For many people who love movies, the only topic more engaging than the latest picture is Pauline. As with Calvin and Liza, the surname is superfluous. There is only one Pauline. Over the last 15 years Pauline Kael’s movie reviews in the New Yorker have provoked more arguments, serious thought and delight than most of the movies themselves. “It used to be that you wrote about film because you loved it,” observes Ernest Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly. “Now you can hope to become a star like Pauline.” Producers and directors solicit her advice, editors call her for hiring suggestions, young writers ape her distinctive prose style. She is arguably the most influential critic writing in America today.
She would dismiss that with a weary “Oh, Jesus” or a four-letter expletive, followed by a tremulous giggle. Standing five feet tall in her blue running shoes, which help her to maintain her balance after a back injury, Kael, 63, says, “You become Queen Victoria if you’re around long enough.” Certainly she has her courtiers. Dubbed “Paulettes” or “Kael clones,” many young critics whose careers she has promoted tend to mimic her enthusiasms, sharing her love for the thrillers of Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah or her contempt for “prestigious” films like Gandhi and Sophie’s Choice. “A lot of insecure critics bask not only in her presence but in the security of sharing her opinions,” says L.A. writer Joseph Morgenstern. At the annual critics’ meetings to vote awards, Pauline and the Paulettes often sit together, giggling and snorting in unison. Kael’s hooting disregard for her colleagues’ judgments has won her enemies, but other reviewers usually concede her preeminence. “She’s the only critic who can make you feel like an asshole for disagreeing with her,” says Newsweek’s David Ansen.
Uniquely able to fix her passions, damp and fluttering, on the printed page, Kael can have greatest commercial clout when she falls for a movie with uncertain box office prospects. Her 1972 review of Last Tango in Paris, in which she compared the movie to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, became the basis of the picture’s original ad campaign. Her ecstatic review of a not-quite-finished print of Nashville, appearing three months before the movie opened, helped director Robert Altman prevent Paramount from recutting it. “In general, I’ve only been able to have a beneficent effect,” she says. “I can’t kill anything. Even pictures that I find contemptible are generally pictures that are going to have a big success, and I know it.”
Her scorching attacks shrink egos, not wallets. Often they are aimed at a disappointing movie by one of her favorite directors, and she goes for the throat like a lover scorned. “I don’t think of her as a critic but as a champion debater,” says another reviewer. “Because she has no principles and no theory, she responds according to what she likes and then has to find a justification for it.” The comments she whispers to her companion during a screening often wind up in her review. “I try to do what critics have done in the other arts, which is say ‘This is what I think of it,’ ” Kael explains. “One thing I find boring in a lot of reviews is that I get no sense of the person talking. It’s not a human voice.”
The youngest of five children, Pauline was born to a Jewish gentleman farmer in Sonoma County in Northern California. Her Polish-born parents had eloped because her mother’s father, who imported art objects for the kingdom of Poland, disapproved of the match. In America, Isaac Kael made enough money in business to retire in his early 40s on 10 acres. “It wasn’t people’s idea of a farm,” Pauline explains. “My parents were theatergoers, and all five of us were given music lessons.” The idyll was interrupted by the stock market crash of 1929. The Kaels lost their land and their savings and moved to San Francisco. “My father picked himself up and started a chain of groceries, but he was a broken man,” Pauline says. Instead of Stanford, Pauline’s two sisters attended San Francisco State. In 1936, at 17, she enrolled at the University of California, majoring in philosophy.
Amid the ferment of Berkeley, Kael flourished. “There was always a circle of people around Pauline,” recalls her college roommate, Violet Rosenberg Ginsburg. “People came to her. They were magnetized.” Famous for her barbed tongue, Kael sharpened her argumentative skills as a varsity debater. She also indulged a love of movies, a passion inherited from her father. “Everyone thought I was going to go to law school and teach,” she remembers. “I just suddenly rebelled against both.”
Her youth is not a period Kael enjoys discussing. She married and divorced three times, but won’t identify her first two husbands and only grudgingly acknowledges the third, Edward Landberg. In 1948 she had a daughter, Gina James, by experimental filmmaker James Broughton. “You get married when you’re younger for all sorts of odd reasons, and the people are totally out of your life when they’re out of your life,” she says. “Some of your closest relationships are with people you don’t marry but live with.”
