The Pearls of Pauline: Kael’s Five Best Writings
A selection of the best writing of Pauline Kael.
This is the second part of Michał Oleszczyk’s consideration of Pauline Kael, just days before he defends his PhD dissertation on Kael. Read his review of the Kael biography A Life in the Dark, and his five worst Kael reviews.
Pauline Kael’s collected writings exceed 5,000 pages of vibrant, addictive prose. In case you don’t have the time to pore over all of her collections, here’s a highly subjective selection of the best of Madame Kael:
5. “Doubling Up” (review of Something Wild)
Democratic to boot, and with great descriptive writing skills at the tip of her fingers, Kael remains unmatched in the delicate art of rendering an actor’s look, voice, and technique. For her, cinema was an infinite promise of discovering new faces and personalities, and nothing excited her more than a new original American actress in the vein of the fast-talking Ginger Rogers or Barbara Stanwyck. Melanie Griffith proved to be one of those:
Melanie Griffith’s dark Lulu turns into blond, fresh-faced Audrey, who suggests Kim Novak and, a bit later, Ginger Rogers, but Griffith’s tarty, funky humor is hers alone. She has the damnedest voice; it sounds frazzled and banal – a basic mid-American girl voice – but she gets infinite variations into its flatness. She can make it lyrically flat. That voice keeps you purring with contentment. (…) Her delicate head is perched on an intimidatingly strong neck, and she never looks innocent. (Has anybody ever looked better in smeared lipstick?)
(“The New Yorker” November 17, 1986 – collected in Hooked, p. 29)
4. “The Man Who Made Howard Hughes Sing and The Iron-Butterfly Mom” (review of Ordinary People)
Kael’s funniest, most pointed pan ever deflates Robert Redford’s arch gentility and makes everyone who mourned Raging Bull’s 1981 Oscar defeat to Ordinary People chuckle with vengeful glee:
(…) The dialogue is intelligent in an over-modulated, point-making way, and often it’s psychobabble in full bloom. (Calvin to Beth: “I don’t know who you are… I don’t know if I love you anymore, and I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.” Beth’s only response is to look stricken. Who wouldn’t be stricken listening to this crap?) The movie is not above shamelessness: surely we could have been spared the symbolic broken dish and the information that this monstrous woman wouldn’t even let her sons have a pet? And when Conrad tries to hug his mother, she sits as straight as a plank of wood, with her eyes wide open in a timeworn manner of actresses demonstrating frigidity. (…) She was bred not to say what’s on her mind. And the movie, which treats her, finally, with sympathy yet holds out no hope for her, makes her seem rather gallant. (…) Beth will go down with the ship: she will never “communicate”.
(“The New Yorker” October 13, 1980 – collected in Taking It All In, pp. 81-82)
3. “Childhood of the Dead” (review of Pixote)
In her compassionate, aching review of Hector Babenco’s devastating account of poverty-stricken and crime-ridden childhood in Brazilian slum, Kael gives a beautiful rebuttal to all those who unjustly charged her with homophobia:
The swanlike Lilica, who has a classic transvestite look, is in terror of his next birthday. (In Brazil, children under eighteen can’t be prosecuted for criminal acts; they’re merely sent to reform schools, like the one we’ve seen.) Lilica is a soft creature, flamingly nelly – an imitation of a young girl without parody. Emotionally, he’s the most courageous kid of the bunch. The brutality he has seen inflicted on others hasn’t made him callous; it has deepened his understanding and made him more loving. Pixote’s soul hasn’t been awakened; Lilica seems all soul. He’s like a male version of the Giulietta Masina character in Nights of Cabiria, except that he’s smarter and funnier, and much younger. He suffers romantic tragedies, but he doesn’t go long without falling in love again.
(“The New Yorker” November 9, 1981 – collected in Taking It All In, p. 251)
2. “Bertrand Blier”
For Kael, as she indicated in the titles she gave her collections over and over again, movies were closely related to various aspects of sex: be it initiation (I Lost It at the Movies), infatuation (Hooked), rapture (Deeper Into Movies), or devotion (Going Steady). In her passionate analysis of Bertrand Blier’s films, she explores sexuality as a form of comic peril that no one ever escapes:
The social comedy in Blier’s work is essentially sexual comedy: sex screws us up, we get nicked in the groin or jumped from behind, idiots make out better than we do, and some people are so twisted that no matter what we try to do for them they wreck everything. And sex between a man and a woman is insanely mixed up with men’s infantile longings and women’s maternal passions. Sexually, life is a Keystone comedy, and completely amoral – we have no control over who or what excites us.
(“The New Yorker” October 16, 1978 – collected in When the Lights Go Down, p. 456)
1. “The Man from Dream City”
In her hands-down finest essay, Kael pays a near-flirtatious homage to Cary Grant, revisits Hollywood cinema of the 1930s, and gives the ultimate proof she has been truly going steady with the movies for quite a while:
With Gable, sex is inevitable: what is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman – her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. (…) He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner.
(“The New Yorker” July 14, 1975 – collected in When the Lights Go Down, p. 4)