There is a danger in writing a biography of someone who is either still alive or who lived recently. You can either get a fawning piece of work that is a disservice to the readers because we end up with only the best of the subject and the author’s limp dismissals of the person’s faults and failings. Or we can get a hatchet job where the individual’s biographer has a clear vendetta and does everything in their power to tear down the subject. While this can happen in any biography, the passion of a supporter or the vitriol of a detractor seems particularly vivid for those subjects who are either still living or recently deceased.
Brian Kellow’s biography of film critic Pauline Kael suffers from being the work of, if not an acolyte, a devoted fan. While this devotion helps keep the story of Kael’s life moving, rarely getting bogged down, it also serves as the biography’s downfall as you finish the book with the distinct sense that Kael got a free pass from Kellow.
The story of how Pauline Kael rose to prominence as the lead film critic for The New Yorker for more than 20 years is impressive and Kellow does a superb job of explaining how Kael toiled in obscurity until she was in her 40s and 50s.
Yet, it is Kael’s actions towards her friends, lovers, and colleagues and Kellow’s disregard for patterns in her behavior that starts to pop up as the book explores her struggles after leaving college. Even when Kellow acknowledges Kael was mean-spirited and wrong, he writes it off as naivete on her part or justifies it in an explicable fashion.
Frustrated with the Bay Area, she and a friend pack up for New York City a few years after college. By the time they reach Manhattan, they are out of money until her friend runs into a pair of prominent musicians who take him in and initially help Kael. She falls out with the group after feeling like the fourth wheel and as her barbed comments rubbed the others the wrong way. Eventually, she returned to California where she ended up giving movie reviews on a local Bay Area radio-station after being overheard expounding on a film with friends while at a coffee shop. She then became involved in the Berkley Cinema Guild where she ended up writing blurbs for the movies she helped select and rose to even greater local prominence.
After a long unpaid stint at the local radio station, she made the jump to the printed word. Initially, she wrote for McCall’s and then The New Republic. But neither outlet was the right fit for Pauline Kael. McCall’s was trying to transition to a younger demographic and while Kael’s lively, feisty writing was well-received by younger readers, it went too far for the publication. The New Republic was no less of a success because their editors would change sentences and entire sections of her reviews without her permission. It was only at The New Yorker where she found the range and freedom to write what she wanted. Run by Wallace Shawn, The New Yorker rarely gave writers word limits and although they fought often, Shawn brought Kael on to help draw a new generation of readers.
By 1979, Kael had tired of splitting writing duties with Penelope Gilliat, the other movie critic at The New Yorker. It was then that she took Warren Beatty up on his offer to come out to Hollywood and help produce movies by having a say in scripts and casting. It went disastrously as her tendency to micro-manage and her inability to oversee underlings were major obstacles that she and the studio executives never overcame.
Pauline Kael was an exceptional movie critic. Her insight and range were impressive. But as a writer, Kael had her flaws and in his book, Kellow brushes these off as inconsequential. As her tenure at The New Yorker went on her reviews started to include bouts of hyperbole that the film or actor simply did not warrant. Her appreciation of good trashy films also led her astray to the point where she would approve of films that were just not that good.
Worse yet, Kael does not come off as a nice person. In particular, Kellow mentions how Pauline treated her only child, Gina. Kael’s daughter was home schooled by Pauline but was rarely an interest of hers. Kael relied on Gina to help her get her reviews finished, to get around since Pauline did not know how to drive, and serve as her assistant. Gina had no childhood or real life because of her mother’s pull. While Kellow mentions this throughout the biography, he consistently minimizes it.
Just as bad, throughout her personal and professional life, Kael treated her colleagues and, even friends, harshly without a second thought to their feelings or the impact it would have on their professional standing. Kellow tosses numerous examples of this behavior off as Kael being naive. Not only is this wrong, it comes off like a PR flak or fawning fan dismissing their client or idol’s missteps.
If there was any doubt as you were reading that Kellow is excusing much of Kael’s personality, he closes the book with a conversation she had with a friend in 1971. Her friend was overwhelmed by the fact that Nixon had just been named Time’s Man of the Year and that her son had been deployed to Vietnam. In the conversation, Kael paused, and and said, “And to think, there’s not even a decent movie to see.” Kellow wants us to take this as a sign of Kael’s unwavering energy. And maybe he is right, in that it is an energy for films, but it also shows a distinct lack of consideration for others.
If it were just her personality and run-ins with friends and other critics that Kellow was white-washing here, it would be less problematic. But it also extends to a professional episode that speaks poorly of Kael’s ethics. While it receives a whole chapter, Kellow lets her off the hook for her wrong-doing. Kael was working on a long-form piece on Orson Welles and the making of Citizen Kane. She found out that Howard Suber, a film professor at UCLA, had already done much of the same type of research and written about the film. She convinced Suber to team up with her on the article. Despite his mention of signing a contract, Kael repeatedly told him he had nothing to worry about.
We all know how this story ends. Kael’s article gets published, with no attribution to Suber, and she lifted some of his ideas and sentences. Kellow fails to take Kael to task for this intellectual theft. Yet, later on in the book, he takes one of Kael’s New Yorker colleagues to task for their plagiarism run-in.
In my title for this post, I ask if Pauline Kael was an early hipster. I pose this question because throughout the book she disliked most mainstream hits like the Sound of Music. Even more hipster of her, she touted new, up-and-coming actors, directors, and screenwriters and after they started to find acclaim and become stars, she soured on them.
Kael saw and reviewed some of the great movies of the 1960s and 1970s. Kellow adeptly integrates these films and Kael’s reviews into the book. He brings the characters on the silver screen and the characters around Pauline to life. It is just a shame that in his sketching of Pauline, he is more of a fan than historian.