In San Francisco during her late 20s, Kael hung out with a crowd of avant-garde poets and experimental-theater types. She was extremely intense, smoking incessantly and, after striking the last match, tearing the empty matchbook into tiny pieces. She demolished opposing opinions with similar ferocity. “I remember her in conversation with older men involved in the arts, and doing her best to reduce their arguments to shreds,” Broughton recalls. “The more important a person was, the more she would try to tear him down conversationally.” To support herself, Kael took on all kinds of temporary jobs, often made exceedingly temporary by her prickly manner. Actor Kermit Sheets, who worked with her at a Brentano’s bookstore, recalls a day when a customer put down an art book and said, “I don’t get where they call that art.” Looking up, Kael snapped back, “I don’t get where you call that English.” In a milieu where the customer is always right, job prospects were limited for, in Broughton’s words, “one of those people who always knows she’s right.”
Like Lana Turner, Kael was discovered in a coffee shop. She was arguing about a movie with a college friend, poet Robert Duncan, in 1953 when the editor of City Lights magazine asked them each to review Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Duncan never did, but Kael’s nose-thumbing attack was a hit. So she did more. “It was the damnedest thing,” she recalls. “I’d been writing about other fields for a long time, and I’d never gotten into print. And the very first movie pieces I wrote after that were sold. Everything I’d ever done before seemed to feed into movies in some funny way. And I loved doing it.”
Before long she was given a weekly radio program on KPFA, Berkeley’s listener-sponsored Pacifica radio station. Kael’s breezy, attention-grabbing style was made for broadcasting. The program became an instant institution in the Bay Area and led to an offer to manage an art cinema in Berkeley owned by Landberg, whom she married “sometime in the late ’50s, but I’m not sure when it began and when it ended.” Leaving the radio, Kael worked 16-hour days at the theater, which expanded into two cinemas under one roof—the prototype for the twin movie houses that spread nationwide. “It was all-consuming,” says Kael. “I made the displays, wrote the program and cleaned the chewing gum off the seats.” Her program notes—witty, raucous, heterodox—clinched her local reputation as a critic.
Her brown-shingled Berkeley house became an after-hours club, where anyone interested in the movies could stop by for food, booze and talk until 3 or 4 in the morning. It was an enchanted kingdom, filled with Tiffany lamps that Pauline bought in junk stores, a piano painted gold and green, and murals by an artist friend on movie-related themes. “The whole house was overstuffed with things,” recalls Berkeley lecturer Albert Johnson. “Even the cat was overweight.” Although she was always short of money, Kael never stinted on hospitality. “She’s a performer,” says her friend Alan Hislop. “She has always required an audience.” As the night unwound, Pauline’s switchblade wit could slash without warning, and some guests left bloodied. But they would return: It was the best show in town.
Until her late 40s, Kael couldn’t support herself as a writer. A single parent who needed to be mostly at home, she toiled as a seamstress, textbook writer, cook, and in many other jobs she found distasteful. Had she not been weighed down by husbands and lovers, she feels her career might have gotten airborne sooner. “It’s very difficult to be married to somebody and write books,” she says. “When you’re married, you can’t read in bed, you can’t write at all hours, you can’t chase around. I wasted a lot of years being unhappy because I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.” But she has never regretted the responsibilities of motherhood. “I think I probably would have been a drunk if I hadn’t had the obligations of my daughter,” she says. “It was the making of me in terms of anything I’ve managed to accomplish.”
Writing for pennies on a mongrel subject in a backwater movie town (art films didn’t make it to San Francisco unless New York critics praised them), Kael was a veteran outsider when, at 46, she broke through to a national audience with her first book. Editor William Abrahams had seen her essays in Partisan Review, and he invited her to visit him when she came East. “Within five minutes of meeting her, I decided I was going to publish this woman, no matter what,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘What shall we call it?’ She said, half-jokingly, ‘I Lost It at the Movies.’ I said, ‘That’s it.’ Once we got caught on this quasi-sexual overtone, we’ve gone from one book to another like a love story.” Her latest, a 676-page collection of brief reviews, is 5001 Nights at the Movies (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $25), so titled after she and Abrahams decided that The Bedtime Pauline Kael would be going too far.
Once she published her first book, Kael won assignments from magazines that paid. In 1965, with Gina and her two basenjis (“The idea of Pauline having barkless dogs has always struck me as a great irony,” says Morgenstern), she moved to New York. “I had to write something on the plane and sell it in New York before the furniture got here so I could pay the movers,” she recalls. In rapid succession, she went from LIFE to Vogue to McCall’s to the New Republic, but the slipper didn’t fit until editor William Shawn offered her a weekly column in the New Yorker for half the year, alternating with Penelope Gilliatt. She began in 1968. “Pauline and the New Yorker are made for each other,” says Morgenstern. “Where else could she devote 15 columns to a movie that catches her fancy? Her talent and her personality are expansive.”
