Pauline Kael's Legacy Built By Straying From Herd

Dec 4, 2011
Originally published on December 4, 2011 3:32 pm

Pauline Kael, long-time New Yorker film critic, was famous for her scathing, but honest movie reviews. She took digs at many popular films like The Sound of Music and Star Wars with no inhibitions. Yet her enthusiasm for films like Bonnie and Clyde gave some movies a new lease on life.

Brian Kellow has written a new biography on Kael called A Life in the Dark. He tells Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that though Kael eventually became one of America's most famous critics, her career didn't take off until she was in her 40s.

"Pauline had a very tough time getting her plane off the ground," Kellow says. "She began her writing life thinking she was going to be a creative writer — a playwright, and perhaps a screenwriter. She made several attempts in that direction, and I think she just discovered early on that she wasn't very good at it."

A Contrarian Streak

Kael eventually made her way to the New Yorker as a part-time film critic in 1968. It was there that she established herself as a fiercely independent and honest voice. Kellow says though she criticized American favorites like It's A Wonderful Life, she wasn't opposed to all popular films.

"One of her ongoing concerns was that the movies she believed in the most didn't reach a wide public. And she didn't like a lot of the studio hacks — the people who knew how to play politics and get their films made and then, in her opinion, didn't come up with anything terribly interesting," he says. "But I do think she also did love to go against the grain and stray from the herd — that was definitely part of her appeal."

Like her early career, Kael's personal life was also fraught with failures. Kellow says "she had a habit of falling for gay men" earlier in her life because "they tended to share her passions and enthusiasms." She had a daughter, Gina James, with one of them, experimental filmmaker James Broughton.

Gina James declined to talk with Kellow for his book, but the author says Kael and her daughter had a sort of symbiotic relationship.

"Pauline did not type, Pauline did not drive — Gina performed both those functions for her. And Gina was a very good critic of Pauline. She got to see Pauline's copy before anyone else did and she often had very, very important and influential things to say," he says. "But Pauline really wasn't wild about the idea of Gina breaking away and having her own life apart from her, and she didn't do anything really to encourage her in that direction as far as I can see."

Ethical Misstep Overlooked

Kellow says he also uncovered a hidden bit of history about Kael as he was researching the book. In 1974, she wrote a well-received essay about the history and impact of Citizen Kane. The piece was filled with interviews of people who had worked on the film. But Kellow found out they weren't conducted by Kael — they were done by a UCLA film professor named Howard Suber. So he tracked down Suber, who was still on the school's faculty.

"He was at first rather hesitant to talk about this whole matter ... [but] he finally came out with the whole story which was that, in fact, she had filched this research from him," he says. "She had led him to believe they were going to collaborate on this essay for the New Yorker and he very enthusiastically agreed and turned over all his material to her — and then she didn't give him any credit."

Kellow says Kael "was running a tremendous risk" and he still can't understand why she did it.

"I was really careful about this. I corroborated the story in as many was as I could," he says. "But I also really do have to say one of the odd things about this is that I think it was an aberration. Because I think for the most part she was an extraordinarily ethical person."

Changing Face Of Film Criticism

Even after writing her biography and digging up a handful of unflattering anecdotes, Kellow says Kael is still a heroine to him.

"I have even greater respect for her now that I have seen up close the struggles that she went through. To chase after this dream and this career while raising Gina all by herself ... I had great admiration for Pauline and I think it comes through on every page. But you know, you have to tell the story of the life," he says.

Kellow says film criticism has changed dramatically in the decades since Kael's heyday. Critics now have their own websites that reach far more people than she ever could.

"But for me, so many of these things don't have any depth or breadth to them and I think she would have really been disgusted by that because she worked very hard to get where she was," he says. "She read widely, she was a brilliantly informed woman. I prefer her kind of film criticism, what can I say?"

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Film critic Pauline Kael wasn't afraid to butt the mainstream. She lambasted the "Sound of Music," a major hit in her time with this critique, quote, "We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and esthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly goody-goody songs."

Her taste tended toward the more complicated, in film and friends, pursuing romances with gay men that strangely never worked out. Author and film buff Brian Kellow has written a new biography on Kael. It's called "A Life in the Dark." And he says that although she became one of the most famous critics in America, her career didn't really take off until she was in her mid-40s.

BRIAN KELLOW: Pauline had a very tough time getting her plane off the ground as she began her writing life thinking that she was going to be a creative writer, a playwright and perhaps a screenwriter. And she made several attempts in that direction, and I think she just discovered early on that she wasn't very good at it. And eventually, she found her way to movie criticism, and this was where she found her voice.

