Interview - Pauline Kael (Modern Maturity)
Kael's response: "Tough sh*t."
Day Two: I returned for our second conversation, and Kael said she had been thinking of the Shawn story. I started to fret‑‑she wants to retract it, I thought. Instead she said, "If you use that story, what I actually said was, 'Tough sh*t, Bill.'"
Pauline Kael has brought the same fierce passion, independence, and incisiveness to her movie reviews since she took on Charlie Chaplin's Limelight in 1952. When her first book, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), and her 1968 appointment as a movie critic for The New Yorker brought her national prominence, some people raised eyebrows, others glasses, to her revolutionary style.
Kael unabashedly loved movies, be they trash or highbrow, as long as they grabbed for life and originality. Unlike most critics, she used herself as an instrument, analyzing her own reactions to orchestrate a deeper understanding of film. Fortunately, this instrument had rich tone and resonance. Kael could position a movie properly within film history, link it with other arts, and nestle it firmly into cultural context.
Despite detractors as rabid as her fans, Kael won a Guggenheim and her fourth book, Deeper Into Movies (1973), was the first about film to receive a National Book Award. When she retired in 1991, she was the movie critic. And to many, she still is. In fact, some readers‑‑even fellow critics‑‑believe she has a private screening room in the Pantheon.
Reading Kael makes you think, which leads to a greater understanding of what you've seen, whether or not you agree with her opinion. Talking to Kael also makes you think, as I discovered during our two days of conversation. You end up knowing a movie or a performance better, as well as your own reaction to it. When she says, "Tommy Lee Jones has the least camera‑happy face. His eyes are sunken, so the camera doesn't illuminate much in the upper part of his face," you think, Ah, that's yet another reason his performances put me on edge. She comments, "Amateurs singing old standards spur instant and unfavorable comparisons to the greats" and you realize that's probably why Woody Allen avoided the '30s' most famous songs in Everyone Says I Love You.
Kael's views come wrapped in language so mercilessly precise, so sharp, that it has cut many an actor and director. In conversation, however, these words are often delivered with a buffering warmth that can't be seen on the page.
MODERN MATURITY: Did you always have strong opinions about movies?
Pauline Kael: I had trouble dating because I often disagreed about the quality of a movie. One boy was so upset at my laughing at Kentucky Moonshine, a Ritz Brothers movie, that we never went to another movie again. I also broke up with somebody after I wrote about West Side Story. It’s very difficult to disagree on a date.
MM: Certainly the first couple of dates.
Kael: On the other hand, one of the awful things about married couples is the way they often agree about movies. It drives me crazy listening to them. One of the worst aspects of marriage is when people lose their independent judgment in politics, the arts, life in general.
MM: Do you ever use people’s opinions of movies as a litmus test about whether to be friends?
Kael: Sometimes I think I could never be friends with somebody who didn’t like a movie I loved. Then I think, what the hell, it’s only a movie. Still, it’s hard for me to like somebody who hates McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Earrings of Madame de…
MM: When you make such a statement, who in his right mind would tell you his opinion?
Kael: I’m not that intimidating in person. Anyway, people like to disagree with me. I made one of my first friends in New York when he asked if he could take me home from a party where men had been jumping on my opinions all night. They had to show they knew better.
MM: It seems you and your writing have evoked great controversy. Is there any particular reason why? Do you think you’ve gotten so much flak because you’re a woman?
Kael: Well, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once did call me “a miserable bitch.” But generally it was because I didn’t agree with the consensus of criticism that had formed about a movie. This cycle usually begins with a studio’s marketing department and wends to the press. By the time a movie is authenticated in The New York Times, it’s accepted as a wonderful work. Then if my review says, “This is a pathetic tissue of moldy ideas,” it deeply offends those who came out for it.
Also, most movies I cared about didn’t get good reviews. Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, even The Godfather initially did not get good press. Now critics refer to them as classics and don’t say what their original opinion was.
MM: You were perceived as someone who could literally make or break a movie.
Kael: That was a goofy perception. But movie companies did bar me from screenings—they thought I was influencing other critics even though I never talked to them about a movie before they reviewed it. But I think my influence was largely in style, not substance. Other critics sound like me because my writing has influenced them. They’ve rarely agreed with me about movies.
