Love letters

Pauline Kael's For Keeps is a diary of a strange and passionate affair with movies

Like Martin Scorsese, she has often admitted to feeling more alive and ecstatic in movie houses than houses of worship. She worked as a cook, a seamstress, even a nanny, then drifted to San Francisco, where she worked a variety of odd jobs. She didn't really edge into film criticism until her 40s, penning program notes and reviews for obscure publications and delivering pointed assessments of hot new movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini on local radio.

At the time, both movies and movie criticism were dominated by the eastern press and ad agencies and the western-based studios; yet she managed to win dollops of national ink by publicly questioning, sometimes even skewering, the opinions of older and more established critics. (She latched onto the elder statesman of mainstream American film reviewing, fuddy-duddy New York Times writer Bosley Crowther, like a hammerhead shark onto flank steak, and never let go.) She was soon acclaimed as a rising star in arts criticism--a formidable historian and thinker who could dish out jagged one-liners like a comic polishing off a tanked-up heckler.

In a 1963 radio broadcast, she even stuck it to readers who showered her with anonymous letters claiming she was coldhearted, antipopulist, and worst of all, cruel to young and sensitive artists. Reproduced in For Keeps, it's a small masterpiece of bitter sarcasm that ranks with H.L. Mencken at his most miffed; in it, Kael settles scores of scores, reserving special contempt for those who implied that because she held strong opinions and expressed them with vigor in public, she was unfeminine. "It was bad enough for women who had brains to be considered freaks like talking dogs," she declared. "Now it's leeringly assumed that they're trying to grow a penis--which any man will tell you is an accomplishment that puts canine conversation in the shadows." And she testily punctured the myth that those who can't do, critique. "My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it so easy to be a critic, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets."

She wrote for a succession of national magazines before finding a permanent home in 1968 at The New Yorker. Her first piece was a mammoth analysis of the rabble-rousing gangster fable Bonnie and Clyde, which was blasted for its supposed glorification of criminals and its use of graphic violence. Her assessment was so persuasive that the critic for Newsweek, who originally panned the film, wrote a new piece retracting his opinion.

Through the next 25 years, she penned some of the most widely discussed (and sometimes reviled) arts criticism this country has ever seen. She favored American movies over foreign films (although not to the extent that some of her detractors like to claim), and she gleefully overpraised films by new talents she liked and tore the flesh of established Hollywood icons she believed had worn out their welcome. (She expressed contempt for the aging Western heroics of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, "grinning with their big new choppers, sucking their guts up into their chests, and hauling themselves onto horses.") She was ruthlessly tough on ambitious, expensive movies that had pretensions to classic status.

And the people she wrote about took notice. Noting in the early '80s that Clint Eastwood had suddenly taken to buying ads in The New York Review of Books and making movies that poked fun at his macho image, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman attributed this change of approach to the rugged superstar's "fear of Pauline Kael." Producer George Lucas, whose films from Star Wars on had been razzed by the spunky New Yorker critic for their junkiness, rotten dialogue, and merchandising greed, named a villain in his movie Willow "General Kael."

And she had a weakness for well-executed popcorn nonsense--for the simple reason that at least the folks who make popcorn movies usually have a pretty strong idea of what they want to do and how they intend to do it. "Who at some point hasn't set out dutifully for that fine foreign film and then ducked into the nearest piece of American trash?" she wrote in 1969, echoing sentiments that are still felt today. "The industry now is taking a neo-Victorian tone, priding itself on its few 'good, clean' movies...The lowest action trash is preferable to wholesome family entertainment. When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable."

You could chart her emotional condition and her remarkably fluid artistic tastes (a trait for which she never apologized) simply by reading her from week to week. "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs," Kael notes in her introduction. "I think I have."

For Keeps has generally been greeted with surprise and delight and unconditional hugs, like a visit from a beloved and dotty grandparent. And when the 75-year-old critic began taking phone calls and visits again at her home in Massachusetts to promote the 1,300-page tome, critics and scholars and film buffs and even entertainment-industry bigwigs began talking again about how much they missed her distinctive voice. (In a recent Dallas Morning News interview, Warren Beatty confessed that he called Kael at home from time to time to hear what she thought of recent films.)

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