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.