Pauline Kael, the greatest film critic, was born on this day in 1919 (she passed away at her home in Massachusetts aged 82 in September, 2001).
Far be it from me to attempt a tribute that would do Pauline Kael and her film writing justice so instead, here are excerpts from her typically excellent book, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.
On Marilyn Monroe
Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn’t take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack — as if she died between wolf calls.
On Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep just about always seems miscast. (She makes a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast.) In Postcards From The Edge, she’s witty and resourceful, yet every expression is eerily off, not quite human. When she sings in a country-and-Western style, she’s note-perfect, but it’s like a diva singing jazz — you don’t believe it. Streep has a genius for mimicry: she’s imitating a country-and-Western singer singing. These were my musings to a friend, who put it more simply: “She’s an android.” Yes, and it’s Streep’s android quality that gives Postcards whatever interest it has.
This tale of sorrowful, wisecracking starlet whose brassy, boozing former-star mother (Shirley MacLaine) started her on sleeping pills when she was nine is without the zest of camp. It’s camp played borderline straight — a druggy-Cinderella movie about an unformed girl who has to go past despair to find herself. The director, Mike Nichols, is a parodist who feigns sincerity, and his tone keeps slipping around. What’s clear is that we’re meant to adore the daughter, who is wounded by her mother’s cheap competitiveness. Nichols wants us to be enthralled by the daughter’s radiant face, her refinement, her honesty. He keeps the camera on Streep as if to prove that he can make her a popular big star — a new Crawford or Bette Davis. (She remains distant, emotionally atonal.)
On Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood isn’t offensive; he isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He’d have to do something before we could consider him bad at it. Acting might get in the way of what the movie is about — what a big man and a big gun can do. Eastwood’s wooden impassivity makes it possible for the brutality in his pictures to be ordinary, a matter of routine. he may try to save a buddy from getting killed, but when the buddy gets hit no time is wasted on grief; Eastwood couldn’t express grief any more than he could express tenderness. With a Clint Eastwood, the action film can — indeed, must —drop the pretense that human life has any value. At the same time, Eastwood’s lack of reaction makes the whole show of killing seem so unreal that the viewer takes it on a different level from a movie in which the hero responds to suffering.
On Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda having sex on the wilted feathers and rough, scroungy furs of Barbarella is more charming and fresh and bouncy than ever — the American girl triumphing by her innocence over a lewd comic-strip world of the future. She’s the only comedienne I can think of who is sexiest when she is funniest. (Shirley MacLaine is a sweet and sexy funny girl, but she has never quite combined her gifts as Jane Fonda does.) Jane Fonda is accomplished at a distinctive kind of double take: she registers comic disbelief that such naughty things can be happening to her, and then her disbelief changes into an even more comic delight.
On Dirk Bogarde
As the philosophy-don husband, Dirk Bogarde is just about perfect: he acts like a man who’s had a spinal tap. He’s a virtuoso at this civilized, stifled anguish racket, better even than Ralph Richardson used to be at suppressed emotion because he’s so much more ambiguous that we can’t even be sure what he’s suppressing. He aches all the time all over, like an all-purpose sufferer for a television commercial — locked in, with a claustrophobia of his own body and sensibility.
On Ava Gardner
Gardner was one of the last of the women stars to make it on beauty alone. She never looked really happy in her movies; she wasn’t quite there, but she never suggested that she was anywhere else, either. She had a dreamy, hurt quality, a generously modeled mouth, and faraway eyes. Maybe what turned people on was that her sensuality was developed but her personality wasn’t. She was a rootless, beautiful stray, somehow incomplete but never ordinary, and just about impossible to dislike, since she was utterly without affectation. But to Universal she is just one more old star to beef up a picture’s star power, and so she’s cast as a tiresome bitch whose husband is fed up with her.
