The life and work of the most influential movie critic of our time

Near the end of her life, the great film critic Pauline Kael was asked by a journalist why she never wrote her autobiography.

The critic replied that she believed she already had done that in the form of the 13 books that preserved her highly personal reviews of movies that spanned a half-century.

Kael had a way of bringing into movie reviews her other interests and her observations of what was going on in the culture around the movie world.

Of course, she had the good fortune to be writing about movies during an exciting era when they were changing because of what was happening in America and elsewhere.

Kael was hired by The New Yorker for a full-time position after the magazine published a long 1967 piece by her on the revolutionary impact of “Bonnie & Clyde” on American film and on movie audiences. She then spent the next 25 years happily letting readers know about such landmark films of that period as “Mean Streets,” the two “Godfather” films, “Nashville” and many more.

At the end of this month Viking will publish a fine biography — “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” — that demonstrates how Kael focused on film and writing about it for much of her life. The romances, giving birth to a daughter, the forays into other areas of writing all took place before she rose to her all-powerful position.

Kellow writes from the point of view of an admirer of Kael’s — like many of us, he came under the spell of one of her review collections when he was a movie-mad teen and then followed her week-by-week for the rest of her tenure at The New Yorker.

The book explores some of the critic’s eccentricities — she would never see a film more than once — and some problematic ethical areas (she became very close to filmmakers but did not disclose that fact in both positive and negative reviews).

Kellow also introduces us to the “Paulettes,” young critics Kael brought into her orbit and then perhaps exerted too much influence over. The Kael clan included some now-prominent figures, such as David Denby, David Edelstein, Carrie Rickey and James Wolcott.

Kael got a bitter taste of her own medicine — in terms of her stinging notices of filmmaker/friends like Paul Schrader and James Toback — when her protege Wolcott turned on her with a scathing piece on the Paulettes in Vanity Fair.

The squabbles between Kael and her peers might generate some controversy when the biography appears, but that is only a minor element in a smart journey through the life and writing of the finest film critic this country has ever produced. The publication of the biography will coincide with a new volume from the Library of America that will collect some of Kael’s best work.

Joe Meyers