When Brian Kellow first met movie critic Pauline Kael in New York City as an awkward young man, he was so nervous that he stumbled over his words, and interrupted her as she asked him if hed seen any good movies recently.
She was a force of nature in the criticism world brash and brazen, capable of elevating or imploding a career with so much as a few words and dispensing such razor-sharp critiques that she was sometimes on the receiving end of profanity-laced invective from the filmmakers she lambasted and he was interrupting her.
Uh oh, he thought.
But she stopped talking and told him to continue. She wanted to hear what he had to say. It was an incredibly polite thing to do, he said.
Decades later, the Tillamook-born writer has published the first biography about Kael, who has inspired new generations of filmgoers and critics alike. Kellow was the featured speaker at the Columbia Forum Thursday evening to discuss his book, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, along with the woman who ushered in the modern era of film criticism.
Kael was an iconoclast, Kellow said, and she immediately stood apart from other film critics of the 1950s who wrote reviews in a staid and genteel manner.
She shot from the hip, said Kellow, who is also the features editor of Opera News. There were people who loved her for it, and there were people who hated her.
A film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 until 1991, Kaels popularity was a result of her crisp, witty prose and her no-holds-barred opinions, Kellow said. She hated false sentimentality and schmaltz and championed the taboo-violating movies that greeted moviegoers in the late 1960s, after the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America and its rating system. She found the films of the 1970s liberating and more grown up.
But her tastes were not for everyone, Kellow said. She was fired from the magazine McCalls prior to her employment at The New Yorker because she hated every commercial movie released, including The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago.
Kael called The Sound of Music, the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat and ended the review by writing: We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.
The movie was a multiple Academy Award winner and a box office smash hit. The scathing review was the last straw for McCalls.
They realized she was not the critic for them, Kellow said.
But she was the top critic for many film buffs, even if she had a disdain for many popular movies. Her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, sold more than 150,000 copies an unprecedented number for a book of criticism when it was released in 1965.
By the late 1970s, Kael decided that she would try to change Hollywood from the inside, Kellow said. She accepted an offer by Warren Beatty to work as a producer for his production company. Kael had previously been one of the champions of the 1967 Beatty film Bonnie and Clyde one of the most violent mainstream movies made at the time.
Kellow said Beattys rationale for hiring the film critic was that she could explain what was wrong with pictures before they got made.
The career shift would be short lived. Kael found herself surrounded by people who were incapable of thinking critically, Kellow said.
You go into a boardroom and you agree, he said. She was appalled by many of the men in power.
Back in New York
She moved back to New York City and tried to get her job back at The New Yorker. Though she had only taken a leave of absence from the magazine, her editor William Shawn was reluctant to allow her back. He was concerned that she had been corrupted by Hollywood, Kellow said.
She was able to convince him otherwise, and she got her job back.
The 1980s was a decade when Kaels status reached its zenith. Many high-level young critics began emulating Kaels style without emulating her and she took them under her wing to further inspire their creativity. These young critics were called the Paulettes, Kellow said, for their devotion to her.
It was an amazing turnaround for Kael, who grew up in a small California settlement of Jewish chicken farmers. She was a failed playwright and worked as an au pair, a seamstress, a cook and a bookseller before she started down the path of writing.
Her career as a movie critic began by happenstance, when in 1953 a magazine editor overheard her in a coffee shop arguing the merits of a film and offered her a writing gig.
Shed come a long way from those early years, Kellow said.
Kael was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease in the 1980s and retired from The New Yorker in 1991. She never returned to writing and died in 2001 at the age of 82.
Turnout at Thursdays Columbia Forum was sparse, but audience members who were unaware of Kaels legacy appeared engaged in her story.
Former Astoria Mayor Edith Henningsgaard Miller asked whether the last years of Kaels life were lonely.
They werent lonely, Kellow said, but the onset of her disease made them depressing. He recounted a story in which he tried to pry her out of retirement in the 1990s to write a piece for the Opera News.
Kellow said she turned him down by explaining that she never went out in public anymore because she was shaking worse than an old washing machine.
Audience member Harry Comins asked how long it takes to put a biography together. Kellow said it could take years, because it requires interviewing people and rifling through the subjects archives.
But writing a biography of Kael was a dream job, Kellow said. She was one of his writing heroes starting as a teenager.
Her writing took hold of me like nothing else, Kellow said. She was good at getting under the skin of movies and pointing out with accuracy what was wrong with movies. I became addicted to her writing. Even when I disagreed with her, I never hated her.