NEW YORK (Reuters) — Pauline Kael, whose long and passionate movie reviews in the New Yorker mobilized and divided fans and filmmakers alike, died on Monday at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a spokeswoman for the magazine said.
Kael, who was 82, had Parkinson's disease.
New Yorker editor David Remnick praised Kael for "obliterating the wall between 'high' and 'low"' in the criticism she wrote for the magazine between 1968 and her retirement in 1991.
"With her reviews of films like Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris she shared her delight in both the sublime and the profane. She shaped American film criticism for generations to come and, more important, the national understanding of the movie," Remnick said in a statement.
A small woman with sharp opinions and a muscular prose style, Kael was born in Petaluma, Calif., on June 19, 1919. She grew up in San Francisco and studied philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. After a succession of modest jobs — cooking, sewing, and selling books, among other things — Kael began writing film reviews for small West Coast newspapers and magazines.
But her professional apprenticeship took place between 1955 and 1960, when she ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio and supplied detailed and outspoken notes on the movies she had programmed.
Going Against the Grain A brief stint as film critic for McCall's ended when she gave the women's magazine a devastating pan of The Sound of Music. She called the wholesome, hugely popular musical "The Sound of Money," and decried its "sickly, goody-goody songs."
Legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn then gave her work a new home — and an expansive one, since Kael wrote at length when a picture stirred her enthusiasm, employing punchy, colloquial language at odds with the magazine's (and her boss's) buttoned-down style.
Besides the trend-setting violence and romantic amorality of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the sexual daring of Last Tango in Paris (1973), Kael also responded to the complex casualness of Nashville (1975).
Indeed, Nashville director Robert Altman became one of her favorites. And Kael was never shy about championing, and even offering detailed suggestions to, filmmakers she admired. These included two other then-fledgling American directors: Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
Kael's admirers valued her determination to lay bare movies' meanings and mechanics without becoming pedantic. Her detractors — and her scorn for ordinary commercial product meant that she had many in the industry — accused her of playing favorites to promote herself.
Flop as Producer In 1979 Kael went to Hollywood as a consultant for Paramount, but her attempt to move behind the screen quickly fizzled.
"I was dying to leave after a few months … You see all the arrogance and the money- and honor-chasing," she recalled in a 1998 interview. "You find part of what makes someone a director is an amalgam of qualities not desirable in a home."
Kael further found that she "didn't have the patience" to be a producer. "You go over a script a dozen times, and the first version was generally better than the one you end up with. Everything is subject to negotiations," she said.
Over the years, Kael often shared her New Yorker reviewing duties with other staffers, and eventually, she concentrated on capsule reviews, which were collected as 5001 Nights at the Movies. Among her other books — with typically catchy titles — were Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and I Lost It at the Movies.
After her Parkinson's disease worsened, Kael retired to Great Barrington, in western Massachusetts. "When I quit in '91, I felt I had nothing new to say," Kael told Modern Maturity magazine. "Old critics tend to become tiresome, and I didn't want to be one of those old farts."
Married and divorced three times, Kael is survived by a her daughter, Gina James, and a grandson.