Despite her fame or reputation, little was known about Pauline Kael the person. Now, former Oregonian Brian Kellow has been rectified that situation with a new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking). Mr. Kellow throws a great deal of light on the famous critic's heretofore mysterious ways. Some highlights:
• Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, but was raised in San Francisco and became a coffee house bohemian, philosophy student, aspiring playwright, and something of a fag hag.
• Her main relationships were with the poet Robert Duncan (gay); critic Robert Horan (gay); the poet Weldon Kees; experimental filmmaker James Broughton (bisexual), with whom she had a daughter, Gina; and Ed Landberg, operator of an arthouse theater which Kael more or less took over and turned into a platform for her early reviews, in the form of program notes.
• In the early 1940s, Kael and Horan trekked to Manhattan, where they attempted to break into the arts. On their first day there, however, Horan was picked up by a couple outside Saks, who turned out to be the composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Horan moved in with them that night, leaving Kael to fend for herself. She fled back to 'Frisco four years later.
• The impecunious Kael married Landberg, which allowed Kael to get necessary heart surgery for her daughter. The marriage lasted a year, or until Landberg discovered that "I couldn't stand that woman."
• Kael started at the New Yorker in 1967. There, she liked to torment the straight-laced editor, William Shawn, whom everyone else deferred to as "Mr. Shawn." Shawn cultivated the magazine's image, while Kael attempted to insert randy, salacious, and suggestive allusions into her copy along with her dismissive appraisals. When Shawn told her that Terrence Malick, the subject of her negative review on Badlands, was like a son to him, she told her boss, "Tough shit, Bill."
• For several years, Kael alternated at the New Yorker with author and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt. The British writer had a problem with facts, booze, and plagiarism, and once arrived so late for a press screening that it started without her. When the movie was over, the other reviewers found her drunk at the back of the theater, blocking the door.
• Kael herself was a heavy drinker, with cigarettes frequently dangling from the corner of her mouth at half-mast. She favored Wild Turkey, which she often carried in a hip flask.
• Though Kael appears to have been "through with men" after her second foray to New York, she cultivated many close male friendships. Among them were Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott and roué filmmaker James Toback. Both were, for a time, her constant companions at critics' screenings, a status that she didn't disclose when reviewing Toback's directorial debut, Fingers. Kael was also (undisclosed) pals with Sam Peckinpah, Stephen Frears, and Robert Altman, whose Nashville she reviewed before the film was finished. In print, she would also turn on these directors' films if they disappointed her.
• Kael may have had a toxic effect on many. At a social gathering in 1970, Kael so berated director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) that he didn't make another movie for 14 years. Kael served on a Cannes film festival jury with Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) in 1977, and so exasperated the esteemed director that some attributed his death a few months later to the stress she caused him.
• Kael's most famous essay is a long consideration of Citizen Kane. Kellow reveals that Kael based the essay on the exhaustive research of a UCLA adjunct named Howard Suder, which Kael "bought" for a small fee and with the promise that the work would appear in a jointly written book under both their names. He was surprised to see the material pop up in a two-part New Yorker article in 1971, where some of the revelations offended interview subjects whom Suder had spent years cultivating. Suder felt he couldn't complain because the chair of the UCLA film department was an old friend of Kael's.
• The most bizarre aspect of Kael's life is her smothering relationship with her daughter Gina, which sounds like something out of a Tennessee Williams play: Kael press-ganged Gina, even as a girl, into the roles of chauffeur, amanuensis, typist, and other duties, while discouraging her interests in dancing and later painting. Gina broke free long enough to marry, but the union was brief, and she returned to slavery under her mother's lash until Kael's death in 2001.
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