The Other Film Critic at The New Yorker

Penelope Gilliatt split reviewing duties in the 1970s with the famous Pauline Kael. Her career took a very different turn.

Penelope Gilliatt
Penelope Gilliatt

Photo courtesy the author, originally published by Coward, McCann & Geohegan in 1979.

In 1968, when New Yorker editor William Shawn hired two writers to share the magazine’s film critic position, cinemaphiles wondered how this study in contrasts would play out in the magazine. Pauline Kael, then 49, boldly spoke her mind and shot down sacred cows with sprawling essays that attracted a small but ardent following. Penelope Gilliatt, by contrast, had risen by the age of 35 to the top of the film-writer food chain in her native England as the Observer’s lead critic, while also reviewing theater, writing novels, and publishing short stories in a number of magazines—including The New Yorker.

For the next 11 years, Kael worked from September to March, Gilliatt the rest of the year. Kael thrived on a prickly, combative relationship with her editor; Gilliatt operated more like a bird under Shawn’s protective wing. Kael became, and still remains, the most famous film critic in America not named Roger Ebert. Gilliatt, on the other hand, was undone by scandal and faded into obscurity, where she remains nearly 20 years after her death.

But history, with its typical capriciousness, edited out some deeper truths: Gilliatt was a fine writer in her own right, her voice distinct but nothing like her co-critic’s. Where Kael forever showed how she “lost it at the movies,” delineating her taste with unbridled passion, Gilliatt’s enthusiasm came through in elegant turns of phrase crafted with the same care she took with her fiction. To crib from the screen, Gilliatt was Glenda Jackson to Kael’s Barbra Streisand, and their two wildly contrasting approaches to film criticism made the magazine a must-read in a way that Kael couldn’t sustain by herself. Kael’s heyday came when she was sharing a chair with Gilliatt, and the magazine’s film section suffered from the younger critic’s controversial 1979 departure.

In her first few years at The New Yorker Gilliatt wrote, as sharply as she ever had, on films as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. She’d always made the case for comedy as an art form, helping to revive the reputation of the “poetic widower” Buster Keaton with a crucial 1964 profile in the Observer. In The New Yorker that advocacy continued. “Maybe all funniness has a tendency to throw settled things into doubt,” she wrote in The New Yorker about a Jacques Tati revival. “Where most people will automatically complete an action, a great comedian will stop in the middle to have a think about that point of it, and the point will often vanish before our eyes.” Even when Gilliatt got things wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, she did so with panache. (On the “Gynecological Gothic” 1968 Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby: “Why on earth does a major film-maker feel seduced by a piece of boo-in-the-night like this story?”)

Gilliatt also thrived, at first, on the half-year schedule of reviewing films in New York and writing for page and screen in London. Her screenplay for 1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday garnered an Oscar nomination—as well as Kael’s approval—for its sensitive portrayal of a love triangle between a divorced working woman, a well-off Jewish doctor, and the man they both fall for. (Triangles figured prominently in Gilliatt’s fiction, from her 1965 debut novel One by One to the playlet Property, a devastating portrayal of a woman caught, like chattel, between her first two husbands.)* Her strongest short-story collection, Nobody’s Business (1972), featured charming, off-kilter, dialogue-driven portraits of those looking for “grace of mortal order” in a chaotic world. (One prescient story looks at the relationship between a cyberneticist and his creation, FRANK, for “Family Robot Adapted to the Needs of Kinship.”)

Over time, Gilliatt’s writing began to suffer, her New Yorker columns trading pointed analysis for plot summary. Gilliatt was no stranger to personal tumult: A bout of anorexia had curtailed a promising piano career, forcing her to abandon Juilliard for Bennington College. She divorced two husbands (Roger Gilliatt, a noted neurologist at NIH, and the playwright John Osborne, who fathered daughter Nolan in 1965 and left her for her best friend), fell into affairs with Mike Nichols and Edmund Wilson, and attempted suicide at least once. She consumed herself with work throughout her relationships, so much so that Osborne needled her about it in his acid 1991 autobiography: “I tried to point out that it seemed an inordinate amount of time and effort to expend on a thousand-word review to be read by a few thousand film addicts and forgotten almost at once.” Her drinking became so bad that, according to Brian Kellow’s recent biography of Kael, extra minders from the fact-checking department shadowed her to make sure she sat through the entirety of the movies she reviewed. Gilliatt also became unable to care for her daughter, who as a teenager moved in with Osborne and his fifth and final wife. (That arrangement didn’t work out so well: Osborne kicked Nolan out of the house at age 17 and disowned her.)

Gilliatt’s precarious state may explain why Shawn so badly handled the scandal that ended her film critic tenure in 1979. Assigned to profile Graham Greene, Gilliatt, briefly full-time since Kael left for an ill-fated stint as a Hollywood producer, turned in a draft that a young fact-checker named Peter Canby flagged for lifting material from previously published work. (Canby now oversees the storied fact-checking department.) Brushing the warnings aside, Shawn published Gilliatt’s piece, which is when Michael Mewshaw realized she’d pilfered more than 800 words of his own Greene profile from The Nation. As he recounted in his 2003 memoir Do I Owe You Something? Mewshaw complained to Shawn, who blamed the plagiarism on Gilliatt’s alcohol problem and said public excoriation would drive her to the brink. Mewshaw took Shawn’s offer of $2,000 and a private letter of apology, but the news got out to the New York Times that May, leaving Shawn in an embarrassing position—and vulnerable to Kael’s successful demand for full-time status.

Gilliatt took an “extended leave of absence” from her post, though she remained on staff, publishing more short stories and profiles of John Cleese and Jonathan Miller, presumably triple-checked for accuracy and originality. (Gilliatt had her defenders against plagiarism, including, bizarrely, the second wife of her first husband.) She settled into a long-term relationship with Vincent Canby, her film-critic peer at the Times (and no relation to Peter). Her final book of essays, To Wit: Skin and Bones of Comedy (1990) repurposed a significant amount of earlier material, though she still had astute things to say about Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor (“his sharpest comedy is based on his certainty that blacks are the only group that any observer could believe to exist”), and the “scabrous satirist” Whoopi Goldberg. Three years later, Gilliatt’s years of drinking and poor health caught up with her, and she died, just 61.

The plagiarism scandal can’t help but overshadow Gilliatt’s literary contributions, but to define her by her downfall is to miss a larger point about her New Yorker career. Where Kael’s criticism, excellent as it was, prized aggressive confrontation of her subjects and readers (you were for her or against her, nothing else) the tone of Gilliatt’s judgments was less didactic and more inviting. Shawn kept the tenuous partnership going for years, in spite of Kael’s open desire for the entire spotlight, Gilliatt’s personal problems, and near-open rebellion by a handful of fact-checkers. (In a limerick they gifted to Kael before her temporary exit, they dubbed Gilliatt “the Empress of Bores” and “a limey whose work was appalling”; the poem lamented that “with Penelope here/ Fucking up her career/ Oy vey, we will miss La PK!”)

But it seems Shawn saw something others didn’t: that the study in contrasts between Gilliatt and Kael made The New Yorker a defining influence on film in a way one critic couldn’t possibly achieve on her own. Kael’s final decade, reviewing year-round, suffered from a lack of focus and wildly inconsistent writing. It turned out the magazine needed both Kael and Gilliatt working opposite corners of the critical room, something no one else realized until their uneasy duo broke up.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2011: This article incorrectly identified Gilliatt’s debut novel as A State of Change. It was One by One. In addition, Sunday Bloody Sunday’s lead characters, a divorced working woman and a well-off Jewish doctor who fall for the same man, are not married to each other. (Return to corrected section.)