MM: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Kael: I hate it. It is very creepy being imitated.
MM: Do you think your criticism has changed movies or affected filmmakers?
Kael: I’d rather not say. If I say yes, I’m an egotist, and if I say no, I’ve wasted my life. Although I’ve been told I have influenced some people to become directors. Unfortunately, most of them are lousy.
MM: What was your goal when writing criticism?
Kael: I aimed for something more than just an opinion—to evoke a movie and its qualities, to indicate where it falters and where it succeeds, to know what the movie is really about and what it means to people. For example, Dirty Harry was emotionally effective even though it created all sorts of right-wing fantasies.
MM: You once wrote, “If you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet . . . may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.” Did you mean it?
Kael: It’s hard to be a good critic. Many today want to kid around on the order of Siskel and Ebert—at least those two have some taste. I see young critics now who are hopeless idiots but are good looking and grand in manner—and I giggle every time I see them.
MM: What’s your opinion of TV critics?
Kael: If you trust them, you have a hole in your head.
Kael: They critique on the basis of what they think the audience will like, not what they like. I’ve known critics on reputable papers who admitted they didn’t like something they praised on television because that’s what the editor wanted or what the people expected.
MM: So you don’t think any TV critics are worth listening to?
Kael: Name one.
MM: How about Michael Medved, who judges movies using family values as a yardstick?
Kael: I try not to think about Michael Medved.
MM: John Simon once said that the first and last responsibility of the film critic is to raise the standard of movies.
Kael: Bull. What is the standard to be raised? Movies should give pleasure, pleasure that encompasses sensibility and excitement. People like that always get exercised about interesting movies, like Last Tango in Paris. I was surprised at how few angry letters I got from readers after my favorable review, considering that practically every critic jumped down my throat. Very few people I know didn’t like Last Tango.
MM: What do you say to people who claim you’re obsessed by sex and violence?
Kael: That’s what movies are about.
MM: Should kids see sex on the screen?
Kael: I don’t think sex gets to kids very much. They don’t understand what’s going on. Actually, movies are a good place to learn about sex. You learn about romance. You learn how to behave in certain situations. You learn when to be wary and when to be gung-ho.
MM: An example?
Kael: Oh, almost any movie with Clark Gable, or those other sturdy men, told us which kinds of men we should be careful with and which were true blue. Movies are our passport into an adult world and help us understand that world better.
MM: What about screen violence? Is any of it objectionable?
Kael: Violence that makes you identify with the killer. There’s a lot of violence at the beginning of Grand Illusion, but you’re appalled by it. Bonnie and Clyde suffered for their indifference and casualness about using weapons. Whereas in a Clint Eastwood movie, you identify with the guy with the biggest gun, not the victim. That’s a big difference emotionally. Natural Born Killers is a horrible movie—the victims are made ludicrous and pathetic, so you’re supposed to cheer the killers on.
MM: It’s hardly surprising you hated that movie, considering its director. I read in The New York Times that when you retired you quipped, “The prospect of having to sit through another Oliver Stone movie is too much.”
Kael: I despise his movies. If you care about movie art, there are certain people whom it’s legitimate to despise. JFK and Nixon are historically so dubious and yet accepted by audiences as accurate. All you can do as a critic is point out the distortions.
MM: Have you ever walked out of a movie?
Kael: I’ve walked out on movies I found hopeless. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal drove me crazy—people talking in these precise phrases over and over again. Fellini’s Casanova drove me out of the movie house, and I said so in my review. Damned if people didn’t say I should go back and see the rest, as if it were a duty to be bored. I mean, you’re still a human being, even if you are a critic.
MM: Is it true you see movies only once?
Kael: I react with all my senses the first time. The second time, it becomes academic. And once I write about a movie, it stays fixed in my mind so I’ve never had any desire to rent the video.
MM: I’ve heard you never change your mind about a movie. Is that because you’ve never seen one twice?
