three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
By: 
Brian Kellow
user_rating: 
0

A Life in the Dark

A-Pauline KaelBrian Kellow, whose previous works include acclaimed biographies of Ethel Merman and the Bennett sisters, is the features editor at Opera News. His latest, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is the first book-length biography to be published on the notorious film critic.

The Topic: Insightful, acerbic, and controversial film commentator Pauline Kael, who reviewed movies for the New Yorker between 1967 and 1991, could, at the height of her popularity, make or break careers with a single critique. The youngest daughter of Polish chicken farmers, Kael studied philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, managed a cinema, and discussed movies on a regular radio program before, at the age of 48, she was hired by straight-laced New Yorker editor William Shawn. Kellow interweaves her troubled personal life with the peaks and pitfalls of her nearly 40-year career, including her vicious attacks on other critics, her contentious relationship with Shawn, and her unabashed favoritism. While Hollywood revolutionized American cinema in the 1970s, Kael transformed film criticism with her gut-level, emotional responses to movies and her earthy, brash reviews.
Viking. 432 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780670023127

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"[Kellow] brings two unassailable strengths to a bio that's bound to be catnip for both Kael's fans and her naysayers. First, he is impressively thorough in his research. ... As for Kellow's second strength, it's an elegantly simple one: He's a movie lover but not a professional critic." Lisa Schwarzbaum

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"She had ‘both a distaste for sycophancy and a need for a certain degree of obeisance,' and she sends very mixed signals, even now. It is possible to be dazzled by the bravura authority of her writing without remotely agreeing with her, and this biography fully captures such contradictions." Janet Maslin

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"[Kellow] has interviewed about 170 people for Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, and he presents a woman of paradoxes. ... She had a brilliant, analytic mind but was naive enough to think that if she told someone the truth, no matter how cruelly, there would be no fallout or repercussions." Jim Heinrich

Slate.com 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The woman whose 82-year-long life Kellow chronicles in this meticulously researched, sympathetic book was a real piece of work: self-assured to the point of arrogance, boundlessly energetic and brashly combative, capable of generously nurturing talent in the filmmakers and journalists she admired and then, just as brusquely, abandoning or betraying them. ... Kael's domestic life was as unconventional as her career path, and it's here that Kellow's biography leaves the reader wanting more." Dana Stevens

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Author Brian Kellow does a fine job outlining Kael's most famous and infamous essays and observations through the years. ... What is most invaluable about Kellow's book, however, is his explanations of how this youngest of five children raised by Polish-Jewish immigrants who spent her first eight years on a Petaluma, Calif., chicken farm came to think and react to films in her uniquely personal way." Susan Wloszczyna

Onion A.V. Club 3 of 5 Stars
"[Kael's daughter Gina] James [who functioned as Kael's secretary and companion] didn't speak to Kellow for his book--in the acknowledgements, he thanks her for not blocking him from writing it--and that's a weakness: Kellow frequently ends his chapters with some variation on ‘Meanwhile, Gina was still quiet,' even when there isn't much more he can report. Nevertheless, A Life In The Dark works in providing Kael's life with a firm, compelling narrative." Michaelangelo Matos

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"I came away from Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark somewhat downcast over what I'd learned about Kael's methods but still curious as to how this woman managed to make such a remarkable career for herself while raising a child alone. Kellow's is a fine biography, but there is still room to go deeper into the life of the critic who dove so deep into the movies." Mary Pols

Critical Summary

One of the most influential and exasperating film reviewers in the history of American cinema, Kael poured her heart into her writing but zealously guarded her personal life. Nevertheless, Kellow's meticulous research and copious interviews with friends and colleagues coalesce into a compelling portrait of this remarkable woman, illuminating the origins of her contradictory personality and incomparable approach to film. While Kellow's sympathy and admiration for Kael are evident, he does not gloss over her personal and professional failings. The critics were disappointed--as was, no doubt, Kellow--that Kael's daughter refused to contribute. For that reason, Pauline Kael may not be the final word on the infamous film critic, but it is "a smart and incisive biography" (New York Times) all the same.

Cited by the Critics

I Lost It at the Movies | Pauline Kael (1965): Kael's frequently hilarious prose, as well as her intelligence and creativity, are on full display in her first collection of essays and movie reviews.