In the staid pages of the New Yorker, Kael’s writing blazes like neon. She peppers her chatty prose with parenthetical asides, rhetorical questions and such neologisms as “sleazo,” “jokey” and “bummer.” She waggles the pronoun “you” with the hectoring insistence of a barroom bully: “If you’ve never wanted to keep the light on during intercourse, then you probably won’t enjoy Kagi.” To indulge her weakness for superlatives, she invents new categories—”the most plangent movie ever made in and about Canada,” or “the most powerful banal movie ever made.” These mannerisms have infected enough other writers, especially young ones, that a Center for Prose Control would long ago have declared an epidemic. Even Kael disowns her imitators. “It makes me squirm,” she says. “I’m not flattered by people who write using my frame of reference and my syntax, because it cuts those possibilities off for me.”
At 59, when some writers begin preparing tombstone editions, Kael went after new possibilities by moving to Hollywood as a producer. “She was coming up to an important birthday,” says movie executive Marcia Nasatir. “I thought she wanted to change her life.” At Kael’s suggestion, Warren Beatty had bought a script from her friend, director James Toback, and Beatty persuaded her to come to Paramount to work on the project. “She came in fresh, and it was too late for me to take in partners,” says Toback. “I wasn’t very responsive.” Distracted by Reds, a movie closer to his heart, Beatty left Kael on her own with an increasingly intransigent Toback. Beatty advised her to be tough. “It really came down to a question of battling with a friend, being willing to threaten him and fire him, or bowing out,” she says. “I decided to bow out.”
Staying on at Paramount as an “executive consultant,” Kael developed a few scripts that were never filmed and encouraged the studio to produce The Elephant Man with director David Lynch. At the end of her five-month contract, Kael returned to the New Yorker. “She was welcome to stay on here,” says Don Simpson, then head of production at Paramount. “But she came to recognize that the moviemaking process was not something her metabolism felt comfortable with. She’s a hands-on person, a doer.”
Having struck out in Hollywood, Kael was bopped by a spitball just as she returned to her home turf. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Renata Adler, a New Yorker writer who had helped fill in during Kael’s absence, assessed Kael’s latest collection and found it “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” In the sensation-starved New York publishing world, Adler’s bloodying of Kael attracted sharks. “There was actually nothing I could say,” Kael observes. “I think what was upsetting was the press articles about it and some of the mail. What was amazing was getting letters from people who said, ‘We’ve always enjoyed you before, but now go home and correct the error of your ways.’ ”
Detractors gloating at her downfall gloated too soon. While Kael was treading water in Hollywood, Gilliatt had left the New Yorker, giving Kael the unbroken platform she had long craved. Because of a worrisome heart condition, she insisted on returning on a biweekly schedule. “Physically, I couldn’t keep up the pace of writing every week,” she says. “You know, I’m getting to be an old broad.”
Every other week Kael travels to New York, where she checks into a small midtown hotel for four days, sees two movies a night, and revises her galleys with Proustian ardor. Then she returns to her Victorian house on four and a half acres in the Berkshires. Not far away, her daughter, Gina, an artist, lives with her husband and their year-old son. Gina is Kael’s favorite editor, and she can also type and drive, two skills her mother never got around to mastering. Although Kael has a few good friends in the country, she spends most of her nights there writing. In Manhattan, she usually sees movies with film buffs half her age.
Although Kael’s influence is greatest among young writers, her phone number also appears on many of Hollywood’s leading Rolodexes. “If people phone me after their picture is out and want to discuss a review, I feel I have to,” she says. “So often you become friends that way.” Some of these friendships, like her sparring relationship with producer Ray Stark, survive her critical blasts. Stark sent her the script for Annie and she pointed out a faulty plot gimmick involving Annie’s locket. “I don’t think that interfered with anything,” she says. “I mean, if that hole had remained unplugged, the movie wouldn’t have been much worse. I was horrified by the script. But Ray Stark thought Annie was going to be the greatest thing ever. He doesn’t even hear what you’re telling him.”
Sometimes the moviemakers hear too well. Kael’s reviews of Warren Beatty’s Reds, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories ruptured her friendships with the directors. “Sometimes the people whose movies I’ve panned the hardest have been the ones I’ve been closest to,” she says. “It did really hurt me to write about Stardust Memories because I like Woody a lot and we were really good friends for 10 years. That was very painful, but I hated the movie. I have so much pride about what I say that I just wouldn’t fudge it.”
Friends who knew Kael during her lean San Francisco years think success has softened her edges. “In the early days the abrasiveness was much more pervasive,” says Berkeley writer Grover Sales. “There was more of an insecurity because she didn’t have a forum.” Having struggled so long, she now spends much of her time helping younger writers get published or produced. Kael is an enthusiast. She gets excited when she detects talent, and she wants to spread the news. Like Columbus, who set sail again for the New World when he was past 50, she has never lost the delight of discovery. She knows that if she keeps pushing on, something new will rise on the horizon to astound her.