This Day in Jewish History / A Legendary American Film Critic Is Born

Pauline Kael, who inspired a generation of young critics, often threw her support behind films that were heavy with grit, sex and violence.

June 19, 1919, is the birthdate of the renowned American film critic Pauline Kael, the power and passion of whose writing was matched by the strength of people’s reactions to it. Kael’s influence extended beyond her ability to help make or break a movie; she also served to inspire and mold an entire generation of younger critics, informing their sensibility and often even the language they used and the way they constructed their sentences.

Pauline Kael was the fifth child of Isaac Paul Kael and the former Judith Friedman, both of them recent immigrants from Poland who owned a chicken farm in Petaluma, Sonoma County, California, where she was born. When Pauline was eight, her parents lost their farm, and the family moved to nearby San Francisco.

In 1936, Kael began undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, but she dropped out before completing a degree, and despite her intentions of returning, she never did. Instead, she moved to New York with a poet friend, before returning to California.

Kael worked in films and theater, and supported herself with menial jobs as well as working as an advertising copywriter. She also married and divorced three times, and in 1948, together with the filmmaker James Broughton, had a daughter.

In 1953, the editor of the local magazine City Lights overheard Kael arguing with a friend in a coffee shop about movies, and asked them both if they’d be interested in contributing to the periodical. Their first assignment was to write about the Charlie Chaplin film “Limelight,” and only Kael turned in a piece, in which she referred to the classic film as “Slimelight.”

Kael’s tenure at The New Yorker, where she attained near-mythic status, did not begin until 1968. Until then, she reviewed, at various times, for highbrow publications like Partisan Review and Sight and Sound, and for the Bay radio station KPFA, and later for the women’s magazine McCall’s and for The New Republic. From 1955 to 1960, she also managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild, a repertory theater with two screens, where, in the words of Lisa Hom, in a 2001 obituary for Kael in the San Francisco Weekly, she “unapologetically repeated her favorites until they also became audience favorites.”

When The New Republic refused, in 1967, to publish a long essay by Kael about “Bonnie and Clyde,” a violent film that she had loved, she took it to The New Yorker, where editor William Shawn took the piece on. A short time later, she quit The New Republic – where her reviews had regularly been changed without her approval – and began to review for The New Yorker, first alternating with another critic, later as the magazine’s sole critic.

Kael was a woman of strong opinions and a personal, provocative style, and she often threw her support behind films that were heavy with grit, sex and violence. She also had a tendency to go against the conventional wisdom about movies that were critical favorites. Writing in McCall’s, she suggested that “The Sound of Music” purveyed “a sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.” When she wrote a pan of Terrence Malick’s much-admired “Badlands” (1973), William Shawn reportedly told her, “I guess you don’t know that Terry is like a son to me,” to which Kael responded, “Tough s---, Bill.” Shawn published the review in its original form.

In 1979, Kael accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to move to Hollywood and work as a production consultant on a film called “Love and Money,” but the project never got off the ground. After a few months, Kael returned to The New Yorker, where she wrote a long critique on “Why Are Movies so Bad?”

In 1991, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Kael retired from her position as critic at the magazine, and although she announced she would continue writing occasional pieces on film, she never published again, other than the introduction to a collection of her reviews. She died at her home in Massachusetts on September 3, 2001.

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