Kael says that Grant should have taken more chances in order to show us what he could do as an actor, but it’s not much of an argument, because Grant knew from long experience that the whole thing was already a chance.

Actors are wanted men, or wanted women. Critics are just critics. But Kael was one of those exceptional critics who could write almost as entertainingly in praise as in attack, and her piece on Grant in this book is the best profile ever written about him. She writes delightfully about him because she’s delighted.

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Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.

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