Kiss Kiss, Gang Bang: Pauline Kael, Deep Throat and The New Yorker

By late 1972, Deep Throat had become so mainstream that a joke about the movie even found its way into the act of show business dinosaur Bob Hope: “I thought [Deep Throat] was about giraffes.” Eager to see what the fuss was about but wary of going alone to a toilet bowl theater, Kael asked writer Charles Simmons to accompany her. (There’s a thinly fictionalized account of their adventure in his novel Wrinkles.) What did she make of it? She spoke to Francis Davis in 2001: “I didn’t think it was good, but I very badly wanted to write about it … I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that … was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.” But shirk it she’d have to. With Deep Throat, the irresistible force of Kael had met the immovable object of Shawn and something had to give. In this instance, she did. The review never appeared.

Or did it? Critic Armond White has suggested that Kael’s review of Deep Throat was buried inside her review of Last Tango in Paris, released in the same year and every bit as interested in the libidinal. “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” she wrote rapturously in the Oct. 28, 1972, issue. “Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence. The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters’ drives … Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” Deeply buried, maybe, but it’s there.

Backed into a corner by the hidebound sensibility of The New Yorker’s editors, Kael, it seems, did what Hollywood writers had done decades before under the righteous gaze of the Hayes Office: she got devious, sneaky, found a way to say what she wanted to say without saying it. It was a long and illustrious tradition she was joining. When Bogart told Bacall in 1946’s The Big Sleep that she had “a touch of class” but that he didn’t know how far she could go, and she responded with, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle,” everybody in the theater over 12 understood it wasn’t horses they were talking about.

editorial@observer.com