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.
So, always granted that she didn’t really do wisecracks, just how well did she write? The answer is that she wrote well, and all the more so because she wasn’t looking for the gag. She was looking for the thought: her body of work, of which this book is a mere sample, is closer to Platonic Athens than it is to Broadway. Here is the proof that the texture of thought can be exciting in itself, as long as it has a subject that means a lot to us.
In the modern era, formal philosophy, as it has steadily become more technical than most of us can follow, has been accompanied pari passu by a body of critical work that talks more deeply about the world than we might have expected. In the English language, George Bernard Shaw was the great example: his six volumes of criticism from the end of the 19th century (two sets of three in the Standard Edition), Music in London and Our Theatres in the Nineties, are models of how resonant regular weekly criticism can be. They are certainly more full of life than his big set-piece books on grand themes written later on. Reporting on the ephemeral event, he dealt with what was permanently true. Kael was firmly in the tradition that he established, although I doubt if she was consciously influenced by him. She didn’t need a predecessor. She just reacted naturally, in her own voice, to an unusually rich plethora of stimuli: she gives the sense that from the cradle onward, she was never not taking notes.
But the marvelous thing about her is that she could go off in all directions and still produce a local effect of intense concentration. Although she had a bad tendency to talk about movies as if she knew how to make them, at her best she achieved the voice of authority. She could do it because, at a given moment that only she could judge, she could focus her mind, and her prose along with it.
Biblical spectacles convey magnitude of character by magnitude of close-up.
It’s a good example of how she could get the product of years of observation into a single sentence. And there’s something like that on every page. Summing up the message of “mature” Westerns, she says,
The message is that the myths we never believed in anyway were false.
You can’t get neater than that. Talking about actors being interviewed on air to enhance their marketability, she catches the absurdity in a short space.
Talk shows are becoming amateur hours for professionals.
So really, she doesn’t ramble. She coruscates, which is a different thing.
Some of her judgments about Hollywood spread right out to cover the whole of American society.