My partner, Draper Shreeve, and I finished a short film, Dangerous Music, in August 1991. It was the comic tale of a divorced young woman who finds herself pursued by a string quartet. I wrote it, and Draper directed it. We were pleased with the results and sent a videotape to our favorite movie critic, Pauline Kael. Neither of us knew her, although I’d written her a couple of fan letters over the years. The seventy-two-year-old Kael had just retired from the New Yorker, so our gift was more an act of homage than a plea for favors.
A week later, I was at home in our apartment in New York, working on a novel at my manual typewriter, when the phone rang. “Hi. This is Pauline Kael,” said a croaky female voice—she sounded very amused with herself.
“Really?” I said in disbelief.
She laughed. “I received your film, and I enjoyed it very much.”
We chatted for a good fifteen minutes. She asked me what we did for a living, and I told her I wrote novels. “Have any been published?” I’d published several, but this was before the novel that became the movie Gods and Monsters; I was not a known name.
She closed by saying that if we ever passed through Great Barrington, where she lived, we should give her a call and maybe stop by for a drink.
I was still breathless when Draper got home, and I told him the news. We immediately planned an “impromptu” trip to Great Barrington.
It’s not often that one falls in love with a film critic, but both Draper and I were in love with Pauline Kael. We were not alone.
I stumbled upon her work during my freshman year in college. I was planning to become a movie director, not a novelist, and I wanted to learn as much about filmmaking as I could. In the years before video and DVDs, it was easier to read about old movies than it was to see them. I read Kael’s early collections, I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, before I began to read her regularly in the New Yorker. I read other critics, too, but I kept coming back to Kael. I loved the swing of her prose, the sting of her humor, the exuberance of her passions. She was fearless in her opinions, unafraid of seeming too celebratory or too damning. My college years, the 1970s, were a golden age of cinema, and Kael regularly stuck her neck out to praise a wide variety of new films: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Young Frankenstein, Murmur of the Heart, Mean Streets, Carrie, Cries & Whispers, Fiddler on the Roof, Nashville, and Last Tango in Paris. When Draper and I first met, we found that one of the things we had in common was a love of Kael: together we owned all her books in either hardcover or paper.
Neither of us read her slavishly, mind you. We could disagree with her, and sometimes she was just plain wrong. She hated Meryl Streep so much she couldn’t appreciate her performance in A Cry in the Dark, even though the director, Fred Schepisi, was one of Kael’s favorites. The Warriors and The Empire Strikes Back were not as wonderful as she said, and Goodfellas was hardly the failure she claimed it to be. But it was far more interesting to argue with Kael than it was to agree with other critics.
She paid close attention to story construction, which I found useful as a novelist. She wasn’t afraid of sex or humor. She could enjoy trash, and she loved the disruptive energy of lust in a work of art. Her strong point of view took in life as well as art. Her attitudes and even some of her sayings entered our vocabulary. Draper and I sometimes quoted her without remembering where we’d first read a line, such as “recognizable human behavior,” which she used for Irving Kershner’s Loving, or her remark that Fanny and Alexander tells the story of people learning to live with their craziness, which “may be as good a definition of sanity as any other.”
She had retired due to age and the onset of Parkinson’s, and we were sorry, but our sorrow was mostly selfish. We were sad we wouldn’t have any new Kael reviews to read. And, yes, secret parts of us had hoped that one day she’d review us.
One Saturday morning in September, we rented a car and headed north to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, two and a half hours away. Draper drove, and I navigated. The sky was overcast, and the Berkshires were a soft, grayish green. There was a horse fair in town that day, and the streets were full of traffic.
Up a hill, beyond an abandoned railroad station, at the address she had given over the phone, stood a long, tall twin-turreted Victorian house. I hadn’t expected such an elaborate place. It sat on the hill like a stranded steamboat.
We parked and went up to the wide wraparound porch and rang the bell.