She looks blowzy and beat-out, and that could be fun if she were allowed to be blowzily good-natured, but the script here harks back to those old movies in which a husband was justified in leaving his wife only is she was a jealous schemer who made his life hell. Ava Gardner might make a man’s life hell out of indolence and spiritual absenteeism, but out of shrill stupidity?
On Katharine Hepburn
There were occasions in the past when Hepburn had poor roles and was tremulous and affected — almost a caricature of quivering sensitivity. But at her best — in the archetypal Hepburn role as the tomboy Linda in Holiday, in 1938 — her wit and nonconformity made ordinary heroines seem mushy, and her angular beauty made the round-faced ingénues look piggy and stupid. She was hard where they were soft — in both head and body. (As Spencer Tracy said, in the Brooklyn accent he used in Pat and Mike, “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” Other actresses could be weak and helpless, but Davis and Hepburn had too much vitality.
Unlike Davis, Hepburn was limited to mandarin roles, although some of her finest performances were as poor girls who were mandarins by nature, as in Little Women and Alice Adams, rather than by birth or wealth, as in Bringing Up Baby and in the movie that the public liked her best in, The Philadelphia Story (even if her dedicated admirers, including me, tended to be less wild about it). Hepburn has always been inconceivable as a coarse-minded character; her bones are too fine, her diction is too crisp, she wears clothes too elegantly. And she has always been too individualistic, too singular, for common emotions. Other actresses who played career girls, like Crawford, could cop out in their roles by getting pregnant, or just by turning emotional — all womanly and ghastly. Hepburn was too hard for that, and so one could go to see her knowing that she wouldn’t deteriorate into a conventional heroine that didn’t suit her style…
On Isabella Rossellini
Rossellini doesn’t show anything like the acting technique that her mother, Ingrid Bergman, had, but she’s willing to try things, and she doesn’t hold back. Dorothy is a dream of a freak. Walking around her depressing apartment in her black bra and panties, with blue eyeshadow and red high heels, she’s a woman in distress right out of the pulps; she has plushy, tempestuous look of heroines who are described as “bewitching.” (She has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.)
Rossellini’s accent is useful: it’s part of Dorothy’s strangeness. And Rossellini’s echoes of her mother’s low voice help to place this kitschy seductress in an unreal world. She has a special physical quality, too. There’s nothing of the modern American woman about her. When she’s naked, she’s not protected, like the stars who are pummelled into shape and lighted to show their muscular perfection. She’s defenselessly, tactilely naked, like the nudes the Expressionists painted.
On Woody Allen
Allen appears before us as the battered adolescent, scarred forever, a little too nice and much too threatened to allow himself to be aggressive. He has the city-wise effrontery of a shrimp who began by using language to protect himself and then discovered that language has a life of its own. the running way between the tame and surreal — between Woody Allen the frightened nice guy trying to keep the peace and Woody Allen the wiseacre whose subversive fantasies keep jumping out of his mouth — has been the source of the comedy in his films. Messy, tasteless, and crazily uneven (as the best talking comedies have often been) the last two pictures he directed — Bananas andEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — had wild highs that suggested an erratic comic genius. The tension between his insecurity and his wit make us empathize with him; we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel.
And he has found a nonaggressive way of dealing with urban pressures. He stays nice; he’s not insulting, like most New York comedians, and he delivers his zingers without turning into a cynic. We enjoy his show of defenselessness, and even the I don’t-mean-any-harm ploy, because we see the essential sanity in him. We respect that sanity — it’s the base from which he takes flight. At his top, in parts of Bananas and Sex, the inexplicably funny took over; it might be grotesque, it almost always had the flippant, corny bawdiness of a frustrated sophomore running amok, but it seemed to burst out —as the most inspired comedy does — as if we had all been repressing it. We laughed as if he had let out what we couldn’t hold in any longer.
On Robert De Niro
De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but that he has Brando’s wary soul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end.
In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. Even the soft, cracked Brando-like voice seems to come from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a cowardly landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.