During her glory years at The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Pauline Kael enlivened the quiet art of analyzing movies with a lusty noise that echoes in certain movie-festival hallways a decade after her death. Her acerbic, controversial opinions were born of her passion for the sensations of movie watching. And she stated them in a swinging prose style (still imitated today) that excited and provoked not only readers and fellow critics but also the people who made the movies Kael loved or hated. She was, to put it plainly, the most influential movie critic of the late 20th century. And as Brian Kellow calmly demonstrates in his rich biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, she was a tough dame — she’d like that term — who worked out personal issues in her criticism.
Kellow, an editor at Opera News, brings two unassailable strengths to a bio that’s bound to be catnip for both Kael’s fans and her naysayers. First, he is impressively thorough in his research. He ferrets out illuminating information about Kael’s childhood as the daughter of Polish Jewish chicken farmers in California, her never-quite-satisfactory romantic relationships with men, her dependence on the daughter she raised as a single mother, her financial struggles, and (most juicily) her oil-and-water clashes with The New Yorker’s painfully genteel editor William Shawn. As for Kellow’s second strength, it’s an elegantly simple one: He’s a movie lover but not a professional critic. Kael had many axes to grind, but Kellow appears to have none. He just pays attention — an asset for anyone who loves life in the dark. A-