A voice called from upstairs. “Who is it? Oh shit. I was about to take a bath.”
A few minutes later, she came to the screen door, a small figure in a silky white robe printed with flowers. She was very short, only five feet tall, with big glasses, wispy hair, and a rounder, more grandmotherly face than I’d expected. We introduced ourselves.
“Your name’s really Draper?” she said. “Oh shit. Come on in.” Despite the profanity, she was surprisingly soft-spoken, like a sweet old lady. She told us to “poke around” while she got dressed and put on some make-up.
The house was enormous. An Exercycle stood in front of a television in the living room. She later told us she’d gotten a good workout during the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. In a study to the side, mail covered a table next to an old upright piano. An autographed photo of Jean Renoir sat in a cluttered bookcase beside a loose 45 rpm record of Jeanne Moreau’s song in Jules and Jim. A windowsill in the hall was piled with debris, including a pillow embroidered with the words “Artistic success is deliberate. Commercial success is accidental.”
“You can come up now. I’m decent!” she called down.
We climbed the stairs to the second floor, and she gave us a tour. There were bookcases in every room and pictures of her nine-year-old grandson, Willy. She made constant references to her daughter, Gina, who lived with Willy in town. A bookcase on the third floor was full of trashy Hollywood bios and memoirs. “I don’t read them,” she said, “but some of my guests love them, so I don’t throw them away anymore.”
She told us how she bought the house in 1970 for $39,000, the $13,000 down payment cleaning out her savings. “But it was the one smart investment I ever made.” She had stumbled on the area while visiting Gina, who was dancing at nearby Jacob’s Pillow. Gina was now a painter—an example of her work hung on the wall, a sketch for a larger canvas. Downstairs was a framed picture of a cat that Gina did as a child. I wondered what must it be like to be the daughter of a famous mother who loves you and your son and nobody else. It can’t be easy.
Kael said she didn’t want Willy to see the movie Willow, in which the villain is named General Kael. (She’d given the director, George Lucas, more than one bad review.) But the boy went to a birthday party where General Kael dolls were handed out, and she had to explain it to him. “When he finally saw Willow, he loved it.” She laughed. “The traitor.”
She showed us the dining room, which was full of dark wainscotting; a colorful Victorian lamp hung over the table, a stained glass lamp by John LaFarge. She bought late-Victorian glass in the 1950s for cheap before people appreciated it. “For years I lusted after modern furniture, but this was all I could afford. Now it’s what I prefer.” The house had a wonderful feel of cluttered spaciousness. Later Draper said he could move into it without changing a thing.
On a landing in the stairwell stood a stack of recent novels, including Boy Wonder by James Baker, which I knew contained a character like Kael revealed at the end to be the secret mother of a character like Brian De Palma. I didn’t mention this to her.
On the wall was a drawing of the house by Irvin Kershner and a photo of it by Norman Jewison, director of Fiddler on the Roof.
She wound a long paisley scarf around her neck, and we went out to get lunch in nearby Southfield. Citizen Kane was playing at the local movie theater. Draper asked if she’d seen it again. “God, no,” she groaned. The theater frequently had retrospectives, which brought filmmakers to Great Barrington. George Roy Hill came to town and ran into Kael on the street. She had given bad reviews to almost every movie he made, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but she recommended a nutritionist who’d helped her with her Parkinson’s—Hill had Parkinson’s too. “It’s the only nice thing she ever did for me,” he later told a friend. Writer Roy Blount lived in the neighborhood—he sometimes gave her rides into New York—and art critic Sanford Schwartz. There was a taxi cab service for the disabled that helped her get around.
