24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2011
A fine show-biz biography, better than most because instead of just talking about Kael's top performances, Kellow can quote them.
Kael was unique in being able to write movie reviews which, collected, consistently became best sellers. She was lucky, too, because she did her most popular reviewing during a period, the seventies through the eighties, of some amazingly good American movies.
Most of all, she was an excellent writer who happened to have picked movies as her topic. She changed the way people looked at them, and made popular art as important to critics as so-called important art. Kellow covers it all, pretty much year by year, not leaving out scandalous stuff, like her conning a college professor into giving her all his research about CITIZEN KANE, promising him a co-author credit, and in the end giving him nothing. Kael survives the bad news he gives about her, mostly because his enthusiasm for her is so great.
Later I imagine there will be scholarly critical biographies of Kael. I'm not sure they'll be better.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2012
I'm flabbergasted to see all the rave reviews for this book. In almost 400 pages, Kellow reveals almost nothing about Kael's childhood, private life, or her relationships. Instead, the book is almost entirely devoted to a summary of her writings, her opinions about movies and filmmakers, all of which we already know from having read her reviews. There are very few revealing insider quotes here, most of them coming from Kael's reviews, and next to nothing at all from family members (eg, Kael's daughter Gina). It's an uninspired work that's sadly short on insight or originality. Kellow's style is non-existent, which I suppose is said to be a virtue for a biographer. But and what little enthusiasm he has for his subject fails to bring his prose to life.
I enjoyed reading the book, but only because Kael is such a fascinating subject and even Kellow's plodding, workmanlike compendium holds the attention. While Kellow did interview dozens of people, as his acknowledgements make clear, the results are disappointing, suggesting that he's not especially gifted at getting people to open up. But most of all what the book lacks is a penetrating psychological vision. When Kael reviewed a movie and wrote about directors and actors, she invariably offered fresh insights into the inner workings of her subjects. That's what a good biography does for its subject, and I find it saddening that Kael - one of the strongest, most lucid and authentic voices in the field of movies - didn't get better treatment than this.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2011
Pauline Kael's genius was obliterating the barrier between a writer's passionate inner voice and the reader. Her reviews had an immediacy, the way placing your palm on a hot skillet has an immediacy. If you dedicated 10 minutes to one of her reviews you could feel her eyes pleading, see her leaning forward in the seat to find the heartbeat of a film. She wanted all films to have a healthy heartbeat; but of course many didn't. That was a genuine disappointment for her. She was movies.
I haven't seen many of the films she reviewed during her heyday (though I've started to work my way through them on Netflix), so I can't compare critical opinions. But that doesn't matter too much. I know I disagree with her on some films. Because after all, Pauline had, as do we all, her own aesthetic idiosyncrasies. Streisand, Altman, De Palma, etc.
No, what matters is that her opinion MATTERS more than mine because she had the ability to see parts of the movie most of us never notice, let alone analyze. Her insight was staggering, and her dogmatic denouncements can even change your mind about opinions you thought were rock solid. (Ya know, Pauline, Meryl Streep DOES have something shallow going on! Like the perfectly calibrated actingbot.)
But really, it could've been anything----movies, art, architecture, music, politics, whatever. What mattered the most about Pauline's genius was her writing. Her words weren't just a beautiful cacophony of the high- and low-brow. It was a new paradigm, a new school of critical style. She defined a genre. If every writer was as good as Kael we'd never stop reading.
This book is just lovely. There's no big skeleton in the closet, there's no emotional sideshow hiding in Kael's past. She was smart, fierce, sometimes selfish and arrogant, sometimes effusive in her generosity. She is no hero, no martyr, no villain, no eccentric oddity.. She's just a woman who happened to have the courage to follow her passion to its logical conclusion.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2011
Pailine Kael was probably the best film critic of the second half of the 20th century. The author, Brian Kellow, includes many quotes from her reviews in The New Yorker & before as well as larger pieces published usually in other magazines. Kael saw a film once, took plenty of notes, and rushed home to write the review almost immediately to best capture her (usually) strong feelings about each film in the moment.
Her style of reviewing worked well during her first years with The New Yorker when so many films were exciting and cutting edge. As the quality of films declined, Kael never really adjusted to the changes. Instead she over praised her favorite films ("The Last Tango in Paris" and "Nashville"), was blind to the merits of films that cut too close to her (largely ignored) Jewish background ("Shoah"), and retained a large bit of homophobia ("The Children's Hour" and "Rich & Famous") long after most writers of her status saw things diferently. Perhaps most damning was Kael's using research from a fairly low-level prof at UCLA on her famously long "Citizen Kane" article without giving him any credit, and very little money (about $300).
Kael was a larger than life figure. Yes, the book discusses her many friends and younger followers. All the battles are here (especially with Andrew Sarris of "The Village Voice") as well as her ill-fated decision to take a leave of absense from The New Yorker to work with Warren Beatty on producing and developing films. It's an interesting book about someone who concentrated so much of her life on only one thing: films. Her sex life was limited, and Kael did very little traveling outside the United States. Kael did read widely, and was unusally smart and often wise.
