Robert Redford puts another nail in Pauline Kael’s coffin

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A great writer, but not such a great person.

That’s the picture that has been slowly developing since film critic Pauline Kael died in 2001.

A glance at any of Kael’s published collections will reveal great style and insight and you will see why she inspired young filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, among them) as well as countless critics and journalists.

During her lifetime, few questioned Kael’s position as the best and most powerful critic in the history of American film — she was able to spur a reassessment of “Bonnie & Clyde” in 1967, guarantee a prestigious theatrical release of “Last Tango in Paris” and prevent any studio cuts being made in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” in 1975.

But since her death, film figures who were perhaps afraid to challenge Kael while she was alive have been sharing terrible stories with historians, biographers and magazine writers.

Brian Kellow’s book “A Life in the Dark” was written from a position of respect but included anecdotes that demonstrated shocking conflicts of interest on the critic’s part, including not disclosing personal and business relationships she had with people whose films she reviewed negatively.

The biography also examined instances in which Kael refused to correct mistakes she made about technical aspects of certain films, and then seemed to hold grudges against the directors who contacted her about the errors.

Kael was famous for seeing movies only once and never revising her opinions of them, but it was appalling for her to punish directors who tried to correct her mistakes.

The new Esquire contains one of the most shocking anti-Kael anecdotes in the cover story on Robert Redford, who was the target of some of the critic’s most blistering pans.

Redford suggests to writer Scott Raab that there was a personal animus involved in Kael’s attacks on pictures as diverse as “Three Days of the Condor” and “Ordinary People.”

The film star and director tells Raab that after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” came out he ran into Kael in a Santa Monica restaurant where, “She grab(bed) both my hands and (said), ‘I’m Pauline Kael. You must hate me. But you have to understand something. You let me down.’”

“There was so much nervous tension coming at me, I couldn’t put this thing together — I thought it was a gag. My first thought was (Paul) Newman’s paid somebody a fiver to come out and pretend to be Pauline Kael. But then when she said ‘You let me down,’ I was confused. She said, ‘I’m here for the stupid Academy Awards — if you’d like to talk, I’d be happy to see you.’ I was so thrown that I said, ‘Let me call you.’”

“I realized it really was her, and then I saw it all. That’s where a critic goes over the line — they want to own you. They want to dictate your path. I called and she said, ‘Are you going to come by for a drink?’”

“I said, ‘I don’t think it would be appropriate. I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t think I should.’ And then she really got pissed. Everything I did from then on, she just tore into me.”

Joe Meyers

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22 Responses

  1. M says:

    As Kogan said in the Roger Ebert doc “Life Itself,” “F Pauline Kael.”

  2. Matthew says:

    Pauline Kael should have been taken out into the street and shot for her “sexless pixie” comments about David Tomlinson’s character of Mr. Browne in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” Homophobic much?

  3. Allison says:

    I have never understood the hero-worship around Pauline Kael. She had the same self-important air of a Harold Bloom or a John Simon (minus the juvenile nastiness), she thought that she and her opinions were SO important.

    Granted, I don’t care for critics in general but there are ones out there who are hell of a lot better at what they do than she was. Frank Rich, for instance, was at least fair and went into everything he saw with an open mind. And even Armond White has a sense of humor about himself.

  4. Francis Ex. says:

    Pauline Kael was no saint (none of us are) but her accomplishments as a
    writer and social observer as film critic was, and remains unmatched. She taught me to clear the deck and react to what I was actually seeing and feeling and not what I was told to feel. Reading her columns in “New Yorker” magazine as they came out and collecting and reading her books for me was pure bliss and often challenging. I may not have understood or knew of the opera or painting or piece of classical music she would use to flesh out her thoughts but I always understood her meaning in the overall context. She was determined to be understood and I found it exciting and challenging (and she often made me laugh out loud). As for Redford’s story, it’s probably true but for him to feel that she intentionally panned anything and everything he did thereafter,is a little too easy and self-serving. Did you ever hear anyone say what a “great” actor Redford was? No, his “dream-boat” star charisma and blondness is what was most often sited.

  5. Bruce H. says:

    I happened upon a book of her reviews from the early-mid 1970s in a used bookstore for a dollar and thought what the hell, I’ll give her a shot….what a writer! The way she tied her feelings about the film to the culture and cinema history and even her own life were magnificent. She really explored what the movie was trying to say (assuming she gave it more than a cursory paragraph or two write-off, which she did too often) and took it seriously as a work of art. She also wrote a brilliant essay on how bombast and action was overtaking character and dialogue in the new films…and this in 1975! Imagine what she’d think of movies today. So, okay, maybe she wasn’t a nice person. Maybe lots of dead writers and actors and painters etc. weren’t nice people, either. It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the work. She was great.

  6. Julia Glaser says:

    Whether one agrees or disagrees with a film critic’s review is quite irrelevant. Pauline Kael was special in the WAY she presented her reviews and commentary, as well as her insight into the inner-workings/structure of film. I personally love David Lean’s films, a director she often panned, but her reviews gave a different, often illuminating, perspective into his film that was always insightful. I don’t think she slammed or praised a film because of anything other then how she genuinely FELT about it while watching, which is what separates her from the rest. Her writing ability and film insight is very inspirational for aspiring writers such as myself.

