For someone who stressed the active first-person in her criticism, Pauline Kael wasn’t prone to writing much about herself, and she was reticent about divulging personal details in her many print interviews. That’s a distinctive disadvantage for Brian Kellow, the Opera News editor whose new Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark is the first full biography of the legendary New Yorker film critic: It runs the danger of merely condensing Kael’s own writing, the off-the-cuff remarks collected in the University Of Mississippi Press’ Conversations With Pauline Kael, and Phillip Lopate’s 1989 Kael profile, “Lady In The Dark,” collected in his Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. (The latter brought much of her early life to light for the first time, including her relationship with the poet James Broughton, the father of Kael’s daughter, Gina James.)
James didn’t speak to Kellow for his book—in the acknowledgements, he thanks her for not blocking him from writing it—and that’s a weakness: Kellow frequently ends his chapters with some variation on “Meanwhile, Gina was still quiet,” even when there isn’t much more he can report. Nevertheless, A Life In The Dark works in providing Kael’s life with a firm, compelling narrative. It isn’t a gentle one toward her, but Kellow’s portrait makes her seem more human, not less.
Kael was the daughter of a pair of chicken-farming Polish immigrants, initially raised in rural Petaluma, California, before the family moved to San Francisco in the 1930s. Even as she attended Berkeley (finishing a couple credits shy of a degree), Kael was intellectually restless, initially drawn to playwriting, but eventually submitting pieces on spec to film magazines—a method she recommended to younger writer friends long past its real-world usefulness. Kael eventually ran a movie house that helped foment film consciousness in Berkeley, briefly married the man who founded it, and eventually managed the place for a few years before he took it back over. She also began a five-year stint as the weekly movie reviewer for the local listener-sponsored radio station, KPFA, where she consistently talked back to station edicts on-air, culminating in her notorious on-air resignation.
That kind of grandstanding made its way into Kael’s writing, as just one source of controversy. Her style was far looser than the stuffy New Yorker style, sending many older staffers into tizzies and making fussy editor William Shawn, who hired Kael on in 1967, into a good-natured adversary. As late as 1978, when the F-word was becoming common currency, Shawn was still writing woeful notes alongside Kael’s copy: “Her earthiness, her focus on body functions.”
Kael built her name by attacking the work of other film critics, and eventually many returned fire, such as Andrew Sarris, whom Kael mocked in her legend-making essay “Circles And Squares.” In 1980, Renata Adler, who filled in for Kael during her New Yorker absence, wrote a notorious screed for The New York Review Of Books denouncing Kael’s later work as empty hype, and the war between her acolytes—“Paulettes”—and people who dislike her work remains a snipefest available for view on a browser near you. Kael invited some of the criticism head-on, by befriending directors such as Woody Allen, James Toback, Paul Schrader, and Sam Peckinpah.
The book’s most fascinating parts involve Kael’s leave from The New Yorker in 1979 for a sojourn in Hollywood, at Warren Beatty’s behest. Her initial six-figure salary as a producer for Paramount was quickly reduced to a desk job after Toback let her go from the production of his movie Love & Money. Kellow’s telling of the tale is comparable to a miniature version of Final Cut, Steven Bach’s behind-the-scenes tale of the notoriously disastrous production of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, as Kael winds up adrift in shark-infested waters. No Paramount creature’s teeth were sharper than Don Simpson’s; his cookie-cutter filmmaking style was behind some of the biggest, most vapid movie hits of the ’80s, and he routinely shot Kael’s ideas down simply because he could.
Kael’s first-thought-first-thing-said style was prickly, to say the least. Kellow recounts a number of conversations in which Kael’s bluntness lost her friendships, as when she told Carrie Rickey that she’d championed James Wolcott for a job over Rickey. The honesty that made her a legend on the page did the same in real life—with even more mixed results.