Pauline Kael was a well-versed movie critic, and she let her readers know it. Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that she was “probably the most influential film critic of her time,” in an obituary that ran in the New York Times in 2001. Francis Davis credits her with “establish[ing] the movie review as a form of literature with the potential for social commentary.”
Kael was born in California in 1919. She saw movies go from black and white to color to 3D. In her critiques, which she wrote starting in 1953, she wove in history about the industry, showing a movie’s place in the broader scheme of the industry.
“There’s hardly a star in American movies today, and if we’ve got so used to the absence of stars that we no longer think about it much, we’ve also lost one of the great pleasures of moviegoing,” she wrote in a review of Funny Girl. Barbara Streisand remedied this, she thought. Her observation about the overall state of stardom legitimized her opinion on Streisand.
William Zinsser writes that a critic should love the medium they review. Kael expressed opinions that were uniquely her own and that did not try to fit in with what other reviewers thought, demonstrating her love for movies and what they can do for an audience.
She panned “Hiroshima Mon Amour” despite its status as a highly praised film, complaining about its repetition and lengthy discussions on emotion. Art house film did not pull her in, so she resisted talking it up in an effort to appear intellectual
Kael was secure in her knowledge of film, but in making that clear she tended to sound preachy. She could hardly fathom the idea that certain viewers might genuinely enjoy a film she disliked.
“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films… [as] easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism,” she wrote about “Hiroshima.”
In a review of “Dancing with Wolves,” she accused the audience of being stupid.
“Crowds of moviegoers love the movie, though—maybe partly because the issues have been made so simple,” she writes right after accusing the film, under “bland” direction, of having simpleminded characters.
Kael tends to use “you” or “we” to directly address potential viewers, sometimes including herself as part of the audience.
This tactic may have contributed to the cult following she gathered during her career. Kael worked at McCalls, The New Republic and The New Yorker, contributing to other publications on the side. She inspired a group of critics known as “Paulettes” who hung on her every word.
Kael left her mark on the critic world. Her unapologetic way of critiquing film has influenced readers and writers both, even if it simultaneously attacks any way of thinking that strays from her standards.