Kael: Who changes his mind about a movie? That’s something you expect critics to do because it sounds open-minded. Maybe they just get influenced by public opinion. When I wrote about John Cassavetes’s later pictures, I looked at my reviews of his earlier ones. I was writing almost exactly the same things. His pictures hadn’t changed and I hadn’t changed.
MM: Did you have any ground rules as a critic?
Kael: I never let anybody tell me what I should write.
MM: Even when an editor says …
Kael: Even by inflection. You don’t let an editor suggest what your tone should be. You don’t let him or her suggest it by the tone in which he or she urges you to see it. If an editor encourages you to see something, there’s always something involved, whether it’s advertising or a desire to please the audience. Yet the critic’s worst corruption is a desire to keep the readers happy, praising movies the mass audience is going to love, like Twister or Independence Day.
MM: Many believed you lost a contract with McCall’s over a pan of The Sound of Music, which you dubbed The Sound of Money. Did you ever get pressure at The New Yorker?
Kael: Not so much. William Shawn was a great editor who gave you time and space, but he also fought for a certain tone. He wanted me to be ladylike and made me feel I was breaking his heart if I used language he didn’t approve of. He thought he was holding the line against the barbarians.
He did outwit me once, though, when I wanted to write about Deep Throat. He was ill and sprung his heart troubles on me, so I gave in on that one.
MM: Did you avoid making friends in the movie business because it would be hard to review them?
Kael: I only spoke with actors or directors if they contacted me after a movie was out. Barbra Streisand called me after I panned Funny Lady to tell me that she agreed with me.
MM: Rumor has it Streisand solicited your opinion on The Prince of Tides before its release.
Kael: She phoned me afterwards to ask what I thought. I was very rough.
MM: You didn’t want to let her down easy?
Kael: Barbra Streisand doesn’t need to be let down easy.
MM: When you see movies that could have been great, don’t you wish you could have been a bug in the director’s ear during filming?
Kael: All the time. The first half of Conspiracy Theory was terrific, then it went to hell. Movies often start with a fascinating situation that they don’t know how to resolve.
MM: Why is that so common?
Kael: Stories used to have happy, romantic endings, but now you can’t do that or people will puke—unless it’s about a homosexual couple, in which case a happy ending is allowed. So they have to keep the lovers apart, but still offer some hope to keep you from storming the theater.
MM: You talk about what moviemakers can and can’t do now. Is Hollywood reflecting our taste or creating it?
Kael: We often settle for what they give us—witness what people watch on television. They sell us what they think we want and we buy it because we want to go to the movies. Other, smaller things, are out there we just don’t hear about. That’s where critics come in—or, should.
MM: One of your favorite movie companions has been your grandson. Did you ever restrict his viewing?
Kael: I took him to things kids weren’t supposed to see. Earlier generations went to see what was forbidden in life and developed a real excitement about the movies. Today’s rating system keeps kids out of the good ones. I wouldn’t want them to see movies like Natural Born Killers, but my tendency is you’re better off seeing things than not. That glazed indifference kids develop can be worse than over-excitement.
MM: You got a close look at Hollywood in 1979 when you consulted for Paramount. How come you didn’t stay long?
Kael: I was dying to leave after a few months; I missed writing terribly. Also, you see all the arrogance and the money- and honor-chasing. You find part of what makes someone a director is an amalgam of qualities not desirable in the home.
MM: Such as?
Kael: Directors are very manipulative people. They have the opportunity to be cruel and domineering, and can’t resist it. I once heard John Ford speak at an event. The moderator was a professor who was so excited to be presiding at a John Ford event, but overdressed badly for the occasion. Ford went over to him and ostentatiously felt his nubby raw silk material. The humiliation he inflicted made me just hate Ford momentarily.
Directors are also fawned over and surrounded by a whole entourage. You’re terribly aware whenever one is in a group; he holds his seat differently.
MM: Like he’s holding court?
Kael: That’s right. And there’s also the role that drugs and sex play. I mean, directors can get just about any girl they set their sights on. And if they don’t have time to look for themselves, they have pimps scouting for them. The presence of pimps in a social setting can be very unpleasant.
MM: Do you mean “pimps” literally?
MM: What about the other members of the moviemaking team?
