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.”