  7. Alan G. says:

    The whole idea that anyone is putting a “nail in her coffin” is sad, and 180-degrees from the truth. In her day, she had the respect of most everyone, whether or not they liked her. She was honest, and followed her gut. And then used her expansive brain to explain the hows and whys of whether or not a movie worked. She was an artist in her own right.

  8. Joe Meyers says:

    Thanks for the comment Brooks. If what you say is true, it’s interesting that Brian Kellow left that anecdote out of his Pauline Kael biography – it would have added fuel to his fire.

  9. Brooks says:

    Hate to be late to the party (I was Googling something else today and wound up here), but the Redford story with its supposed coffin nail effect is a bit overblown, if only because he told this story years and years ago, when Kael was alive and writing for the New Yorker.

  10. Tom says:

    I agree that Ms. Kael or General Kael as I like to call her, was an entertaining writer. However, when it comes to the substance of her work, it is really quite shallow. Also for the aforementioned reasons, she, in my eyes and in many others, was little more than a pretentious,overgrown infant with chronic episodes of temper tantrums. I have never taken her seriously and I hold her in the same unfavorable light as I do Armond White or Rex Reed.

  11. WHO CARES? says:

    WHO CARES ?!!!!!!!! The movies are there. Watch or don’t watch them. That’s your time and money you spend and it is your own judgement that counts. Do you need someone to tell you what to do? Do you need someone to tell you how to eat and dress and what kind of music you should listen to? If you do then you may as well watch the grass grow. You can get a cow to write you a stellar review.

  12. Steve says:

    Pauline Kael was and remains the greatest American movie critic. She understood why people REALLY go to the movies, and her slangy, jazzy writing made mincemeat of the prevalent critical modes of the time–dry/academic (Stankey Kauffmsn) and condescending/bitchy (John Simon). Today their writing looks anemic next to hers. She had biases and favorites, no doubt, but what critic doesn’t? Because of her, young, talented directors got noticed and the powerful and overrated ones (Redford, Eastwood) got taken down a little. The portrait of her as some kind of manipulative tyrant does not bear serious scrutiny.

  13. angora says:

    I can’t quite see where the nail in the coffin is in all this. Pauline Kael’s criticism is irrelevant because….she had a big ego and wasn’t a nice person?

  14. Ed says:

    “Last Tango In Paris” is utter garbage, perhaps the most overrated film in the history of film. Kael’s role in perpetrating this hoax on a gullible public should never be forgiven or forgotten. Kael hasn’t a shred of credibility now, and only a few perceptive film critics ever called her out during her lifetime. Kael is the human version of abstract expressionism — ugly, random blotches of paint pretending to be art — aided and abetted by co-conspirators in a fraud that is still going strong today.

  15. Jay Kindervater says:

    Pauline Kael was better as a critic than Robert Redford has been as an actor/director.

  16. Shakka says:

    Pauline was a very petty person, mentally and physically (midget).

  17. Jonathan Becker says:

    pauline kael deserves to be defended. i never met her. i don’t know what she was like as a person. when i was a teenager, i read her reviews. (back then i would fantasize about being a film critc myself and getting MY reviews published.) i got the idea that kael was genuinely sincere. that almost always (or always, without the almost) she called things as she saw them. if she liked a film, she would rave about it. if she hated it, she would pan it. if her feelings were somewhat in the middle, she was write a nuanced review detailing the way she felt. i didn’t know about her personal or business relationships with people in the film industry, but at this point in time it doesn’t matter. at least not to me.
    perhaps there were times when she would get carried away and was too hard on a particular film. at other times, it might go the other way. she wrote an effusive review of brian de palma’s film “dressed to kill.” after reading this review, i felt i just had to see the movie. when i finally got around to seeing it, “dressed to kill” turned out to be one of the most disturbing, distasteful films i have ever seen. kael painted the picture as some kind of amusing, nuanced art film. it turned out to be a veritable monstrosity. (at least for me.) but kael’s opinion was her opinion. and even when i disagreed with her opinion, i had to admit that she expressed herself very well. (her review of “dressed to kill” was much more entertaining than the film itself.) all in all, pauline kael deserves to be remembered as one of the best film critics of her generation. she was right up there with vincent canby or anyone else who was writing at the time.

  18. S says:

    She was a bitch for what she said about the movie Now Voyager. Her reviews should be torn up and removed from publication. Useless bitch.

  19. I don’t pay attention to critics. Most times, I enjoy the films they pan as do many movie goers. Whether it be ego or their true feelings you can never tell.

  20. Rosemary says:

    …doesn’t seem to have held him back.

  21. Ajax says:

    As a customer(I balk at “fan”) for all the great entertainment we have access to in this country, I could never understand the reverence people had for her. It seems now at least part of it was fear. I could never justify some of her reviews with the movies that I saw. It was if we both watched two completely different films. It is a pity that her talent was so apparently clouded by her desires rather than her emotions.