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 she held screenwriters, producers, actors, and viewers alike 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 was adept at writing both conversationally and critically about films, similar to the way people really talk about them upon leaving the theater. She 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 provided 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. She was known for frequently using rather abstract or subjective words to describe films— such as, “whorey,” “mythic,” and “trashy,”—but always offered concrete examples from the movie to contextualize her assertions.
For example, in her review of My Left Foot, Kael clearly paints and recounts a scene between a son and his dying father before declaring it “mythic.” By showing the scene before telling about it, Kael allows readers to draw their own conclusions before offering her opinion.
Yet Kael’s professional successes do not escape critique. Her stubbornness sometimes got her in trouble, such as when she refused 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 is also irksome. She tended to give priority to such movies and sequences, even when they did not necessarily merit the attention.
Kael is not afraid of being wrong or of addressing issues that make readers uncomfortable, however. As writer Ken Tucker says in his essay, “A Gift for Effrontery,” this sort of critical independence is increasingly rare and is really what makes Pauline Kael sound like Pauline Kael.