Brian Kellow's last book was about Broadway star Ethel Merman. Like Kael, Merman concentrated on one thing all her life: Broadway and the songs she sang in her shows. Kael and Merman had little use for the feminist movement, and both ladies were quick to banish long-time friends at a moment's notice. Kael was much smarter and well read. But, both women were not particularly good mothers. I enjoyed this book much more than Kellow's Merman biography. That speaks to a learning process on Kellow's part which is evident on each page in his Kael book.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2011
I loved Pauline Kael, loved her talking-to-you-as-a-pal literary style, in the early days at least. When she started to indulge her inner-groupie search for idols (Streisand, Altman, DePalma) she lost me a bit - though I'd still read her with pleasure (and/or exasperation). This book throws much light on some of the (to me, as a fan) oddities in her reviews. She didn't like auteurs, she didn't like Hitchcock (how could she not?? oh yeah, she didn't discover him - she hated other critics' discoveries and idols).
I had forgotten she hated Shoah. I only saw Shoah a couple of years ago. I agree with her - it was mind-numbingly overdone and doesn't hold a candle to Sorrow and the Pity. That took great cojones on her part - and she suffered the consequences for her honesty.
I wrote her a fan letter when she retired. Her daughter Gina replied. I always thought that was such a generous gesture to a fan and was very interested to learn (and a bit saddened, too) that Gina's life as her mother's dogsbody, was no bed of roses.
Well worth a read - just as Pauline's reviews are. We don't really need reviewers like Pauline anymore, since Spielberg and Lucas destroyed the movies. But it is great to look back on a more adventurous time in the cinema and the lady whose good opinion the best filmmakers actively sought.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2011
Pauline Kael did things her way and often got her way in the process, at a time when women in the work force had to fight extra hard just to be noticed. With that competitive edge, however, came a person of immense ability coupled with a personality whose boundaries were often ill-defined. Brian Kellow's superb new biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark", exposes her at almost every angle.
After an initial introduction to Kael and her background...a Jewish girl from California who had a ragged upward climb in the industry...Kellow's book really takes off in a chapter devoted to "Citizen Kane". Kael goes after the real driving force behind the film and in the process discovers that screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz deserved far more credit than he ever received in his own lifetime for that film. This chapter brightens the book immeasurably and from this point on things really take off. Her years at the New Yorker are covered in great depth and the fights she picked with management and other critics read grippingly well here. It's wonderful to discover how she enjoyed a young Barbra Streisand, thought director Robert Altman teetered between genius and nothingness...and that she had no use for Clint Eastwood, whatsoever.
Kellow's narrative is smooth and refreshing. If there's something to be said about Kael, he lets others do it. In the end, you both root for and against her and that's no easy feat given the certitude of taking sides (or issues) with Pauline Kael. I highly recommend this book...it's a great commentary on the life of one of our most famous film critics, if not always one of the most beloved.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2015
"Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark" is less a biography than a lengthy recapitulation of Kael’s reviews and other writings. Having read those works (many as they came out) I found Brian Kellow's book tedious and exceptionally unhelpful. As to insight into Kael’s work, Kellow offers far less in hundreds of pages than do Peter Bogdanovich and John Gregory Dunne respectively in the relatively short essays “The Kane Mutiny” and “Pauline.”
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2013
I feel strange writing a capsule review of this book. Karl's reviews were always do in depth.
I don't think I learned more about her here than I did through her writings.
I miss those reviews and this book has reminded me of just how influential she was on my taste in movies and my writings.
The book is well researched but Pauline the Subject is not as interesting as Pauline the Writer.
on November 9, 2015
Almost unbelievably well researched and full of the
atmospheric background of the times when she was
reviewing movies. I never thought I could be so interested
in Pauline Kael's life but Brian Kellow has done a brilliant job.
The only inaccuracy I noticed was his misspelling of "My
Beautiful Laundrette" (He writes: "Launderette")
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2015
A little sad. There doesn't seem to have been anything going on in her life except movies. 😁 I was the recipient of her kindness. She agreed to read a script of mine.😍 She said it was a good script to forget about. 😘 Her early work is more interesting and more iconoclastic. As she gains fame and the provenance of The New Yorker her work slowly at first begins to suffer. As she gets more influential her contrarian impulses get more pronounced. Look at her review of "A Clockwork Orange" and even her bizarre takedown of a pretty good horror movie "The Exorcist." There are still good pieces. She was right about "Nashville," wrong and weird about "Last Tango in Paris," which despite a superlative ending was not particularly erotic or even provocative. Brando's mprovisation was stuff I'd heard him tell interviewers before. Karl gets credit for her masterful and evocative review of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," her careful parsing of Sam Pecinpah's "Straw Dogs" and her controversial championship of Brian DePalma, who made silly movies with mindblowing set pieces, most of them sexy and lyrical if usually derivative. In the end Kael needed to be reprimanded for her dogmatism by Renata Adler who wrote a careful, cogent, one thing at a time piece. It's hard to say whether Kael repented. She was immediately surrounded by acolytes like the odious James Wolcott who used to be unbearably clever and smug but has I'm roved with age. Brian Kellow has written a good biography.. Kael's reputation has gone from a slight decline to a fair reassememt. She was a great critic who taught us how to be critics -- discerning moviegoers and maybe more. I keep 5001 Nights at the Movies on my coffee table as a companion piece to Turner Classic Movies. It's fun to read what Pauline Kael has to say.