Kael: Writers have very little power, but are very amiable and like to sit up all night talking about movies. For the most part, producers are no longer on set taking care of troubles. Rich businessmen often become producers to date movie stars—or to get their names in the titles and take a cut.
MM: What were you hoping to do in Hollywood?
Kael: Produce movies the way they should be produced, but I didn’t have the patience for it. You go over a script a dozen times and the first version was generally better than the one you end up with. Everything is subject to negotiations, and the people you want are tied up or want to work with someone else. It just becomes too complex.
MM: Is it really worse now than under the studio system?
Kael: The studio system was lethal, but what’s happening now isn’t so hot either. Studios consider $20 million dollar movies throwaway packages because they don’t have big stars. Buying advertising time on TV costs an incredible amount so they won’t promote small pictures. That’s why you don’t hear anything about movies like Looking for Richard and Before the Rain.
MM: How can we surmount this problem?
Kael: I thought it was possible about 20 years ago because there were directors with such strengths and idealism. They could have created the new system of distribution required, but they didn’t. Now they’ve become so insanely rich and successful—at least Lucas and Spielberg—it’s hopeless to expect them to change at heart and pocketbook.
Maybe a new wave somewhere will affect American films the way the French New Wave affected them in the 60s. It’s also possible that imagination and fantasy and realism, these things that sustain movies, will all go down the drain.
MM: More stars are becoming directors now. Is that wise?
Kael: Often they give up their greatest talent. Sean Penn is a perfectly good director, but he’s a superb actor. Mel Gibson, stunningly good in Conspiracy Theory, is a much finer actor than director.
Most of the time, the big stars are a little too old. Directing is something people do best when they’re young, with the possible exceptions of Vittorio de Sica and Luis Buñuel. When you’re young, you use all your senses and have the deviltry to do something new that will affect an audience deeply. Spielberg doesn’t do now what he did as a young man. He did crazy, goofy things. Jaws was a great comedy; in E.T., he let his childhood feelings inform the material in a direct way. But Hook was deadly, no child’s imagination left in it. Schindler’s List is a work of feeling, but planned feeling.
When you’re young, you’re not hemmed in by big production money. You’re protecting your credit card; later, you’re protecting your swimming pool. That’s a big difference. Also, you no longer know what music is hot. Your visual daring isn’t the same. You use expensive cinematographers instead of young ones who want to do something fresh. Everything becomes safer and more extravagant as you get older.
MM: You once said you weren’t impressed with Ingmar Bergman because you’d done your share of soul-wrestling and it wasn’t that tough. What’s the hardest type of movie to do right?
Kael: Films like Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game are terribly difficult to achieve because they seem to unfold right in front of you. E.T.’s spontaneity and the good Robert Altman films—Vincent & Theo, M*A*S*H, Thieves Like Us—are harder to do than a David Lean picture where all the effects are orchestrated. These directors felt out what they wanted, then improvised.
In these circumstances, real artists come up with surprises. Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox had scenes together in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War unlike anything they’ve done before. And you know it was a discovery for the director and the actors as well as for you—that’s the kind of thing you dream of.
MM: Do you ever cry at movies?
Kael: No, but I choke up at the obvious things. Children and animals in peril get to me. In My Left Foot, I choked up when Christy found out his therapist was getting married, and not to him.
MM: What kind of movies are you sick of?
Kael: For a while, I couldn’t stand any more sentimental movies. Now it’s action movies. I expected to love the Cage-Travolta interplay in Face/Off, but it was poorly conceived—I don’t care if I ever see another one by John Woo. I need a vacation from gunshots. Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being profeminine when they have women punching each other out.
MM: In Deeper Into Movies, you described movies as a “supremely pleasurable and dangerous art form. “I get the pleasurable part, but what’s so dangerous?
Kael: At a movie house, you feel alone with the image and you’re affected deeply. The different elements that go into movies—music, cinematography, actors, design—get to you very strongly. That’s why so many educated people disapprove of movies; they’re not used to giving themselves over to that much emotion. They prefer the distance they can keep in legitimate theater.
MM: Is that why so-called intellectuals often prefer European films?