I asked her about the new movie Henry & June. She liked the director, Philip Kaufman, but she didn’t like this movie, chiefly because she thought it glorified Nin and “denatured” Miller—her word. She had the gentlest way of disagreeing, but she never elaborated or went into detail, which disappointed me. She preferred telling stories about her life. She had moved east when she couldn’t meet payments on her house in San Francisco after Mademoiselle refused to take an article they had commissioned. She bought the house here when her rent was raised in New York to half her salary at the time (she was making $1,300 a month at the New Yorker in 1970). Very matter-of-factly, without complaint, she gave a strong impression of a difficult life.
We ate in a restaurant called the Buggy Whip Factory, which Draper found wonderfully appropriate, considering Kael’s reputation. We spoke briefly about Dangerous Music, and she said again how much she liked it. She thought it could be tightened a little but knew that reediting would be expensive, and thought we should go on to our next project. She talked about echoes between our movie and Anthony Mingella’s first feature, Truly Madly Deeply, which had just opened. We hadn’t seen it yet. We asked if she’d consider giving us a quote or comment for our movie. She said she’d think about it. We didn’t mention it again.
I had told her earlier how I reviewed movies for two years for the New York Native. I said we were sorry she wasn’t reviewing anymore. “Would you want to review films right now?” she asked. “No,” I said. It was a dry era in American film; the independent scene was only beginning to take off.
We spent the rest of the meal talking about various filmmakers and fellow critics.
She loved Barbra Streisand, who telephoned Kael after her bad review of Funny Lady to say that Kael was right.
She loathed John Simon, whom she believed was the only critic who was a sadist, who actually wanted to hurt people’s feelings. “I know that’s what everyone thinks about all critics, but it’s really true for Simon.”
She spoke almost fondly of Andrew Sarris, despite their feud over the auteur theory several decades ago.
She thought Stanley Kauffman was pompous as well as stupid.
She kind of liked Roger Ebert as a person but not as a critic.
She said Bernardo Bertolucci’s problem was too much coke and too much psychoanalysis. Also, he refused to give audiences pleasure anymore. She disliked The Sheltering Sky for what Bertolucci had done to Debra Winger. We talk around Bertolucci’s repressed sexuality.
This led to talk of her gay friends. She mentioned Paul Monette and was sorry to hear he was sick; she liked his unfilmed scripts very much. I mentioned Richard Kramer, writer/producer of Thirtysomething and Tales of the City, who knew Kael when he was in high school. He had told me she once described him as half-angel, half-whore. She now said, “I’m not so sure about the angel part anymore.”
I have a couple of gay friends who dislike Kael for her writing in general, but mostly because they think she’s homophobic. I still get into arguments with one friend, heated discussions that don’t always remain friendly. I don’t think she’s homophobic; I just think she’s sometimes wrong. Her opinions about gay people and their movies are all over the map. She was often pro in her reviews (the criminalization of homosexuality suggested “that heterosexuality couldn’t hold its own on the open market”), and most of her negative comments are the sort one hears from sharp-tongued gay men of an older generation (a song from Funny Lady “is destined to be a jukebox favorite in every gay bar in the world”—it was not a compliment). But she spent her twenties and thirties surrounded by gay men in San Francisco, including poet Robert Duncan. The father of her daughter, Gina, was the gay poet/filmmaker James Broughton. I think Kael’s problem was that she forgot she wasn’t a gay man herself and might not have the right to say certain things. (She took similar liberties in talking about black actors and filmmakers.) And I feel her own sexuality was hardly conventional but was somewhat polymorphous.
After lunch we snooped around the shops outside the restaurant, Kael looking like a quiet, curious old lady. She reminded me of my Gramma Mac, a painter, also short and slightly stooped. I remembered a description I’d read of the novelist Colette, a shameless sensualist who loved to examine and touch everything, bending down to get closer to it.
An overpriced set of seedpods from Australia caught her eye. “Interestingly creepy,” she observed.
We brought up the recent Pee-wee Herman scandal, when Herman was arrested in a porn theater in Florida. Kael sighed. “He was visiting his family. Oh fuck. Who hasn’t done something stupid when they were visiting their family?”
