You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Pauline Kael’s Long Delayed Big Break

Through years of setbacks and discouragement, Kael insisted that movies should be free from stereotypes, unpretentious, and fun.

Erin Combs/Toronto Star/Getty

Pauline Kael had been waiting a long time for a break when Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, reached out to her in August 1963. It was a last-minute request, but would she mind reviewing a novel for the paper? The novel in question was Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

Kael, only seven years younger than McCarthy, had long been a fan. She was just 23 years old when The Company She Keeps appeared—the perfect age to appreciate its sexual frankness. And by the time the enormous success of The Group rolled around, Kael had long been working as a McCarthy-like, gimlet-eyed movie critic, but without the mainstream success or recognition. She was also, by then, 44, and clearly beginning to wonder if any ship from the East Coast intellectuals would ever come in. Nothing seemed to come easily to her, by then.

So when Silvers telephoned to assign the piece in August 1963, she immediately accepted. He wanted only 1500 words, and he wanted it fast, but Kael felt she could do it. The only problem was that she did not particularly like The Group. The intelligence that had so attracted her to The Company She Keeps was entirely gone. As she put it in her draft:

As a group, the girls are as cold and calculating, and as irrational and defenseless and inept, as if drawn by an anti-feminist male writer. Those who want to believe that the use of the mind is really bad for a woman, unfits her for “life,” miscellanies her, or makes her turn sour or nasty or bitter (as in the past, Mary McCarthy was so often said to be) can now find confirmation of their view in Mary McCarthy’s own writing.

Kael knew something, by then, about what “the use of the mind” might do for a woman. She was often accused of being “sour or nasty or bitter.” She was not, as Susan Sontag for instance was, a prodigy immediately recognized as such by everyone who read her. She had to fight for the things she had. Her belligerent spirit was not always well received by onlookers, and even when this angered her, she didn’t wish to adjust herself to meet their expectations of “caring about others” or anything else. It’s plain she was hoping the brilliance of her work would be enough, as it would be for a man in her position.

Kael had made it a long way from home. She was born in 1919 on a poultry farm in Petaluma, California. Her parents were New York Jews who’d moved to the area in search of a kind of progressive agricultural commune. They already had four children to raise by the time Kael came along. She spoke of her early years on that farm as an idyll, or as much of an idyll as could be had by farmers’ children who had constant chores and parents whose marriage was troubled by financial instability and infidelity. The Kaels managed to remain in Petaluma only until 1927, when Isaac Kael lost all his money in a stock market crash and the family went to San Francisco, where he tried, and mostly failed, to come up with more steady work.

In high school, Kael’s talents began to surface. She was a good student, played violin in the school orchestra, served on the debate team. Like Sontag, she went on to study philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. In November 1941, Kael and a friend, the poet Robert Horan, moved to New York together in the time-honored manner of aspiring artists: penniless hitchhikers hoping they would figure out some way to support themselves on arrival. In those first years, she worked as a governess and a clerk in a publishing house. She watched the New York intellectuals at close range, and held in particularly high esteem Politics, the journal Dwight Macdonald edited. But she could not break through. She blamed New York; she blamed the scene. “The place is cluttered up with ‘promising’ young poets who are now thirty-five or forty writing just as they did fifteen years ago or much worse,” she wrote to a friend. By 1945 she gave it up and returned to San Francisco.

Back among the bohemian oddities of her hometown, Kael met a poet/experimental filmmaker names James Broughton. A man who spent his life, as he often explained, getting over an overbearing mother, he was prone to short love affairs rather than long commitments. He made tiny experimental films, like Mother’s Day (1948), which saw a naked blond child wandering around as a woman’s voice alternately praises and scolds him. Kael moved in with Broughton for a short time. When she became pregnant, he kicked her out and disavowed the child. Gina James was born in September 1948. Kael didn’t put Broughton’s name on the birth certificate.

