Adventures in Feministory: Pauline Kael

Despite being a little lady who never quite passed the five-foot barrier, Pauline Kael left a mark of ogre proportions on the world of cinema. Kael, the O.G. of film criticism, never received a degree and never hesitated to voice her opinion, no matter how brutal her choice words may have been–my kind of gal.

On June 19th, 1919, Pauline Kael was born in Petaluma, California to Jewish immigrants from Poland. After losing their chicken farm, her family moved to San Francisco. I like to believe that there’s something in the Bay’s water that makes bohemianism come naturally, and Kael proves my theory. After studying philosophy, literature, and the arts at the University of California in Berkeley, she decided that the rigmarole of higher education offered none of the perks that life with the beats provided and moved to New York City with a caravan of artists.

Like a good bohemienne, Kael returned to Frisco and fell in and out of love quickly. The result: three failed marriages, one beautiful daughter with the filmmaker and Radical Faerie, James Broughton, and a series of odd jobs. But all of the pitfalls of nonconformism weren’t enough to keep Kael’s voice unheard. While arguing about movies with a friend, Kael was approached by the editor of City Lights magazine to write a review of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, which she so snarkily referred to as “slimelight”. From that word forward, Kael began her prolific career as critic.

Kael’s reviews were published in numerous magazines, and she conducted a weekly radio program on San Francisco’s KPFA, which earned her the enviable job of managing the Berkley Cinema Guild from 1955 until 1960. However, Kael’s big break came when a collection of her reviews, I Lost It at the Movies, was published in 1965 while she was working at McCall’s. As lore tells it, Kael was fired from McCall’s for her scathing review of the widely praised The Sound of Music. (Kael called the film a “sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat”. Touché, Pauline, touché.)

Kael’s dismissal from McCall’s led her to a job that produces so much envy in my being–reviewing movies for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, a mind blowing 24 year stint. You go girl! Kael became known for panning commercial blockbusters and praising the glory of art house cinema. Known for her sacrasm and loose writing style, Kael gained many fans and just as many foes. Kael changed the style for film criticism and influenced practically every working critic today. Her accessible prose and unmatched opinions proved that women could appreciate the best, criticize the praised, and castrate the blockbusters. (Watch out, Spielberg.)

Although Kael tends to be known for the punches she threw at the big guns, she found that celebrating films gave her more pleasure than panning the worst. Speaking of worsts, Kael took a brief hiatus from The New Yorker to work as a production executive for Warren Beatty. The relationship ended due to “artistic differences”. (I assume that their business relationship ended because Kael could see through Beatty’s coif and was just fed up with the womanizer.) But wait, another achievement must be added to Kael’s already impressive resume, she wrote numerous essays on the philosophy of movie-going.

Pauline Kael passed on September 3rd, 2001 at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy that’s still unmatched. She changed the way many (myself included) watch movies. She managed to make waves in two male-dominated worlds, journalism and film. She gave new life to review writing and proved that popular culture is relevant. What Pauline Kael lacked in height, she made up for in words.

This post originally appeared on July 5th, 2010.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Great article.

For a great account of the relationship between Warren Beatty and Pauline Kael, read: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.
Preview: He was in awe of her.

Second this recommendation.

Second this recommendation. I LOVE this book.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Thank you

Thank you for this. She is my total idol.

Co-signed. She is one of the

Co-signed. She is one of the reasons I write about film. She inspired me be expansive in my analysis of film and filmmaking. A total hero of mine.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I referenced Kael in my GRE

I referenced Kael in my GRE essay about art criticism. Unfortunately, my prose was not as well received as hers. Wonderful remembrance of a great voice.

I stiill miss her

I get a little thrill when I see the initials "PK" following one of the capsule reviews for revivals in the New Yorker. Thanks for this post.

Her accessible prose and

<em>Her accessible prose and unmatched opinions proved that women could appreciate the best, criticize the praised, and castrate the blockbusters. (Watch out, Spielberg.)</em>

This is an interesting take on her legacy. Can you parse out exactly what you mean here by castrate, specifically as it relates to Spielberg who she really seemed to enjoy, though certainly was not afraid to criticize him and did so with aplomb with her reviews of such films as "Always" and "1941". (Spielberg)

Kael wrote of Spielberg's Jaws: "the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made... [with] more zest than an early Woody Allen picture, a lot more electricity, [and] it's funny in a Woody Allen sort of way".

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I didn't mean to use

I didn't mean to use Spielberg in regards to what Kael has written on his films. I meant to use Spielberg as a face for blockbuster directors; he could have been easily replaced with James Cameron, Michael Bay, George Lucas, etc.

Then I'm really confused.

Then I'm really confused. Kael wasn't against the "blockbuster" which arguably Spielberg created 35 years ago this summer with Jaws. She was against banality. She didn't care who was doing it, be it Hal Ashby or James Cameron. You might want to check out her review of "The Terminator" (Cameron); he's not a good example either. Your read on Kael is really different than mine. I don't think it's a bad thing, just intriguing. I've always dug her, but would found her frustrating at times. (read her review of De Palma's "Dress to Kill") and didn't always find her particularly good at calling out sexism in films or filmmakers though for some odd reason this quality was often attributed to her!

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Pauline, Pauline

Enjoyed your piece. I saw Kael speak at a university in the Deep South. She swore like a sailor with a cultivated, Berkeley accent. She tore into movie directors left and right, telling the audience which directors had "the balls" to make good movies and those who didn't. A couple of notes; Kael was not married three times, and her dismissal from McCalls, according to the editor, was not for the Sound of Music, but for negative remarks she made about the actress Lana Turner in a hilariously negative review. Her chief flaw was that she was biased against very many foreign film makers, and could not effectively review complex films, or films that made intellectual demands on the audience, as could her colleagues Stanley Kauffmann and Penelope Gilliatt, in my view, her critical superiors. But Kael was marvelous and her reviews were page turners. I miss her, though I don't think she would have much nice to say about movies today. She would have hated the new Iranian film makers and would have loathed the Dardenne brothers, etc. But that was Pauline.

She "could not effectively

Kael's inadequcies

Go back and read Kael's pitiful attempt to review L'avventura or Persona and you get the message. Her writing on Bergman and Antonioni is hilariously inept, an attempt to review films that made intellectual demands. She just didn't have it. She also hated Fellini's 81/2 and on and on. Films of emotional or intellectual complexity were simply beyond her reach from start to finish. Pauline was largely a rah-rah pro Americana reviewer. If it had not been for the brilliant Penelope Gilliatt, there is no telling how many of the important foreign films that Kael would never have reviewed out of simple bias, or inability to deal with a temperament different from her own.

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