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Pauline Kael

From Academic Kids

Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 - September 3, 2001) was a well-known film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Kael was known for in-depth, exhaustive, deeply personal, sometimes impassioned movie reviews. Many considered her the most influential American film critic of her day.

Kael's opinions often did not coincide with those of other reviewers. From time to time, she energetically made a case for movies not universally admired, such as Last Tango in Paris. She also harshly criticized films that elsewhere attracted admiration, such as It's a Wonderful Life and West Side Story. The originality of her opinions, as well as the forceful and vivid way in which she expressed them, won her ardent supporters as well as angry critics.

Kael first came to fame in the 1950s, as the movie critic for Berkeley, California radio station KPFA. She published a number of freelance articles on movies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, she wrote a famously negative review of The Sound of Music, which allegedly resulted in her being fired from McCall's magazine (she referred to the movie as "The Sound of Mucus"). But it was in her stint at the New Yorker, a forum that permitted her to write at some length, that Kael achieved her greatest prominence as a critic.

Notable movie reviews by Kael included a venomous criticism of West Side Story that drew harsh replies from the movie's supporters; an ecstatic review of Last Tango in Paris that resulted in an enormous boost to that film's popularity; and enthusiastic reviews of Brian De Palma's early films. In general, Kael had a taste for movies that violate taboos involving sex and violence, a taste that disturbed many of her readers. She also had a strong distaste for films that appeal in superficial way to conventional attitudes and feelings.

Kael's first published collection of her movie writings, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), was a best-seller, and it led to a series of hardbound collections of her writings, all with (deliberately) suggestive titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When the Lights Go Down, Taking It All In, and others. Her fourth book, Deeper Into Movies (1973), was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award. 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982) collected her synopses of films that were previously published anonymously in the "Goings on About Town" section of The New Yorker.

Kael also wrote philosophical essays on moviegoing, the modern-day Hollywood film industry, the lack of courage on the part of audiences (as she perceived it) to explore lesser-known, more challenging movies (she never used the word "film" to describe movies because she felt the word was too elitist). Among her more popular essays were a damning review of Norman Mailer's semi-fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe that attacked Mailer himself as much as the book; an incisive look at Cary Grant's career, and an extensively researched look at Citizen Kane entitled "Raising Kane" (later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book). Her opinion that credit for Citizen Kane was deserving for the film's screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as much as for Orson Welles was seen in movie circles as blasphemous at the time, and it is still a topic for debate among film buffs today.

Kael battled the editors of the New Yorker as much as her own critics. In a 1998 interview for Modern Maturity magazine, she described an encounter with the New Yorker's editor, William Shawn. After Shawn read her review of Terrence Malick's movie Badlands, he said, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me." Kael's response was simply: "Tough shit, Bill."

In 1981 she accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to be a consultant to Paramount Pictures, but she left the position after only a few months.

Kael died of Parkinson's disease in her home in Massachusetts, in 2001.

Quotes

  • "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anybody who voted for him." (said following Richard Nixon's landslide defeat of Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election)

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