“Pauline was the first person that I was aware of that was making sense of and celebrating these new movies that were coming out by these unknown directors….She brought a real exhilaration to the movies, and you bought The New Yorker every week to see what she had to say.”
—Playwright John Guare
"I always referred to her as that nasty woman."
—Director David Lean
“She turned the movie review, which is this kind of flimsy vehicle — it’s a thumbs up or thumbs down endeavor — into this expressive art form. I mean, it was as expressive as the short story or the sonnet.”
—Writer Lili Anolik
Her film criticism made careers and has often been blamed for ruining them. When Robert Altman was afraid his film Nashville (1975) would be recut by the studio, he enlisted her to write an early review as a means of pressuring them to keep his vision intact. David Lean blamed her for keeping him from making films for 14 years, and Gregory Peck claimed her negative reviews cost him roles. For 22 years, Pauline Kael was one of the mainstays of The New Yorker, writing reviews that were hotly debated and almost compulsively read. In the 1960s and 1970s, she fostered a new generation of American filmmakers, just as she had earlier promoted the works of India’s Satyajit Ray and the French New Wave. Kael was one of the most important film critics of the late 20th century, as demonstrated in this 2018 documentary directed and written by Rob Garver.
Like many young filmmakers, Garver grew up reading Kael’s books and her New Yorker reviews. After writing, directing and editing short films, he devoted four years to putting together this cinematic portrait of Kael and her influence. Using her words, both those she had recorded herself and others read by Sarah Jessica Parker, he creates a portrait of her life. He augments this with original interviews with Kael’s daughter Gina James, actor Alec Baldwin, directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Towne and writers Camille Paglia, Molly Haskell, David Edelstein and Michael Sragow. Garver unearthed archival television interviews with Kael and filmmakers like Lean, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich, and also obtained home movies from James and galleys of Kael’s reviews corrected by New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn. One of his greatest finds is an audio recording made by the daughter of Kael’s friend Allen Barra for a school project. In response to the child’s questions, Kael describes her earliest moviegoing experiences and affirms her greatest accomplishment: “I survived.”
Kael was born in Petaluma, CA, in 1919 and raised on a chicken farm there, far from the East Coast world dominated by critics like Bosley Crowther and Dwight MacDonald (whom she regularly savaged in her early reviews). After work as a nanny and advertising copywriter, she stumbled into criticism when an editor from City Lights magazine in San Francisco overheard her debating friends with whom she had just seen Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952). He invited her to write up her criticisms of the film, and the result was her first published article. After doing on-air reviews for the Berkeley, CA, public radio station, Kael took a position as film critic for McCall's magazine. It was a classic mismatch, and she was fired for panning The Sound of Music (1965) and other popular films. By that point she had already published her first collection of reviews, I Lost It at the Movies.
She was working freelance when her rave review of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) landed in The New Yorker, which led to the magazine signing her as its resident film critic (a position shared with Penelope Gilliatt for several years). Working without a word limit and with a sympathetic editor (whom she often shocked with her language and opinions), she quickly became the most influential film critic in the U.S. Although many derided her for panning such popular films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Network (1976), she also championed the new generation of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Altman and Brian de Palma, making her a major figure in the rise of the American New Wave.
Her influence was unmistakable, particularly as she fostered the careers of younger critics, dubbed "Paulettes," whom she appealed to for help promoting films she cared about. For those who didn’t read her reviews in The New Yorker, she also published 10 compilations of her work, with 1973’s Deeper into Movies winning the National Book Award. Kael took a brief break to work in Hollywood with Warren Beatty, but she and Hollywood were another mismatch, and she returned to The New Yorker within a year. By that time, there had been some anti-Kael rumblings in the press, particularly after she wrote the opening essay for The Citizen Kane Book in 1971, in which she made a strong case that co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had played as much, if not more, a role in shaping that film than its director, star and co-writer, Orson Welles.
Renata Adler, one-time critic for The New York Times, published a lengthy pan of Kael’s sixth review collection, When the Lights Go Down (1980), deeming her work since the 1960s inconsistent and worthless. That didn’t stop Kael from continuing to publish influential and often controversial reviews, most notably her pan of the Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985). Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, she announced her retirement in 1991. For the next decade, she continued to give interviews, but her only publication was the introduction to For Keeps, a 1994 collection of previously published reviews. She passed from Parkinson’s in 2001 at the age of 82.
One of the most powerful themes running through What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is the resistance Kael met as a woman with strong opinions. One letter she reads from a listener to her radio shows suggests she couldn’t make films herself because she’s a woman. In talk-show interviews, Kael spoke of disastrous dates in which the men with whom she went out with were put off by her strong opinions, particularly those about the movies. The film is also a tale of survival, as she recounts her attempts to find the right niche after college and her struggles to land a berth as a critic where she would not be subject to pressure from disgruntled Hollywood executives. Her survival and growing influence are a testament to the strength of her writing and the courage of The New Yorker (though Shawn occasionally tried, unsuccessfully, to temper some of her more extreme pans).
What She Said premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018 and spent over a year on the festival circuit — where it won the Golden Strands for Outstanding Documentary Feature at the Wichita, KS, Tallgrass Film Festival — before its commercial premiere on Christmas Day 2019. The film was met with mostly positive reviews, with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post calling it a “fitting homage, not just to a great writer but to a vanished age.” Many reviewers noted Kael’s volatility as a film critic. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star even suggested “If Kael were still alive, she might well have wanted What She Said to cock a more critical eye toward her. She says right in the doc that it’s dangerous for a critic to be too popular.”
Producers: Rob Garver, Glen Zipper
Executive Producers: Bobby Campbell, Erken Ialgashev
Director-Writer-Editor: Rob Garver
Cinematography: Vincent C. Ellis
Original Music: Rick Baitz
Cast: Pauline Kael (Archival Footage), Sarah Jessica Parker (Pauline Kael’s Voice), Gina James, Alec Baldwin, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, Greil Marcus, David Edelstein, Molly Haskell, Michael Sragow, Camille Paglia, Robert Towne (Themselves), Woody Allen, William Peter Blatty, Peter Bogdanovich, David Lean, Jerry Lewis, Norman Mailer (Archival Footage)
by Frank Miller