Kael: Yes, and they associate greatness with foreign films. We tend to think of art as European; there’s an embarrassment about art in America. But The Godfather changed that for a lot of people. When The Godfather II came out and you got the full dimensions of that family, you had a hard time not using the word “great.” Still, I think educated people feel more at home with Czech and Australian films full of humane little lessons.
MM: You dislike humane little lessons?
Kael: Lessons are for television movies about homosexuality or somebody’s sickness; that’s why they’re so boring. In & Out got wrecked when all the townsfolk backed the gay teacher—it was like Frank Capra solidarity; the message was too clear. Steve Martin turned down that role and, essentially, he was right.
MM: What do you feel have been some of the best and worst examples of casting in movie history?
Kael: I used to play that game when I was younger. I hate talking about that stuff because it fetishizes movies and movie lore.
MM: Aw, c’mon. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab…?
Kael: Wasn’t that an atrocity. . . . All right, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman was superb casting—a movie you knew was trash but you enjoyed it thoroughly. Trash redeemed. The interplay between Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock made that movie just about worth watching. In fact, Sean Connery in just about any movie redeems the scenes he’s in.
MM: He clearly has star presence. What is it exactly?
Kael: A magnetic personality. Extraordinary beauty, often unusual beauty. And talent.
MM: Who, besides Connery, has it? Whose work do you always try to see?
Kael: Paul Newman becomes more glamorous with years, like Cary Grant. Nicholas Cage is an unusual actor. Travolta’s heartfelt quality cuts through the falsest material, and Brando is still uniquely imaginative. Bruce Willis is a much better actor than he’s given credit for. John Cusack, Morgan Freeman, Nick Nolte, Denzel Washington. Tom Hanks, of course. I’d also include some fine actors who often take parts that don’t suit them—Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and Tommy Lee Jones.
MM: And women?
Kael: Michelle Pfeiffer. Anjelica Huston. Sigourney Weaver. Debra Winger, if she’d come back and act. Diane Keaton has done extraordinary work. She was fabulous in Crimes of the Heart. So was Jessica Lange.
MM: Why does your list include so many more men than women?
Kael: The movies we’re given just don’t have interesting parts for women to shine in. Although recently Chasing Amy and Flirting With Disaster had some good female roles.
MM: You have no foreign actors on your list. What about a strong guy like Gérard Depardieu?
Kael: In his earlier roles he was unusually sensitive, but now he just proves a man can be shaped like a beer barrel and still play a leading role.
MM: Which underrated actors do you wish you saw more?
Kael: Michael Keaton, who was wonderful in Beetlejuice, has many qualities that have been forgotten because he hasn’t been in anything good for a while. And Judy Davis has given performances, like the one in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, that just belt me out of the chair. She’s got everything except the roles.
MM: Which duos have had the best sexual chemistry?
Kael: Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in their early movies like Next Time We Love and The Shop Around the Corner. They made about four pictures together that were fearlessly delicate.
MM: Who’s hard to match up romantically?
Kael: Dustin Hoffman. I don’t get Demi Moore, do you? And Tom Cruise, who would you put him with? Robert De Niro was sexy in Mean Streets, but he’s lost it. He should never have gotten fat and squared down. He’s never been the same. And I’d say Joan Allen plays Pat Nixon all too well.
MM: Are people of color experiencing more opportunities in Hollywood today?
Kael: I think it’s a case of talent will out, and it “outs” more now than in earlier periods. A lot of white people enjoyed Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. You don’t think of Denzel Washington as a black actor but as an actor.
MM: What movie era do you consider the finest?
Kael: The ’70s.
MM: Not the ’30s or ’40s?
Kael: They used to say that, but the ’70s had movies like Shampoo, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver. That was a pretty good period.
MM: How have the ’90s movies held up?
Kael: Not very well. Conglomerate financing means you get big action films. They’re the safest; they travel internationally and work with an illiterate or subliterate audience. But special effects don’t reflect what’s going on in a culture. There is a “lostness” in the air that isn’t in our movies.
MM: One cultural icon coming up in March is the Oscars. Will you be watching on Monday night?
