“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t be showing that to anyone:” Why Pauline Kael Was My Critic

Pauline Kael. Photo: Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images

This remembrance originally ran in New York’s 50th anniversary issue as part of the feature, “My New York: Long Agos.” I resurrect it now on the occasion of the Quad Cinema’s series of films she championed (June 7-20), Losing It at the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100. The series begins with Bonnie and Clyde, the first film she reviewed for the New Yorker and one of her most celebrated pieces. I’ll be introducing (and sharing her reviews of) Shoot the Moon (June 12) and Taxi Driver (June 14).

In July of 1984, six months after I’d become the third-string film critic at the Village Voice, Pauline Kael introduced herself in a movie line and said nice things about my work, and within a week I’d gotten calls from concerned colleagues.

One said not to get close because she’d eat me alive. Another took a longer view. I should keep my distance, he said, because the association would harm my career: I would be forever known as a “Paulette,” a member of a claque of youngish men who were said to take marching orders from the Queen Bee. My votes at critics’ societies would be suspect and my style viewed as slavish imitation — though it was probably viewed that way already. (Four years earlier, my voluble college film professor had told me he feared I’d turn out like her — a “bourgeois impressionist.”) And I was at the Voice, for crying out loud, home of Kael’s nemesis, Andrew Sarris, as well as the more formalist (and political) J. Hoberman, and editors who thought she was variously misogynistic, philistine, and even reactionary. Walk away, walk away.

I didn’t walk away. It was Pauline Kael, for fuck’s sake.

For many movie lovers in the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Kael was the most exciting critic ever. Her reviews in The New Yorker often went against the general consensus, and what I had found most challenging when I first read her (as a teenager) was that if she hated something I loved, she did such a brilliant job evoking and analyzing it that I couldn’t say, “Well, that’s not the movie I saw!” It was the movie I saw plus.

I said “evoking and analyzing,” but Kael wove analysis through her evocation. The experience came first — the mind trailed behind. Her collections had sexual/romantic titles — I Lost It at the MoviesGoing SteadyDeeper Into Movies — and … I don’t know how to say this tastefully … it was as if she were going to bed with filmmakers while telling them what they were doing right and wrong and then maybe — maybe — surrendering. It must have been emasculating for directors who didn’t perform.

Readers, meanwhile, could relive the movie in language that was nimble, jazzy, rich in feeling, and so goddamn funny — especially in capturing the essence of an actor. That language was different from the drier, more arm’s-length voices that had preceded her, and it flowed so easily that you could be fooled into thinking it was just gushing out. You weren’t aware of how tightly structured her reviews really were. You experienced them as great monologues, often great comic monologues.

Notice I just slipped into writing “you.” Kael was criticized for employing the second person so often, as in: “Watching [name of movie], you feel [this].” It was irritating if you weren’t feeling what she said “you” were feeling at all. She claimed that “you” was because “one” was so stuffy. But it was also a crafty mode of rhetoric. She could wear you down. I mean, wear me down.

The first time I saw her alone was in her New Yorker office, then on 44th Street near the Algonquin, where she stayed when she came to the city from her Berkshires home to see movies and work with editors. A printout of her latest review was on her desk, full of cross-outs and additions in pencil. “Do you love it, the writing?” she asked. I said no, I found it torture, and she let out a sad sigh. The process was joyous for her. Her writing always seemed like a journey, an elevated form of thinking out loud. Sometimes the parentheticals — the curlicues that sprung into her head as she wrote — were the best things.

Her Parkinson’s had a huge impact on her writing because she did it in longhand on yellow pads, her daughter Gina standing by to type it up (eventually justifiably resentful for having to be at her mother’s beck and call). Perhaps that’s why her reviews got shorter in the last decade. But in the ‘80s, the movies had also gotten smaller, their content engineered more tightly by newly corporatized studios looking for blockbusters. In what she considered her prime, she could dig into breakthroughs like Bonnie and Clyde (her celebrated New Yorker debut, when she was 48 years old), as well as The Godfather films, CabaretMean StreetsMcCabe and Mrs. MillerLast Tango in Paris … so many more that it was hard for me to settle on the ones above.

She’s often described as a “trash” maven, and, indeed, one of her most cited essays was “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in which she made fun of highbrow European angst films and virtuous middlebrow beanbags and called for an acknowledgement that the medium lent itself to lustier, pulpier, more sensual material. Her early recognition of the populist virtuosity of Steven Spielberg — “one of the most phenomenal debuts in the history of movies” she wrote of The Sugarland Express — added to that view of her. So did her frequent complaint that a given movie wasn’t “fun.”

The charge is misleading, though. Her idea of fun encompassed one of her favorite authors, Henry James. She loved Baroque opera. She titled her Godfather review “Alchemy” because she said that Francis Ford Coppola had transformed a garish potboiler into a profound study of American aspiration. She hated violence when filmmakers employed it casually, for kicks: She wrote that the splattery killings in The French Connection made her worry that movies would devolve into “jolts for jocks.” Some people can’t remember when movies were anything else! I’ve read that she told one friend, “When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.” What irritated her about those “Come As You Are As the Sick Soul of Europe” art movies was their airlessness, the way directors wrote down to and circumscribed their characters.

