New Yorker’s Kael dies

Renown reviewer suffered from Parkinson's disease

Excerpts from critic Kael’s reviews

Movie critic Pauline Kael, a brash, witty champion of artistic quality who thrashed both facile commercialism and self-indulgent pretense from her lofty perch at The New Yorker, has died at her home in Great Barrington, Mass. She was 82.

Kael suffered from Parkinson’s disease, according to Perri Dorset, a spokeswoman for the magazine.

Plagued by ill health, Kael officially stepped down as the New Yorker’s full time reviewer in 1991 after almost 25 years of film criticism and several highly regarded collections of reviews and essays. Her “Deeper Into Movies” garnered Kael the National book Award and her criticism is still widely read by film students and aficionados.

What distinguished Kael from all but a handful of film reviewers was the personal point of view she brought to the task and an unmistakable passion for the medium. Like James Agee and Manny Farber, two reviewers whom she greatly admired, Kael was also an excellent writer, well versed in other art forms and conversant with politics and culture, her views of which enriched her criticism.

Kael frequently invited controversy when she would boldly advocate certain filmmakers and seemingly almost as capriciously later dismiss their work. Filmmakers shamelessly courted her, though the degree of influence they had over what she wrote about them is difficult to ascertain. Though she claimed not to ascribe to the auteurist theory that the director was a film’s sole creator, she often championed directors with indelible styles like Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma. Conversely, in her well regarded essay “Regarding Kane,” she shifts a great deal of credit for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” to the film’s co-writer Herman Mankiewicz. Such contradictions and reversals, however, were all part of the complex fabric of her appreciation of movies to which she brought a keen eye and razor sharp pen. She was perhaps the last film critic who was avidly read and whose opinions sparked lively debates.

What is often overlooked in assessments of her criticism was her lively, readable prose. It seemed to ramble without structure. But it was precisely that personal discursive quality — not to mention her numerous zingers — that so engaged the reader. She looked beyond plot, beyond the trappings of the studio publicity machine, and seemed to strike at the core of movies.

And there is no doubt that she was the last print reviewer to have a serious effect on the box office fate of films, not only because of her own reviews, but in how she influenced her peers who wrote for other publications. Films like “Bonnie & Clyde,” “MASH,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “Klute,” “Mean Streets” and “Nashville,” owe some of their popularity to Kael’s raves.

Her positive take on “Bonnie & Clyde,” which Warner Bros. rolled out in limited release, brought national attention to the film. Her critiques of “Last Tango” — calling it as important a cultural landmark as “Le Sacre du Printemps” — and her extravagant advance review of “Nashville” (for which she was widely criticized) were two seminal Kael assessments. She also helped launch the film careers of Steven Spielberg, Scorsese and Jonathan Demme.

Though most of her writing appeared in the upscale New Yorker, Kael made no claims at being a highbrow as was almost contemptuous of artistic pretension and especially “message” movies. She championed the medium’s kinetic qualities, its ability to get the heart racing and pulse pounding. But she was no pawn to commercial filmmaking. Unlike some of her contemporaries she did not tread lightly around expensive, heavily marketed movies for fear that her publication would lose advertising (though in fact the New Yorker did lose movie advertising after she came on board). She would have nothing of populist films like “The Sound of Music,” her hilarious pan of which lost her the film reviewer’s slot at McCall’s.

Kael was born in the city of Petaluma in Northern California on June 19, 1919. During the depression her family moved to San Francisco where she attended the U. of California at Berkeley, majoring in philosophy. After graduation she drifted into experimental filmmaking and playwriting, although without much success.

Starting in 1953, Kael began publishing film criticism, her first, a review of Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” (which she dubbed Slimelight) in the small City Lights magazine. Through the decade her work began to appear in Sight and Sound, Partisan Review, Kulchur, Film Culture, Moviegoer and Film Quarterly.

From the mid 1950s to the early ’60s she managed the twin art film houses the Berkeley Cinema Guild Theatres, which drew attention for their ambitious programming, offering revivals of such Hollywood legends as W.C. Fields, Mae West and Busby Berkeley. She also lectured on film at universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But the remuneration was not enough to make ends meet and she had to maintain various side jobs to pay her bills. That all changed in 1965 when her first collection of reviews and essays “I Lost it at the Movies” became a surprise bestseller. In it she attacked Hollywood’s crass commercialization while at the same time lampooning pretentious art films.

Moving to New York she free-lanced for such publications as Life, Holiday and Mademoiselle before landing a full time job (and losing it) at McCall’s. She wrote briefly for The New Republic before starting at The New Yorker in 1968, where she split the year with Penelope Gilliat. Her second book, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” was released the same year.

Several other collections followed including “Going Steady,” “Reeling” and the 1973 National Book Award winner “Deeper Into Movies.” Throughout the late ’60s and the decade of the ’70s, Kael became the country’s most influential, if not most widely read, reviewer. Her impact at the box office was not as pronounced as her influence on a generation of filmmakers, cineastes and even studio executives. Her no-holds-barred praise for up and comers like Brian de Palma and James Toback ingratiated them into the skeptical suites of producers and executives.

As her influence spread so did criticism from other reviewers and writers who cited her capriciousness and her often maddeningly contrarian viewpoint. But none doubted her influence or the sheer pleasure of reading her reviews. Her 1971 essay “Raising Kane” was a brilliant re-assessment and appreciation at one of Hollywood’s undisputed masterpieces.

In 1979 she left the New Yorker to move to Los Angeles to work for actor/producer Warren Beatty. The romance with Hollywood was stillborn and by 1980 she was back at the New Yorker as the sole critic. She remained at the New Yorker until 1991, forced into retirement by ill health and a growing lack of enthusiasm for the direction movies had taken.

Other anthologies include “When the Lights Go Down,” “5001 Nights at the Movies,” “Taking It All In,” “State of the Art” and “Hooked.” In 2000, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.

Kael, who was married and divorced multiple times, is survived by a daughter, Gina James.

Some quotations from Pauline Kael reviews:

  • From her essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” 1969: “If somewhere in the Hollywood entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.”

  • On ’60s Westerns such as “The War Wagon,” 1967: “What makes it a ‘Western’ is no longer the wide open spaces, but the presence of men like John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster, grinning with their big new choppers, sucking their guts up into their chests, and hauling themselves onto horses. They are the heroes of a new Western mythology: stars who have aged in the business, who have survived and who go on dragging their world-famous, expensive carcasses through the same old motions.”

  • On Woody Allen, from a review of “Sleeper,” 1973: “He has the city-wise effrontery of a shrimp who began by using language to protect himself and then discovered that language has a life of its own. … The tension between his insecurity and his wit makes us empathize with him; we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel.”

  • On “The Exorcist,” 1974: “Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously — shallowness like William Peter Blatty’s — is an embarrassment. When you hear him on TV talking about communicating with his dead mother, your heart doesn’t bleed for him, your stomach turns for him.”

  • On “Return of the Jedi,” 1983: “If a filmmaker wants backing for a new project, there’d better be a video game in it. Producers are putting so much action and so little character or point into their movies that there’s nothing for a viewer to latch on to. The battle between good and evil, which is the theme of just about every big fantasy adventure film, has become a flabby excuse for a lot of dumb tricks and noise.”

  • On “Top Gun,” 1986: “What is this commercial selling? It’s just selling, because that’s what the producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and the director, Tony (Make It Glow) Scott, know how to do. Selling is what they think moviemaking is about. … ‘Top Gun’ is a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.”

  • On “Dances with Wolves,” 1990: “This is a nature-boy movie, a kid’s daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. (Actor-director Kevin) Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.”
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