Kael: Sure. But I’ve managed to write about movies for a lifetime without ever writing about the Academy Awards. That’s a great source of pride.
MM: So you hate them?
Kael: I can’t be said to hate them. I just think they’re irrelevant to criticism. Generally they’re just a popularity contest, but the Oscars are also a great spectacle full of irony and satire.
MM: Humphrey Bogart once suggested that the five nominees for best actor give Hamlet’s soliloquy before the voters. Wouldn’t that be fairer than trying to compare performances?
Kael: How could you judge actors by their recitation of Hamlet? They may be the wrong physical or emotional type. Bogart himself would have been a hopeless Hamlet.
MM: So how would you improve the system?
Kael: It is what it is. Besides, it’s much more fun to bitch about it and look at the clothes.
MM: One of the fun things is seeing which stars seem to be growing “younger” instead of older.
Kael: We generally feel good when we see people our own age on stage or screen because they look terrific and it gives us hope. But it’s also comic because we know it’s not natural.
MM: What about someone like Diane Keaton, who appears to have aged naturally?
Kael: She seems older than she is because we’re used to people looking young for so long. But she’s also wonderful to look at because there are some wrinkles there.
MM: She’s more like us.
Kael: Yes, but “us” are being remade, too. I have mixed feeling about plastic surgery. It’s fun to see someone looking spectacular, but I’m also appalled when I see people worked over because they don’t have an expressive acting face; they can’t move their facial muscles anymore. And they all look alike. There was a period when noses all seemed to be produced by the same surgeon. Now everybody’s cheeks are pulled the same way. At least it creates more character roles for those who still have their own faces.
MM: Why aren’t actors today allowed to age?
Kael: They never were. Lillian Gish aged onscreen but few others turned old. We develop such an identification with people that it hurts to see them falling apart. I had such beautiful memories of Bette Davis from Jezebel and Marked Woman, but seeing her look dragonish was hard to take. And I would have been just as happy not to have seen Katharine Hepburn in her condition playing that stupid role in Love Affair.
MM: Will aging Boomers make it more acceptable for actors to age?
Kael: Today’s actors are already older than they used to be. Studios used to have stables of young up-and-comers, but now you have to attract attention through an agent and it takes longer. Also, roles are different. We have fewer romantic comedies that you have to be 20 for. And the big box-office stars are in their 40s and 50s, so stories are focusing on older people whether that’s overt or not.
MM: Was age ever a concern for you as a critic?
Kael: I worried about repeating myself. When I quit in ’91, I felt I had nothing new to say. Old critics tend to become tiresome, and I didn’t want to be one of those old farts.
MM: Was Parkinson’s a factor in your retiring?
Kael: I’ve had it about 15 years, but it started to really give me trouble in 1990. You can’t go shaking to screenings. I also froze in line a few times, things like that.
MM: Are there any recent movies you regret not being able to review?
Kael: Mainly I worry about the little ones that got away. A few years ago when I saw Vanya on 42nd Street, I wanted to blow trumpets. Your trumpets are gone once you’ve quit.
MM: Do you still feel the same excitement when you go to the movies?
Kael: I do when I see something I like. And now Parkinson’s makes me shake with excitement even more. [Laughs.] After years of being disappointed with stories, you get to a point where you’re satisfied by just a performance. A few scenes by Bill Murray can rescue a movie. Jim Carrey has practically kept movies alive the past few years. But most comedians lose it after a while. They go on trying to be funny and it becomes ghastly. If Carrey can sustain it, it would be amazing.
MM: In a long marriage, the relationship changes as each partner’s knowledge and feelings about the other change. How has your “relationship” with movies changed over time?
Kael: In front of the screen, I’m still a kid. Movie love is abiding throughout life. The movies have a fascination that our ordinary lives don’t have. The people are more beautiful, the vistas more splendid. When the lights go down, we want to be charmed and entertained. We’re lovers who are let down all the time, and go on loving.
Kael: I feel as if I’m found.
‑‑Susan Goodman is a contributing editor for MODERN MATURITY.
from the 1998 March/April Edition of Modern Maturity. Copyright 1995, 1998, AARP. All rights reserved.
Labels: Pauline Kael