Pauline Kael: “Good Witch with a Wicked Tongue”

Pauline Kael is an undeniably notorious figure in the world of film criticism. Kael has rightfully been deemed “the queen of mean” by Renata Adler in her lawyer-like analysis in “The Perils of Pauline.” Kael is destitute of a “quiet authority of the this-is-who-I-am, and here’s-what-I-have-to-say,” instead replacing it with a “vain, overbearing, foolish, hysterical…somewhat violent spectacle.”

Adler accuses Kael’s work as being “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless” that is contaminated with pseudo-intellectual terms using her “nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages:” whore, myth, emblem, pop, comic-strip, trash, pulp, visceral, and level. Her work is also watered down with repetitious phrases like “ditsy little twitches,” “ruthless no soul monsters,” “incomprehensible bitch,” and “obnoxious smartass.” Kael’s tendency towards exaggeration, hyperbole, and superlative is shown through expressions such as “poisonously mediocre” and “wickedest baroque sensibility at large in America.”

Kael’s most bothersome technique of critique used is her personal attacks on the physical appearance of the actors—spewing verbal anthrax by calling Lily Tomlin a “wistful pony; when she grins, her equine gums and long, drawn face suggest a friendly, goofy horse.” The comment on Tomlin’s looks is simply unnecessary and vicious. It is also contradictory how she gives Barbra Streisand (and her lack of “perfect little features”) a backhanded compliment, saying they are “interesting” but talent is her only beauty in Kael’s review of Funny Girl. Why is it that Streisand’s “big, irregular features” are refreshing while Tomlin’s equine face is so harshly judged? The looks of both Tomlin and Streisand are virtually irrelevant and Kael making a point to focus on them is just plain rude.

Adler censures Kael’s lowbrow taste level, indirectly comparing it a 15-year-old boy: “She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials.” These themes along with Kael’s perverse word choice correlates with her constant “undercurrent of irrelevant, apparently inadvertent sexual revelation”

Image copyright Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd

David Denby’s essay entitled “My Life as a Paulette” gives describes his bittersweet relationship with Kael, concluding that she is overbearing, “motherly” figure who will ever-so-graciously take you under her wing, as long as you agreed with her cruel criticism and thoroughly imitated her writing style.

Denby explains how Kael mentored young writers like himself; Kael was using them to shape a cult-like following of Paulette’s. This “increasingly notorious group of disciples” harbored a certain conformity in which she was “merely telling them off for their own good.”

Denby admits Kael “could not remain friends for long with anyone who consistently fought her” but if someone enforced their own disagreeing opinion that she “pulled the rug out from under us.” Denby had the personal displeasure of experiencing this firsthand when Kael “called one afternoon with grim news: I had no talent for this trade.” Kael’s self-righteousness is undeniable; it is as if she honestly believes her opinion is the only correct one, and if someone disagrees she stomps off in an immature hissy fit.

Adler’s laundry-list of critiques, in conjunction with Denby’s atrocious experience, and instances in her own film reviews display Kael’s true character: a combative, “queen of mean” who eagerly thrusts her own opinions onto others with utter disregard to their dissenting opinion. Kael’s fearlessness, passion, and strong voice are drowned out due to her own narcissism.

2 thoughts on “Pauline Kael: “Good Witch with a Wicked Tongue”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Kael was indeed a catastrophic influence on arts criticism, probably the single greatest stomach-churning disaster in the history of criticism. And she was frequently stupid and witless in her capricious judgments, too.

    Her two worst acolytes are the utterly abysmal, talent-free hacks Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek, but there are also Allen Barra, Craig Seligman, David Edelstein and loads more who ape her trite, banal attudinizing. Kael was the Ayn Rand of film criticism, a pathological narcissist, domineering bully and coward, and pseudo-intellectual who created a cult of personality around herself, and who managed to seduce legions of credulous, spineless vassals and toadies, who continue to pollute the mainstream of criticism with their inane, trash-and-pulp-addicted lowbrow aesthetic.

  2. You two will get no argument from me, and the new Kael biography doesn’t have her coming up smelling like a rose, particular the news that she plagiarized her brief against Orson Welles in “The Citizen Kane Book”, in which, ironically she claims Welles stole the credit from “Citizen Kane” from its supposedly “true” author, Herman J. Mankiewicz.

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