A Week to Remember: Pauline Kael

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of books by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael was born on June 19, 1919. For almost forty years, she was one of our most important film critics. Her writing was opinionated and witty, and she was noted for her willingness – her critics might have said "eagerness" – to disagree with the critical consensus.

Kael began writing movie reviews in the mid-1950s after the editor of the magazine City Lights overheard her arguing about movies with a friend. She spent a decade writing for a variety of magazines and newspapers, and published her first book of collected reviews, I Lost It at the Movies (print) in 1965.

It took a while for Kael to find a steady home for her writing. She spent about a year as the film critic for McCall's, but after several harsh reviews of popular movies, she was fired. She struggled even more during a year at The New Republic, where the editors severely altered her writing without consultation and refused to publish a long review of Bonnie and Clyde. She thought the movie was brilliant, which was not a widely held opinion at the time. That review was eventually published in The New Yorker, which hired Kael in 1968. For several years, she shared the job with another writer, becoming the magazine's sole film critic in 1980 until her retirement in 1991.

Kael's reviews were filled with sharply critical comments, and she rejected the idea that any critic could judge a film in a perfectly objective manner. The critic's own life and experience are bound to influence how she sees a movie, Kael believed, and in her reviews, she talked about her life and the background that led to her opinions. So much of Kael crept into her criticism that in the introduction to her final collection of reviews, 1994's For Keeps (print), she wrote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have."

When Kael began writing, film criticism was largely dominated by the auteur theory – the idea that the director is the author of a movie, and that a director's collected body of work can (and should) be evaluated as a whole. Kael believed that the director was merely one of several collaborators; his role was an important one, certainly, but too many people contribute to the making of a movie for any one of them to be viewed as its sole creator. She expressed that view most fully in her 1971 essay "Raising Kane," in which she argued that the credit for Citizen Kane belonged not solely to writer-director Orson Welles, but to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland as well. That essay is included in The Citizen Kane Book (print).

Kael had an enormous influence on the generation of critics who followed her. Several of today's most respected critics have acknowledged her impact on their own writing, including David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, David Denby, and Stephanie Zacharek. At the end of her career, Kael's detractors referred to those critics as "the Paulettes," and scolded them for adhering too closely to her views, for fear of offending their mentor. Kael said she thought the younger critics might be imitating her style, but she didn't think they were taking their opinions from her.

Kael's reviews were collected in book form every two or three years during her career. The 1973 collection Deeper Into Movies (print) received the National Book Award. The collection The Age of Movies (e-book | print) collects the best reviews from those volumes. For quicker looks at a broader range of titles, Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies (e-book | print) is a reference guide to film history, offering brief reviews, some only a sentence or two long.

In Talking About Pauline Kael (e-book), Wayne Stengel gathers remembrances of Kael's work from several critics and filmmakers. The last interview Kael gave before her death in 2001 was published as Aftergloow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael (print). Kael is one of the influential women writers featured in Michelle Dean's Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (e-book | e-audio | print). And Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael (e-book | print) is the first comprehensive biography of the critic.

Also This Week

June 19, 1826

Charles Loring Brace was born. Brace was a philanthropist and social reformer who founded the Children's Aid Society, which still provides social services to children in New York City. Brace's best-known project with the Society came to be known as "orphan trains," which sent children who were orphaned or homeless to live with families in New England and the Midwest. The program ran between 1854 and 1929, dying out as Midwestern cities grew large enough to have their own homeless populations to deal with, and states began establishing their own foster care programs. Stephen O'Connor's Orphan Trains (e-book | print) tells the story of Brace's program, exploring its successes, controversies, and failures.

June 23, 1868.

A device called a "Type-Writer" was patented by a group of inventors, headed by Christopher Latham Sholes. The Sholes typewriter was not the first such device, but it was the most successful and the most similar to the familiar modern typewriter. Sholes went on to create the QWERTY keyboard layout, originally designed to separate commonly used pairs of letters and prevent keys from jamming. Today, the typewriter is a slowly dying object, replaced by the computer. The documentary California Typewriter (streaming | DVD) looks at the history of the typewriter and some of those who still love it, including Tom Hanks, John Mayer, and David McCullough.

June 22, 1921

Joe Papp was born. Papp was a theatrical producer who founded two important institutions. Since 1957, Shakespeare in the Park has produced free productions of Shakespeare and other classic plays in Central Park. In 1967, Papp founded the Public Theater, devoted to fostering new plays and playwrights. Several important plays began their lives at the Public Theater, including the musical A Chorus Line, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, and Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. Kenneth Turan interviewed more than 150 actors, playwrights, and directors for Free For All (e-book | print), an oral history of Papp's work with Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater.

June 19, 1978

Zoe Saldana was born. Saldana made her film debut in 2000, playing an aspiring young dancer in Center Stage. She has played a wide range of roles but is perhaps best known for her appearances in several science fiction franchises – Star Trek, Avatar, and Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2016, she played her largest starring role to date, as singer Nina Simone in the biography Nina (streaming | DVD).