The child changed things for her, as children always do. It meant Kael desperately needed a steady living, and freelance work, because she could do it from home, became her only option. She reviewed books. She tried her hand at playwriting. She wrote a treatment for a screenplay but it was rejected. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti asked her to review Limelight for his new cinema magazine, City Lights. Released in October 1952, the film was a vehicle for an aged and doubled Charlie Chaplin, whose work Kael had never particularly cared for. “The Chaplin of Limelight is no irreverent little clown; his reverence for his own ideas would be astonishing even if the ideas were worth consideration,” she wrote. “They are not—and the context of the film exposes them at every turn.”

This, the first movie review Pauline Kael ever published, appearing in the Winter 1953 issue of City Lights, revealed several things about her. One was that she looked at a film in something larger than an aesthetic sense. Despite becoming known later in her life as a defender of popular taste in movies, a defender of visceral reactions, she had larger questions about them: about the quality of the ideas they represented, about the way they fitted into the larger puzzle of both cultural and intellectual life in America. Another was the exuberant energy that would eventually become the Kael trademark. Her personality emerges mostly in the vigor with which she analyzes something, turning it over, looking for clues. Another was that, interested in the mass audience as she was, she would never be afraid of kicking a popular phenomenon in the teeth. Kael’s role as a critic, she believed, was to run roughshod over the politics of reputation. This did not make her popular.

After the Limelight review appeared, doors that had always been closed to Kael started to open, just a crack. Suddenly she was getting enthusiastic responses from Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, though he still felt some of her pieces were too long. And in Berkeley, she inherited the movie critic post at KPFA from a friend, the poet Weldon Kees, who first invited her on as a guest. “Pauline, let’s start positively,” he would sometimes say as they began the broadcast. But in 1955, he committed suicide, and the radio station offered Kael the spot. It paid nothing. But she took it and developed a following. She was always contrarian and always systemic. She, like Rebecca West and McCarthy before her, sometimes liked to take direct aim at the preoccupations of other critics.

In 1961, Kael drafted the first of her great pieces, an essay called “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience,” for Sight and Sound. It was the first articulation of what would come to be Kael’s deepest insight as a critic. In brief, she believed that those who insisted on watching foreign films, who believed themselves to thus be watching a higher and better sort of art when they eschewed the popular movie houses, were full of it. And she was not afraid of attacking their darlings, among them Hiroshima Mon Amour, which she found repetitive and finally too much about the female character’s feelings:

It began to seem like True Confession at the higher levels of spiritual and sexual communion; and I decided the great lesson for us all was to shut up. This woman (beautifully as Emmanuelle Riva interpreted her) was exposing one of the worst faults of intelligent modern woman: she was talking all her emotions out—as if bed were the place to demonstrate sensibility. It’s unfortunate that what people believe to be the most important things about themselves, their innermost truths and secrets—the real you or me—that we dish up when somebody looks sympathetic, is very likely to be the driveling nonsense that we generally have enough brains to forget about. The real you or me that we conceal because we think people won’t accept it is slop—and why should anybody want it?

This is an unintentionally revealing argument. The exposure of feelings in art was and is a point much debated, because just as Kael points out here, the question tends to be gendered. Among women writers this is a familiar sort of war. There have always been those who insist that full-on confession of every flaw and feeling is the only honest way to write, and then those, like Kael, who would argue that it reinforced terrible stereotypes about women and gave voice to their worst qualities as intelligent human beings. But the savagery of the last line—the insistence that the inner self was slop that nobody sensible could possibly want to know about—could not simply be Kael talking about art or Hiroshima or Marguerite Duras. It had to be the statement of someone who believed this about herself.

The thrust of all her criticism makes it clear that Kael did not consider herself to be particularly sentimental. She would not have liked being posthumously sweetened by armchair psychoanalysis. She hated pathos. And yet, the odd sense of self-savagery is sometimes there in her frustration with opponents. She wants them to be linear thinkers, to be clear and direct; people who didn’t think this way drove her crazy. She seemed to seek out writers who needed a healthy dose of common sense.

1963 was an important year for Kael. That year she got a Guggenheim fellowship. She’d been recommended for it by, among others, Dwight Macdonald, who noted wryly in response to the request: “Despite your implacable harassment of me in print, I have, as a good Christian atheist, turned the other cheek and written a fulsome recommendation of your project to the Guggenheim people.” This project was the compilation of the book I Lost It at the Movies, assembled from Kael’s various essays for Film Quarterly, the Atlantic, and Sight and Sound.

