The Best Lover a Movie Could Have

“Don’t be a sap,” she would tell me now, in one of those Preston Sturges-like turns of phrase that she’d make sound better than anyone, even Barbara Stanwyck. It was that singing voice, high and fluttery, a feathered quill that could tickle and skewer. She didn’t write eulogies, and she wouldn’t have liked reading this one, even if it weren’t about her. Well, Pauline: Tough. You were a great writer, the greatest movie critic of all time. You were a loving friend. Sap happens.

She had a bad spell a few weeks ago, then she partially recovered; I thought she would come all the way back and deliver the lecture she’d promised to Columbia University this year. What an event that would have been. She was holding on for it, but her body and mind had been through too much—not just Parkinson’s disease but the drugs used to treat it, which made her fabled memory spotty. She still had better recall than 99 percent of the population, but for her that was a comedown: This was a woman who’d take three or four notes per film and rarely reread them. She could reproduce a movie in her mind—and then usher us in.

This is obvious: Pauline Kael never held a movie at arm’s length. She went way inside. Those sexual book titles—I Lost It at the Movies, Deeper IntoMovies, Taking It All In, etc.—are devilishly purposeful. To put it crudely, she’d go to bed with almost any movie, even one that was, in her parlance, a crummy bum. Then she’d say what it did right and wrong—and that’s what made directors so crazy furious. You can steel yourself against lofty criticism, imperial criticism. But it’s harder to shrug off someone who has your moves down cold (and who shows you moves you didn’t even know you had).

That makes her sound withering—and she was often characterized that way. But she was the best lover a moviemaker could have. Her surrender was—except on famous occasions (Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Blow Out)—conditional. Pick up any review, look at any paragraph: Now she’s inside the movie, enveloped by it, evoking what she sees and feels; now she’s outside, analyzing, making connections to other movies, literature, philosophy, the “real” world; now she’s back inside, living there, surrendering and then arguing back and then surrendering again. In her prose, feeling and reason are always dancing.

I would sometimes tell her about my e-mails, the ones from people who’d say, “Blah blah blah, all this thinking. Movies are about escape. Just enjoy them,” and she would shudder in disbelief. To have readers who would argue that enjoyment precluded thought! When I was in college in the ‘70s, people would talk about seeing a movie and then going home and “finishing” it by reading Pauline Kael. Not to learn what to think—to relive the film from a new and thrilling perspective. Maybe to learn how to think! (I disagreed with plenty of her opinions, but she made movies she disliked come more fully alive than the critics who celebrated them.)

She hated dogma, even her own, which is why she didn’t write film theory or any kind of theory. That would be so limiting. She loved writers like Henry James and Henrik Ibsen, who wrote novels and plays in which characters’ ingenious theories were always getting them into trouble; she thought of people like Freud and Marx as smart Jewish comedians whose good jokes “went on too long.” Poor Siegfried Kracauer, she wrote, having to twist his film aesthetic into knots to account for why he liked to watch Fred Astaire dance. The author of “Trash, Art, and the Movies”—which argued that the line between trash and art was thinner in film than in literature—wasn’t even much of a trash maven. She wasn’t big on genre pictures, she wasn’t a connoisseur of bloody junk. Her fun was too sacred.

I’ve read that she was a sensationalist. Bull. More than anything, she taught her readers to discriminate among sensations. She hated pure horror movies—even masterworks, like Psycho—because they were mostly about manipulation and assault (on the characters and the audience). And she hated when violence was treated casually or with lazy cynicism. (Peckinpah? That’s nihilism, not cynicism, but she was torn by the violence in Peckinpah, too: She wrestled with it constantly, lamenting the crudeness, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism of Straw Dogs even while celebrating the artistry.) She warned, as early as The French Connection, about movies turning into “jolts for jocks”; the basis of her still amazingly fresh review of the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, is that it desensitized the audience to brutality. She said over and over that violence in movies like The Godfather and Taxi Driver is supposed to upset you. Sensationalist? She loathed the work of Oliver Stone, whose movies display sensationalism without wit, taste, or respect for humanity. She saw Brian De Palma as Stone’s antithesis: Read her on Casualties of War, with its devastating “ant-farm visual ironies” and the “supreme violation” of the rape and murder at its heart.

