The Iron Lady: A New Biography of Pauline Kael

It recalls the critic who championed sensuous, exciting movies and eviscerated ponderous or pretentious ones

Mr. Kellow paints her as anything but an introvert: “Friendly, gregarious, and bawdy, she was becoming something of a local character.”

Her movie-review show on the listener-funded radio station KPFA, which she did from 1955 to 1963, attracted a following. In 1965, when her collected essays were published under the cheeky title I Lost It at the Movies, the New York Times Book Review called her “the sanest, saltiest, most resourceful and least attitudinizing movie critic currently in practice in the United States.” Two years later, her second piece for The New Yorker, a 7,000-word defense of Bonnie and Clyde, clinched her a job as one of the magazine’s two movie critics. In 1974 she became the first film reviewer to win a National Book Award.

Mr. Kellow’s admiration for Kael’s writing and achievements doesn’t blind him to her faults, in either her work or her character. Attacking other critics was key to her ascendancy, whether ridiculing Andrew Sarris’s approbation of the auteur theory in an cutthroat 1963 essay for Film Quarterly or lambasting Bosley Crowther, the stuffy New York Times critic whose 22-year reign she effectively terminated with her Bonnie and Clyde piece. (He hated the movie, and paid for it with his job.) William Shawn brought her into The New Yorker on the condition that she lay off the attacks on other critics. She agreed, but as Mr. Kellow shows, she rebelled against Mr. Shawn’s other strictures every chance she got. She called Jack Nicholson’s performance in Goin’ South “a commercial for cunnilingus”; Mr. Shawn deleted it. She called Warren Beatty in Reds “pussywhipped”; Mr. Shawn deleted that, too. “I think they really got off on this partnership of mutual dislike,” a former New Yorker staffer tells Mr. Kellow.

She was beyond opinionated. “She often told friends that she found it difficult to form a close bond with someone who disagreed with her about more than three movies,” Mr. Kellow writes.

In the name of truth-telling, she could be astoundingly insensitive, to friends and protégés as well as to filmmakers and actors. And her relationship with her daughter, which Mr. Kellow traces with delicacy and some gaps (Ms. James declined to be interviewed for the book), was unusual. Kael home-schooled her until she was 18. Through her 20s, Ms. James was her mother’s first reader, sounding board and typist. When Kael moved to the Berkshires in 1975, Ms. James moved with her and became her driver. Friends of Kael’s who encouraged Ms. James to go her own way were cast out. In her 30s, Ms. James had a child and married, but remained close by.

Over the years, objections to Kael’s uncompromising criticism piled up. She was caustic, condescending, bullying, hyperbolic and guilty of favoritism; her tastes and judgment were erratic; she was overly chummy with certain filmmakers, visiting their sets and parsing their scripts—and, in the case of Robert Altman’s Nashville, raving about the unfinished film months before its release to push Paramount Pictures to stand behind it. Her harshest critics, such as Mr. Sarris in The Village Voice, suggested she was corrupt. Filmmakers wrote her resentful letters; George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, sent one that began: “Listen, you miserable bitch.” (Kael would “cackle with glee when she read it to friends,” says Mr. Kellow.)

But her reviews, however disjointed or even vituperative, had an irresistible vitality—and legs. The release of Mr. Kellow’s biography coincides with that of a Library of America collection, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America, 750 pages, $40.00). (The only other film critics similarly canonized by the Library of America are James Agee and Manny Farber, both of whom inspired Kael.) Sanford Schwartz, the collection’s editor, says she wrote “with the insights of simultaneously a drama coach, a club comedian, a social agitator, a connoisseur, and a psychotherapist.”

Kael’s first decade at The New Yorker coincided with an outstanding period in American filmmaking. But as Hollywood shifted to action blockbusters, her hopes for movies began to waver. If George Lucas “weren’t hooked on the crap of his childhood—if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them—there’s no imagining the result,” she wrote in her review of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Pauline’s biggest professional disappointment,” Mr. Kellow writes, “was that she lived to see the infantilization of the great moviegoing audience she had always dreamed of and believed in.”

At a memorial tribute to Kael in 2001, Ms. James was the first speaker. “My mother had tremendous empathy and compassion, though how to comfort, soothe or console was a mystery to her,” she said. “Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic.”

The Iron Lady: A New Biography of Pauline Kael