1963 was also the year Bob Silvers commissioned the review of The Group, the piece that was supposed to mark her proper acceptance into the New York intellectual set. Kael finished a draft very quickly and submitted it. She hoped it would be an entry into the intellectual milieu she had wanted to belong to since her twenties. But the magazine rejected Kael’s piece, simply saying it was irrelevant to criticize McCarthy about her treatment of women. Perhaps it was simply that Mailer had, by then, agreed to write a review for the book himself. But perhaps the rejection letter was sincere. Kael was injured. She got word of the rejection back to Sontag and sent her a copy of the draft review. Sontag didn’t think the arguments about feminism were the best attack on the book. “To me, what you say about the novel and the way character is developed, and the relation between fact and fiction is more interesting, and original, than your indignation—though I share it entirely—at McCarthy’s slander on women,” Sontag added.

Perhaps owing to this tidbit of encouragement, Kael saved the draft of the review. But it is also at this point that Kael stopped commenting on the relations between the sexes in her work. It just stops coming up the way it had in her previous criticism. People began to say and believe that Kael had no relationship to feminism because of that silence. One feminist critic who met Kael in the 1970s told her biographer: “I thought Pauline was deaf to feminism. Not hostile. It just wasn’t something she could hear.” This was probably true, as far as it referred to the formal second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s. But it’s just as possible that having been told by someone she respected that these comments on gender were unserious, Kael simply accepted the premise and decided to go about the rest of her critical life with less of an eye to defending women as women. She could not let go of her desire to be taken seriously.

When Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies was eventually published in 1965, no one expected a collection of movie criticism to be a hit. But somehow it became a bestseller. The Atlantic published the introduction to the book, under the title “Are the Movies Going to Pieces?” in December 1964. In it Kael was a town crier, complaining that the vitality was going out of movies. In part she blamed studio executives. And as usual she blamed critics who had become so abstruse and against meaning that they were defending films that made a fetish of technique without carrying any meaning.

In the New York Times, a movie magazine editor raved that it proved “she is the sanest, saltiest, most resourceful and least attitudinizing movie critic currently in practice in the United States.” He admired especially the way she summed up her approach:

I believe that we respond most and best to work in any art form . . . if we are pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgements, if we are eclectic. Eclecticism is not the same as lack of scruple; eclecticism is the selection of the best standards and principles from various systems. It requires more care, more orderliness to be a pluralist than to apply a single theory.

This was more or less how Pauline Kael would continue to write for the rest of her life, consistently inconsistent, tending to passionate riffs, insisting that the only principle worth defending was pleasure. Some people, naturally, found this “exasperating,” as did a critic in her old haunt Sight and Sound, who complained about “the destructive emotionality of her polemical pieces.” Nonetheless, the book was by any measure a success. Kael moved back to New York on the money it made.

For the first time in her life, at 46, she could make her living by writing. Her daughter came with her; the two lived on the Upper East Side. Kael threw herself into work, apparently sure the only thing that followed success was more of it. She had nabbed what looked to be a regular gig—a position at McCall’s (where Dorothy Parker had written some forty years earlier)—and went on to a stint at the New Republic. By the time she became The New Yorker’s film critic in 1967, Kael had mastered her idiosyncratic form of film criticism. She kept one eye on what other critics had written, on the flaws and pieties of their logic; one eye on the audience and its reaction to what was being presented onscreen, because Kael believed that the experience of going to the movies was as important as the movie itself; and finally, a third eye was on the fun of it all.

Fun might be a subjective quality, but Kael was sure it was the movies’ highest value in a way the more high-minded critics were not. It subjected her all her life to accusations of crassness, of lack of caring, and of simplemindedness. But in her avowedly “eclectic” style, fun was the one thing Kael was consistently devoted to. She made it a credo.

This article is excerpted from Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. Copyright © 2018 by Michelle Dean. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.