Pauline treasured elegance, but she was also suspicious of neatness; she loved the unruly. She had a special place in her heart for crazy comedies like John Guare’s Marco Polo Sings a Solo and Beetlejuice, for the overflowing tomes of Norman Mailer and David Foster Wallace. She loved the writer as exuberant performer. The first time I met her she said, “Is it fun for you, the writing?” and I said, “Fun? It’s torture.” She looked at me as sadly as I’ve ever been looked at. Writing for her was always a blast (when it wasn’t, she stopped), and the good time was contagious. Her mind moved so fast that in the old days, she told me, she’d have a few glasses of cognac while she wrote to make her “jazzier.” But even after she stopped drinking she was pretty jazzy. Her lingo was jazz, her syntax was elastic like jazz. Some of the funniest things she ever wrote were in parentheses. She wanted to keep the momentum of her argument, but she could never resist a curlicue.

Pauline was 5 feet at her peak and, by the time I knew her, a bit less, and she just worshipped the tall girls. Sigourney Weaver, Christine Lahti, her dear friend Polly Frost. Did she envy the way in which they naturally occupied the space she commanded by force of will? I don’t know. But size mattered. She loved a heroic fool. She wrote of Laurence Olivier in The Betsy that the secret of his greatness was that he wasn’t afraid to be foolish. She adored the great bull Mailer. She didn’t mind if people embarrassed themselves in the name of their passion—as long as there was brilliance to go with it.

Pauline would phone people whose work she liked and constantly reached out to younger writers. She waylaid me in a screening line in 1984; I would never have had the guts to approach her. Her generosity has often been darkly interpreted, and she is said to have fostered a school of slavish, inferior imitators. Shortly after I’d met her, several well-meaning colleagues told me to keep my distance, that it would hurt my career to be branded a “Paulette”—a word that’s used as purposefully as “fellow traveler.” I’m ashamed that at first, I took those warnings to heart. And then I said, “Wait a minute: I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.” The tag is the smallest price imaginable for having had the opportunity to stay with her, see movies with her, spend time with her in sickness and in health. But, ladies and gentlemen, I am no Paulette. ¡Yo soy Paulinista!

There were so many of us Paulinistas—some her devoted friends, others who had never met her but had learned to love movies through her writing. In her turreted manse in the Berkshires she was the anti-Miss Havisham. The world was alive with possibilities. One of the last things I did for her was to water the plants on her wraparound porch. The flowers were growing, the doors were wide open, the phone was ringing, the letters were heaped on the dining-room table. There were books everywhere, paintings, music, television. It sounds cacophonous, but everything harmonized. She was devoted to her wonderful daughter, Gina, and grandson, William, who could do no wrong. (Once, at dinner, she said something to William about a movie and he said, “Duhhhh, Grandma,” and she took it, smiling. And I thought, “Andrew Sarris, eat your heart out.”)

When, in her last year, she became increasingly hunched-over, she would never let her eyes stay on the ground. She noticed things and characterized them; her keenness made the world come alive. She was always drawn to the beautiful; I never heard her comment on anyone plain or graceless. She could write harshly, with devastating precision, but she didn’t relish badness. (Although we did on occasion have exchanges like: “I dunno, Pauline, Joan Allen is growing on me.” “Scrape her off.”) She thought the word “humanism” sounded too goody-goody, but she was humanist in the spirit of her idol and friend Jean Renoir. When I started writing plays, she told me never to hold my characters in contempt—to make them smarter than I was, even when they were dumb. Make them brilliantly dumb, she said. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing about them?

My friend Stephanie Zacharek wrote a beautiful appreciation of Pauline in Salon, marred only by a headline that read, “R.I.P.” As Pauline might say: Balls. She would dread the thought of resting in peace. She wanted to be dancing and drinking, seeing movies and talking about them all night. Don’t rest in peace, Pauline. Rest in joy. Rest tall.