But even after that, it took an awfully long time for her to reach any level of even sustaining a career. And it was a long, long road to the New Yorker, which she joined the staff of in 1968

MARTIN: There - speaking of her voice, there is a contrarian streak in her and in what she pursues - subject she pursues and how she attacks them. She goes after wildly popular films - "The Sound of Music," "Star Wars."

KELLOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, films that now we think of as, you know, being part of the American pantheon of film. Why? Was that her nature, or was she seeking out opportunities to distinguish herself that way?

KELLOW: I think the answer is probably both. It was very, very difficult to pull the wool over Pauline's eyes. It just really couldn't be done. And she - I don't think she had any issue with popular success of films at all. I think she thought it was wonderful when a terrific movie reached a wide public. One of her ongoing concerns was that the movies that she believed in the most did not reach a wide public, and she didn't like a lot of the studio hacks, really, you know, the people who knew how to play politics and get their films made and then in her opinion didn't come up with anything terribly interesting.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little more about her personal life.

KELLOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: She seems to always gather people around her.

KELLOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: But at the same time, she does keep her distance and pursues, in her personal life, what seem to be unattainable relationships, unsustainable, maybe.

KELLOW: Mm-hmm. That's very true. Earlier in her life, she had a habit of falling for gay men. You know, a lot of it was because gay men shared a lot of her passions and enthusiasms. But, you know, it never really worked out in the long run. She even had a child with a gay man, James Broughton, her daughter Gina.

MARTIN: Talk about her relationship with Gina.

KELLOW: Well, it was a - I think it was a very symbiotic relationship. They were sort of two against the world in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: She served as Pauline's secretary, her scribe.

KELLOW: Secretary, chauffeur. Yes, Pauline did not type. Pauline did not drive. Gina performed both those functions for her. And Gina was a very good critic of Pauline. She got to see Pauline's copy before anyone else did, and she often had very, very important and influential things to say. But Pauline really wasn't wild about the idea of Gina breaking away and having her own life.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Brian Kellow. He's the author of a new biography about film critic Pauline Kael. It's called "A Life in the Dark." Brian, sometimes, she's just ruthless in her writing...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...and in her life. When she published an essay on "Citizen Kane," she used extensive research by a UCLA professor, and she didn't give him credit. Did she take flak for that?

KELLOW: No. Not really. This was certainly the most shocking discovery I made while I was working on the book. She was commissioned to do this piece about the making of "Citizen Kane" and the effect of "Citizen Kane." And what happened was I began researching my book, and I found in her personal papers all these transcripts of interviews conducted by a fellow named Howard Suber.

And so I found Howard Suber, who was still on the faculty at UCLA, and he was at first rather hesitant to talk about this whole matter. And I said, well, you know, I have done all this research, and I'm very baffled by this. And so he finally came out with the whole story, which was that, in fact, she had filched this research from him. She had led him to believe that they were going to collaborate on this essay for the New Yorker, and he very enthusiastically agreed and turned over all his material to her, and then she didn't give him any credit. She was running a tremendous risk, which is still one of the things I don't understand about it.

But he did not go after her, and I was really careful about this. I corroborated the story in as many ways as I could, but I also really do have to say one of the odd things about this is I think it was an aberration because I think for the most part she was an extraordinarily ethical person.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. You were essentially writing about a hero that you've had since you were a child.

KELLOW: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you come away from this?

KELLOW: Well, that's a very good question. She is absolutely every bit as much a hero to me, a heroine, as she always was. I have even greater respect for her now that I've seen up close the struggles that she went through to chase after this dream and this career while raising Gina all by herself with no financial assistance from James Broughton, by the way.

I had great admiration for Pauline, and I think it comes through on every page. But, you know, you have to tell the story of the life.

MARTIN: Film criticism has changed so much. Do you have any idea how she was analyzing all these changes near the end of her life?

KELLOW: I think that Pauline would have really been appalled by what passes for discourse on the Internet right now. Gerald Peary made a very interesting movie a few years ago called "For the Love of Movies," a documentary about the history of film criticism. And he talks about how, you know, a lot of these guys have websites now that are reaching a much greater audience than people like Pauline ever dreamed of reaching.

But for me, I mean, so many of these things don't have any depth or breadth to them. And I think she would've really been disgusted by that because she worked very hard to get where she was. She read widely. She was a brilliantly informed woman. And I prefer her kind of film criticism. What can I say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's Brian Kellow. He's the author of a new biography on film critic Pauline Kael. It's called "A Life in the Dark." He joined me from our New York bureau. Brian, thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

KELLOW: Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.