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

104715294 Kiss Kiss, Gang Bang: Pauline Kael, Deep Throat and The New Yorker

Linda Lovelace.

In 1972, Gerard Damiano was a 43-year-old hairdresser from the Bronx with a cheap toupee and an opulent dream: to become the first auteur of hardcore. Over a single weekend, he wrote a script centering on the erotic act Humbert Humbert referred to as “a fancy embrace,” convinced local mobsters to kick in a couple bucks and started shooting. The 61-minute movie that resulted might not have had Godard shaking in his pantaloons but it did have a few things going for it: a cute title, an even cuter gimmick, and a leading lady who wasn’t the usual sex-kitten-cum-hell-cat triple-X vixen but a fresh-faced young moppet with an alliterative name and the most muted gag reflex this side of Barnum & Bailey.

Damiano’s decision to trade in blow dryers for blow jobs proved an inspired one. His film, Deep Throat, turned into a national phenomenon, grossing over $600 million and kicking off the era known as porno chic, upwardly-mobile, squeaky-clean types getting down and very, very dirty. How then did it happen that the critic who lost it at the movies failed to pick up the scent of the movie that taught America there was more than one orifice to lose it in? The answer is, she didn’t. Pauline Kael’s nose was too keen, Deep Throat’s musk too potent for their encounter to be other than inevitable. No, the two had locked gazes across a crowded room, were circling each other, about to connect, when an outside party intervened, bringing the seduction to a halt. Bliss denied by The New Yorker magazine.

As a writer, Kael was hot stuff and she knew it. Whatever the female equivalent of macho is, she had it. There was a swagger to her prose, a style and a strut, a sex confidence supreme. And she brought this erotic awareness and avidity to bear on the movies she reviewed. She saw movies for what they were, “a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world.” They’d let her down in the past, but disappointment hadn’t turned her bitter. Or off. And no one wrote better about the compensatory pleasures of well-made trash, slick and soulless and whorey as hell, of the fun you could have if you didn’t ask for too much.

If the filmgoing experience had been eroticized before Kael came on the scene, it was from the prospective of a voyeur, L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window ignoring the luscious Grace Kelly draped across his lap to peer furtively at the decidedly unluscious Raymond Burr sweating it out in the apartment opposite. Kael was a different brand of deviant. She was a spectator, sure, but she wanted to do more to a movie than just look at it. She craved ecstatic engagement, the headlong rush of going all the way. “The special aphrodisia of movies—the kinetic responsiveness, the all-out submission to pleasure,” was something she referenced frequently in her writing. Sex as a metaphor is an overworked rhetorical device and is often used improperly—to titillate or shock—but in Kael’s case it’s not merely applicable, it’s essential. There’s simply no other way of describing her relationship to her subject matter. She didn’t watch a movie; she bedded it. The review was her cigarette afterward, a chance to answer the age-old question, Was it good for you, too?

At the time of Deep Throat’s release, Kael was movie critic for The New Yorker. She’d only held the position a few years and was still looked on by her colleagues with skepticism and more than a little distaste. Kael reminisced about the early days: “I remember getting a letter from an eminent New Yorker writer suggesting I was trampling through the pages of the magazine with cowboy boots covered with dung and I should move on out with my cowboy boots.”

William Shawn had hired Kael back in 1969, purchasing her 7,000-word essay on Bonnie and Clyde, more an impassioned plea than a review, so enraptured was she by the movie’s blend of sex and violence and poetry. Writer and editor, however, were less than ideally suited temperamentally, one being an exultant oral compulsive, the other the anal retentive’s anal retentive. And according to filmmaker James Toback, the two often found themselves at odds, Shawn exasperated by Kael’s insistence on references scatological and sexual, Kael exasperated by Shawn’s exasperation. If he wanted to subdue her, she was just as eager to provoke him. How else to explain her describing Jack Nicholson in Goin’ South as “a commercial for cunnilingus”? It was a good line but she must’ve known it was never going to play and could have only stuck it in there to incite a reaction. Which it did. Shawn went so far as to circle the offending phrase and scrawl the words, “This has to come out. We can’t or won’t print it,” in the margins, a five-alarm hissy fit for the man dubbed by Renata Adler “the legendary, saintly, canonical Mr. Shawn.” And, indeed, when the piece ran, all Latin terms had been excised.