I never hung out with Pauline during her New Yorker tenure, but I’d see her at screenings. Even at five feet, she stood tall. You noticed her. But you noticed others, too. In the days before the internet and review aggregation sites, readers had more personal relationships (for better or worse) with critics. They felt they knew Andrew Sarris, Rex Reed, Richard Schickel, Vincent Canby, or, writing for New York, Judith Crist and Molly Haskell and John Simon and David Denby. Critics openly took one another on — although Kael, who first got noticed with an attack on Sarris’s auteur-theory primer, was forbidden by The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, to go after other writers by name. (Her reviews, I think, were better for that.)

The one time I sat next to her at a screening the movie was Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa. Once it started, she didn’t acknowledge me. Her concentration was total. During one act of violence, she leapt halfway out of her chair and her limbs moved spasmodically. She loved the movie. She quoted Noel Coward’s line about how potent cheap music can be.

Several years after I’d met her, Phillip Lopate interviewed me for a smart but barbed magazine profile of Kael and I learned that my photo was going to run as part of a gallery of her friends and acolytes. But — but — but — I had only seen her a handful of times! I was just an acquaintance! I called Lopate and begged him to take me out of the lineup, and he did. But then I walked around for a day wondering if I’d have named names to HUAC. Beside, shouldn’t I be honored by the association? I phoned the editor and asked for my photo to go back in. Now it was official. Over the years, some writers whom she actually helped get jobs took pains to disassociate themselves from her publicly. Whatever. My lone regret was it was a shitty photo. And I told people I wasn’t a Paulette but a Paulinista.

In the late ’80s, I visited her in her turreted old house in Great Barrington, with its tub sinks and owl busts. (Owls were a sort of jokey avatar.) Maybe ten years earlier she would have eaten me alive. But she’d mellowed some. I remember the music of her voice, high and fluttery, a feathered quill that could tickle and skewer. I never got any marching orders. She was actually careful not to share her opinions before she wrote them up. By then, I think, she was sensitive to that “Paulette” charge. And although she took issue with people who didn’t respond to works she cared about — what person for whom art is central doesn’t? — she hated imitators. The critics — and filmmakers — she liked were those who made her do “fresh thinking.” If she had an “aesthetic,” it was, surprise me.

That’s what she passed on to me. That and the belief that I should trust my own responses, which can be faster and smarter than later, rational analysis. Analyzing those responses is the challenge — explaining them to yourself.

Pauline gave up reviewing in 1991. She wasn’t turned on by many of the films she was seeing, the trips to New York were getting more difficult, and she wanted to go out before her writing lost its steam. At that point, I’d taken a break from criticism to work on a play, and she encouraged me, saying, “Do it now while you’re still young and have all that crazy energy.” She’d written plays herself when she was young. She wouldn’t show them to me — she said they were heavy and pretentious. She said that was probably why she was so hard on a certain species of High Seriousness. It was easier to write than it looked.

I moved to San Francisco for two years, which Pauline envied: Berkeley was where she had spent the ’50s and ’60s, running a repertory cinema and hanging out with painters and poets. We talked every week. “When are you going to send me something?” “Soon.” A week later: “When are you going to send me something?” “Soon.” I finally sent her a draft by FedEx and an hour after she’d gotten it she called and said, “Oh, honey, you shouldn’t be showing that to anyone.” I’d written a traditional farce (although the theme was drug abuse) and she said it “lacked elegance” and that I “didn’t like my characters.”

I protested that I liked those little people very much and she said that was the problem. “You have to make them smarter than you are,” she said. “Even if they’re dumb, they have to be brilliantly dumb. They have to surprise you — otherwise, why write about them?”

This was the humanist in her talking, although one who’d been partly formed by heady screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. If she could have been anyone else, it would have been Barbara Stanwyck.

Pauline hated getting old, but she never drew the curtains. I thought of her as the anti–Miss Havisham. She was surrounded by light, by books and art and fresh flowers, and there were always letters to answer heaped on the dining-room table. Friends would call and she’d say, “Tell me what you’ve seen.” Directors sometimes sent prints of new movies, which a local theater screened for her in the mornings. When I’d come up for a few nights I’d drive Miss Pauline to whatever was around. (She never learned to drive.) When we disagreed about things (say, horror films or Mahler, both of which she hated), she’d roll her eyes — affectionately. When I’d show her something I’d written, the worst thing wasn’t when she hated it. It was when she said, “Well, you can get by with it.” She did love my second play, a comedy called Blaming Mom. I’d tried to make the characters brilliantly insane.

Once I told her about my professor who’d said she was a “bourgeois impressionist,” and she was quiet for a moment. “I’d always tried to be a bohemian impressionist,” she said.

She died in 2001, eight days before 9/11. One magazine scribe marked the occasion by writing, “The Paulettes are probably rending their garments.” No, just devastated over the loss of a friend — and a capacious soul. Since then there has been a dismayingly unsympathetic biography and what seems like a determined attempt to undo her legacy at The New Yorker. But I think anyone who picks up one of the books of her collected reviews for the first time will find — agree or disagree with her opinions — one of the great and most unquenchably vivacious American voices. Reading her, you’ll feel more alive. Yes, you.

Some months before the end, I drove her to the nearby emergency room when her blood pressure suddenly dropped. While she was in with the doctor, one nurse called out to another, “Is her name Pauline or Paulette?”

I interjected, “She’s Pauline. I’m Paulette.”

Pauline Kael Was My Critic