Pauline Kael Biographer: She Would Have Loved ‘Bridesmaids,’ Hated ‘The Help’

Brian Kellow says the famous New Yorker critic would have been a natural at blogging

Last Updated: November 10, 2011 @ 8:48 AM

Longtime New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael is once again stirring intense debate, thanks to a new biography by Brian Kellow.

Kael helped usher in a jazzier and deeply personal style of film criticism, but she was also known for her fierce rivalry with auteurists such as Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, and championing of such iconic films including "Bonnie and Clyde," which Kellow documents in the book.

“Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” also addresses Kael's more questionable behavior, including her use of UCLA professor Howard Suber's research for "Raising Kane," her famous essay on "Citizen Kane," without proper credit.

Also read: Howard Suber on Pauline Kael's Research Theft: 'It Felt Like Rape'

Kellow talked to TheWrap about Kael, how well suited she would be to blogging, and which of today's movies she would have liked.

Why do you think that Kael became so influential?
I think it has less to do with her criticism than where the movies were. She was so incredibly lucky. When she came to the New Yorker, movies were right in the center of the culture. Now, it’s television really. That's where most of the interesting things are being done.

Also read: Roger Ebert's 'Life Itself' Is Warm-Hearted, But What About the Movies?

Would she like the movies being made today?
She’d hate what the movies have become. It’s so hard to explain what going to movies was like back then. She was conscious of being at the vortex, and she was feeding her readers that feeling and allowing them to benefit from the electricity.

Are there any recent releases that she would like?
She might have liked “Bridesmaids,” because it has this wonderful life of its own. I don’t think it takes potshots at its characters, and she would have responded that.

She would have hated “The Help.” I think she would have felt it was condescending to all its characters. It’s a movie in which all the white women are nasty and the black women speak with the wisdom of the ages.

I would think that Kael would be remarkably well suited to new media. A lot of bloggers write about movies in the same personal way she did. Do you agree?
Well, it would be impossible. She didn’t have the faintest idea of how to turn on a computer, and she always wrote everything out by longhand.

In a sense though, she’d be a great blogger, because her voice had an immediacy and a swiftness that could have adapted to it.

What surprised you the most about Kael?
She had this streak of naivete, and that really came out when she accepted Warren Beatty’s offer to come to Hollywood in 1979. She persuaded herself that she could survive in a den of thieves, even though there was nothing in her background to prepare her for that.

She failed out there because she didn’t sit around like a good girl. She shot off her mouth. That’s not how you survive in Hollywood. You survive by not having an opinion.

Do you think her time in Hollywood working at Paramount corrupted her in any way?
I don’t think she was corrupted. I certainly can see why [New Yorker editor] William Shawn thought twice about hiring her back. There was definitely the appearance that she might have been corrupted, but she wasn’t in anybody’s pocket even when she was on the Paramount payroll.

Do you think that the harsh criticism of Kael was less about her being a tough critic, but also stemmed from the fact that she was a tough female critic?
That may be true. I do think there are probably still lots of people  who really do react badly to hearing a strong, sharp voice coming out of a woman.

But it also had to do with the way she was always testing and shaking people out of complacency of thought. They don’t want to be challenged to look more critically at violence on screen; they want to like their nice “Masterpiece Theater” movies. They don’t want to be told that civility isn’t synonymous with art.

You do a wonderful job of capturing what an exciting time for films the 1970s were, but Kael also worked through the 1980s. How did she deal with the shift in tastes?
I think she was surprised and somewhat shattered when the great period of the '70s petered out. After a decade that brought “The Godfather,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Last Tango in Paris,” she just thought the renaissance would go on and on, and she wanted to do do whatever she could to help it. The Reagan era made things a money culture, and that changed everything in the movies, but not for the better.

After all this time, have her opinions stood up?
I think she was quite rightly taken with [Francis Ford] Coppola’s earlier films, and as far as [Robert] Altman goes, she was absolutely correct in thinking that he was reinventing the way of telling a story. Some of the [Brian] De Palma films, like “The Fury,” that she raved about are a mess, though.

When I was growing up, she just spoke to me as no one else did. I’d still say that’s true. When you read Pauline's work, you just get such a powerful sense of who this woman was and what a personal relationship she had with films.