Riding back to Great Barrington, I brought up books, but she said little about her reading, except to say that Lore Segal’s Her First American was a breath of fresh air after Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer, which was sleazily readable but verbose and gassy.
Back at the house, we went with her up to her writing room. A Martin Scorsese book that Draper had designed stood on her bookcase, but he shook his head so I wouldn’t mention it. When he said the only book of hers we didn’t own in hardcover was Reeling, she went into the next room and returned with a mint copy that she signed to us. “For Chris and Draper, Affectionately—Pauline Kael, Great Barrington ’91.”
Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography lay on her desk. Kael laughed and said it was all lies, Hepburn determined to present herself as a hot-blooded, man-loving woman and lay the lesbian rumors to rest. She scoffed at the idea of Spencer Tracy being the love of Hepburn’s life. “That drunk!” (I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about her own sexuality or even about the rich, voluptuous descriptions of actresses in her reviews. She doesn’t describe the men half as evocatively.)
Also on her desk was a large wooden chicken painted with Amish designs sitting on a sheaf of yellow legal-pad pages covered in pencil. Yes, she said, she was working on something, but she wouldn’t tell us what. (Draper later speculated it was her memoir; I speculated that it was a long essay about working with Warren Beatty during her sojourn in Hollywood. But whatever it was, it was never published.)
We departed slowly, talking about this and that on our way out through the huge, old kitchen. She encouraged Draper to do more work with actors. “There are always theater groups looking for directors, and it’s a great experience for later.” Beside the big 1960s turquoise oven was a panel of bells with an arrow that could point to the “Living Room” or “Dining Room” or “Mrs. Pearson’s Bedroom.” Pauline Kael lived alone in a mansion that once required a whole crew of servants. On the copper sink was an open engagement book, our names penciled in with others, although her schedule wasn’t as full as I thought it would be.
We thanked her for having lunch with us, shook hands goodbye, and she said, “I look forward to seeing your next movie.”
We started the long drive home and immediately began to compare notes. Draper said Kael kept reminding him of other people we knew. She had one friend’s quiet manner, which left us unprepared for the harshness of her judgments, another friend’s light, cheerful laugh, and Roger Ebert’s eyeglasses. He also said she reminded him of a grandmother, but one who said “shit” and “fuck” a lot.
He then asked if I was disappointed by the visit. The question surprised me. I wasn’t disappointed, I insisted, not really.
But yes. Maybe I was. A little. Meeting Pauline Kael was a quieter, more down-to-earth experience than I’d imagined it would be. The brilliant sybil in my head wasn’t brilliant in person, but was very human, very real. I now wonder how much age and Parkinson’s had affected her demeanor, muffling her presence, but there was no sense of age or illness at the time.
You meet the sybil in your head, the dazzling literary wizard of your thoughts, and she turns out to be wrapped in good manners and money problems, old wounds and fresh aches—just like everyone else. You can’t help feeling disappointed.
I suspect a similar disappointment is at work in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s recent, highly readable, very informative biography: you can feel his disappointment with the flawed human crowding out his love of her writing, no matter how many of her reviews he quotes. But the best of any good writer is concentrated in his or her written words.
It’s now over twenty years after our visit and twelve years after her death in 2001, but people still talk about Pauline Kael. She continues to evoke both love and anger, amusement and irritation. I teach her in my “Writing about Film” class, and my students often find her work fresh and exciting, even though she’s discussing movies made before they were born. And yes, the written Kael is truer, smarter, sharper, more vivid than the human, day-to-day Kael. But the human Kael was far from negligible. After all, she was open and generous when contacted by a pair of struggling filmmakers, two fans who weren’t anyone special but who still loved her work even after she stopped writing.
“What about you?” I asked Draper on the ride home that evening. “Were you disappointed?”
He thought a moment. “No. Not really. I don’t know what I expected,” he admitted. “But I liked her. I liked her very much.”