Brian Kellow's biography does justice to Pauline's Kael's exhilarating gift for writing on the movies.
Ten years after her death and 20 years after she retired from film reviewing, we finally have the first biography of Pauline Kael. I've rhapsodised (perhaps too many times) in these very columns over Kael's film writing; so I'm going to skip all that and just report on the juicy bits on her life and work from A Life in the Dark. I was shocked to learn from Brian Kellow's finely balanced biography that Kael filched material from a film scholar and never acknowledged him.
“Citizen Kane” controversy
The controversy was over her Raising Kane book, an acclaimed, in-depth study of “Citizen Kane” that claimed its screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, and not Orson Welles, was its true auteur. Kael had a contract to write a book on “Citizen Kane” and she wanted to pursue this argument. She heard of a young film professor in LA called Howard Suber who had done intensive studies of the screenplay, and even had access to the original draft which few had ever seen. Kael met with him and suggested they collaborate on the book, each writing an essay, and offered him half the advance ($375) her publishers had given her.
Suber was thrilled to be working with America's most widely read critic and turned over all his research material to her. Using the screenplay drafts and interviews Suber had conducted with Mankiewicz's widow and some supporting actors from Kane, Kael became obsessed with arguing that the film's vision, its dominant creative force was the screenwriter and not its director Orson Welles. Suber didn't hear anything from Kael for several months on how the project was going, and his wife began to feel he was being taken advantage of; that he should have asked for a contract. Suber replied: “Why would the biggest film critic in America need to screw some little assistant professor at UCLA?”
On the phone Kael assured Suber all was well, and that she was coming to LA to give her annual film lecture. Suber picked her up at the airport. On the way to a party thrown in her honour, the film professor asked her his favourite Kane question: How do the other characters in the film know Kane's dying word was ‘Rosebud'? The characters overhear it, she replies. But none of them are present when he's dying, he reminds her. Pauline didn't say anything for a while and when they stopped at a traffic light on Sunset Boulevard, she simply said, “Well, it's a trivial point.”
A year later, Kellow goes on to tell us, when Suber was routinely picking up his copy of the New Yorker from his mailbox, he sees a lengthy article by Kael on Citizen Kane based extensively on his research and interviews, but without crediting him anywhere in the article. Neither was his name mentioned, and at one point, Kael claims to have discovered that no one hears Kane whisper Rosebud.
Suber was crushed but didn't go public about the plagiarism, only sharing it with a few friends. (Only now with the publication of this biography has Suber broken his silence, saying how painful it still is). Letters poured into the New Yorker, some praising the piece, others rubbishing the case Kael had built up against Welles. Andrew Sarris attacked her but the most sustained, point by point defence of Welles came from Peter Bogdanovich, who “listed several factual errors in Kael's research and thinking”. Kellow's own research turns up many interesting responses in the aftermath: one of them is Woody Allen remembering lunching with her soon after the Bogdanovich take-down and Kael turning to Allen and saying “in a shocked whisper, “How will I ever answer him? And he said, “Don't” And she did not”.
Another amusing little revelation from Kellow's biography is a Satyajit Ray story. We all know how much she admired Ray's films, but what we didn't know is that she had Ray and his wife, Bijoya, over for dinner one day. Kellow tells us that Pauline found her to be “extremely bright and poised”. But she noted that when Ray began to speak, Bijoya became silently adoring. At one point in their conversation, Pauline “mildly challenged one of Ray's opinions about a movie. The director froze, and his wife gave Pauline a look to indicate that she had deeply offended the great man.”
All the sections in the biography dealing with the ‘Paulettes' (what her inner circle of critic protégés were dubbed) are fascinating: young critics who fell under her spell and whom she closely monitored, approving or disapproving of what they wrote. David Denby, the current New Yorker film critic and James Walcott, Vanity Fair columnist, get knocked around the hardest.
She told Denby he wouldn't make a good film critic, and once after reading something he had written, told him: “It's shit, honey…and if you don't make it better I'll stick pins in you.” Disagreeing with her, Denby distanced himself from her. She admired Walcott's style and championed him, and she was shocked when one of his columns was a snarky piece on the Paulettes, saying they had wasted their talents by imitating her. Kellow reports that critic and Paulette Charles Taylor said, “He's a careerist creep. I think Walcott simply decides what is going to advance him and takes the pose. I read that piece, and that piece hurt Pauline”. Walcott admits he had gone too far: “I think that piece was overkill. I feel really bad about it”.
Apart from Andrew Sarris, critic John Simon was her other nemesis. Kellow reveals that at a lecture Kael was delivering at the Lincoln Centre, Simon sitting in the audience said quite loudly when she was introduced as the author of I Lost It at the Movies, “What she lost was her taste”. Spotting her at a film critics preview movie screening of a particularly trashy movie, Simon called out, “Pauline! Of course, you come to all the finest pictures”. To which, observes Kellow, she gave him the finger.
Well, there's plenty more (such as an analysis of the famous Renata Adler NYRB takedown of Kael) where all this comes from, so not only will you not be disappointed with Kellow's intrepid research, you'll also be rewarded by his rich, close reading of her reviews (and the stories behind the writing of them) that does marvellous justice to Pauline's Kael's exhilarating gift for writing on the movies. Both, her admirers and her detractors could not have asked for a more satisfying biography.