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Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark Hardcover – October 27, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[Pauline Kael] got into my bloodstream more than any other critic. So I have been waiting most of my life for a smart, insightful biography like [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] to take me beyond and beneath the hypnotic thrill of her prose.”
Ben Brantley, The New York Times (Critic’s Pick)

“[An] entertaining and insightful biography, as much a study of her criticism as a narrative of her life. . . . [Pauline] Kael emerges from [Kellow’s] biography as a great cinematic character, a kind of Citizen Kane, with a life lived and shaped by the dark.”
Elaine Showalter, The Times Literary Supplement

The New Yorker (Reviewers' favorites)

“[A] smart and incisive biography…. [Moviegoers] are in for a colossal eye-opening. [Kael's] love for film has no present-day counterpart…. Mr. Kellow’s clear, independent view of his subject is his book’s most valuable surprise….Kael liked to disparage what she called ‘saphead objectivity.’ Bur Mr. Kellow is no saphead, and he makes objectivity a great virtue."
Janet Maslin, The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)

"Mr. Kellow’s even-handed treatment gives us [Kael] in all her maddening overconfidence.”
Scott Eyman, The Wall Street Journal

“This affectionate biography makes [Kael's] life and her passion for movies inseparable.”
The Wall Street Journal (Recommended Gift)

“To appreciate Kael’s trailblazing, you have to see it in its broader context. Luckily, that backdrop is filled in with surefooted sophistication by Brian Kellow in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, a fair-minded and deeply reported Kael biography.”
Frank Rich, The New York Times Book Review

“I fell on Kellow’s book like a teenage girl on a lost volume of the Twilight saga and found it quite as riveting as teens find anything to do with Bella.”
Mary Pols, San Francisco Chronicle

“A smart and eminently readable examination of the life and career of one of the 20th century’s most influential movie critics.”
Los Angeles Times.com

“[Kellow] brings a wise and sweeping vision to [Kael's] artistic mentality and her enduring legacy.”
The Washington Times

“[M]eticulously researched.”

“[A] terrific new biography… [Kael's early life ] was a revelation to me, thanks to Kellow’s ace research.”

“Fun, fair, and fluently written, [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] is an edifying read.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Mr. Kellow throws a great deal of light on the famous critic’s heretofore mysterious ways.”
The Portland Mercury

“In Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, author Brian Kellow offers a making-of story as engaging as her criticism. It’s not easy feat—what’s less dramatic than scribbling into the night?—but Kellow tapped [Kael's] friends and foes and her writing while developing a colorful, even handed appreciation of one of film’s most influential critics….[An] eye-opening biography.”
Associated Press

“The fact that most of us know little about [Kael's ] upbringing of her private life makes this an especially intriguing biography.”
Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin.com

“Compelling…thrillingly written and exhaustively researched….Genius.”
The Playlist

“Kellow evocatively captures the blooming of film culture in the early 1960s, and the sobriety with which Kael took over the critical pulpit….Kellow not only grasps the significance of his subject, but invokes the pace and energy of [Kael's] singular style….good, dishy fun.”
The Village Voice

"Kellow has reconstructed Kael's 'life in the dark'....The result is a joy to read....[I]t's a fascinating book."
Los Angeles Magazine (Critic's Picks, November 2011 Issue)

“[E]xhaustively researched, beautifully written….Kellow has told [Kael's] life in incredible detail….I found [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] enthralling because it vividly recreates a world I was part of, which seems now very distant. It is also because Kellow has been generous in quoting [Kael's] sensuous, percussive, often wise prose….Pauline was a galvanizing presence, and Kellow has brought her back with overwhelming intensity.”
Howard Kissel, The Huffington Post

“Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is a very good biography."
Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Review of Books

"At last, a biography of the highly influential New Yorker film critic."
San Francisco Chronicle

“The [present] I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.”
Philip French, The Observer (U.K.)

“Kellow matches extensive research with acute perception in his sensitive and definitive biography of Pauline Kael, America’s foremost, and most controversial, movie critic.”
Booklist (Top 10 Arts Books 2011)

“Brian Kellow’s biography of [Pauline Kael] is a fascinating and enlightening read.”
Whitney Matheson, USA Today

“[A] finely balanced biography…[N]ot only will you not be disappointed with Kellow’s intrepid research, you’ll also be rewarded by his rich, close reading of her reviews (and the stories behind the writing of them) that does marvelous justice to Pauline Kael’s exhilarating gift for writing on the movies. Both, her admirers and her detractors could not have asked for a more satisfying biography.”
The Hindu

Toronto Star

“[A] smashing first biography of the famed New Yorker critic.”
The Buffalo News

The Onion A.V. Club

“[A] richly detailed biography.”

“Throws radiant light on the renowned movie critic.”
David Finkle, The Huffington Post

"[A] fascinating new biography….[Kellow] captures [Kael's] best passages and most heartless insults and puts them in context.”
Laurie Winer, Los Angeles Review of Books

“[Brian] Kellow finds the emotional core of [Pauline] Kael’s persona….Kellow is quickly becoming a film fan’s dream biographer…. That Kellow chooses to write in calm, unshowy prose is both astute as a journalistic technique and integral to the book’s aesthetic success….Kellow’s Kael transcends mere artistic contrarianism and resembles a sort of impassioned duelist.”
Celluloid Void

“[A] rich, thorough, and admirably fair biography.”

Entertainment Weekly, (Best Nonfictions Books of 2011)

"Kellow, an erudite movie lover...writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading o his subject's youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth." — Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

“Perhaps the most valuable thing about Brian Kellow’s fine new book about [Pauline] Kael, A Life in the Dark, is that, aside from its virtues as a sympathetic, clear-eyed and sharp biography, is that it’s a really fine cultural and social document of a turning point in movie history.”
Special Broadcasting Service, (Australia)

“Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark wisely charts Kael’s life by focusing on her writing.”

“[An] excellent new biography.”
Sense of Cinema

“Yet Kael often reveled in movies she thought were a mess, just as anyone who reads Brian Kellow’s incisive, detailed biography of America’s most impassioned and influential movie critic, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is sure to be absorbed, sucked in, by Kael’s cluttered hodge-podge of a life—personally, professionally, emotionally, aesthetically….There is so much packed into Kellow’s rich book…that her life story seems an epic script.”
American Spectator

“[Pauline Kael is an] entertaining and insightful biography.”

“[Pauline Kael is an] excellent Biography.”

About the Author

Brian Kellow is the features editor of Opera News, where his column, “On the Beat,” appears monthly. He is the author of The Bennetts: An Acting Family and the coauthor of Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. A classically trained pianist, Kellow has also written for Opera and Playbill, among others. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (October 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023127
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,156,330 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James M. Rawley on October 30, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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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.
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