Pauline Kael rarely saw a movie twice. She disliked American icon Charlie Chaplin, deemed award-winning director Steven Spielberg a waste of potential, and once scoffed that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.”
Yet The New Yorker’s former chief film critic had unabashed voice, taste, and dedication to her medium and to her readers, which shone through in her work during her 23 years on the magazine’s staff (1968 – 1991). Her love for movies meant she asked a lot from them and held screenwriters, producers, actors, and viewers alike up to high standards. Through unapologetic reviews and a willingness to speak her mind, Kael redefined film criticism of the 20th century and set the bar for the modern-day industry.
One of Kael’s most distinctive and controversial features in her reviews was her voice. Snarky and urgent, unrestrained and authoritative, Kael had the power to make or break opening weekend box office sales. She was adept at writing both conversationally and critically about films, similar to the way people really talk about them upon leaving the theater, writer Francis Davis explains in his book, Afterglow. Kael never forgot that her readers were real people and real movie lovers who wanted to know if a film was worth their time and money.
“Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes,” she wrote in 1977 of the film. “It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus.” Kael was a collected voice of reason among the excited screams of fans calling Star Wars the film of the year.
Her linguistic mannerisms, quirks, and devices earned her credibility and a reputation among her readers. Kael’s frequent use of about nine favorite words—which included mild variations of “whorey,” “mythic,” and “trashy,” points out Renata Adler in her essay “House Critic”— made for easy comparisons between reviews. Readers moved fluidly from one piece to the next, toting Kael’s vivid vocabulary in tow.
Yet Kael’s professional successes do not escape critique. Adler is keen to point out the critic’s flops, including Kael’s refusal to acknowledge her factually false representation of the outdoor sequence in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Her affinity for particularly gory and violent films, as well as for movies with hot sex or bizarre alien scenes has also been a topic of disfavor.