Pauline Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to Isaac Paul Kael and Judith Friedman Kael, two Jewish immigrants from Poland. Affected by the Great Depression, her family lost their farm when Kael was eight and moved to San Francisco, California. She began attending college in 1936 at UC Berkeley, where she studied philosophy, literature and the arts before dropping out in 1940.
After three years, she returned to San Francisco and 'led a bohemian life,' marrying and divorcing three times, writing plays, and working on experimental films. Kael and filmmaker James Broughton had a daughter, Gina, in 1948, though Kael raised her alone. Gina had a serious illness for much of her childhood, and to support her, Kael worked in a series of jobs, including stints as an ad-copy writer, cook, and seamstress. In 1953, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael in a coffeeshop arguing about the movies with a friend, and she was asked to review Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. Kael memorably dubbed the movie "slimelight," and began publishing film criticism regularly in magazines.
Kael broadcast many of her early reviews on the alternative public radio station KPFA in Berkeley, and gained further local-celebrity status as Berkeley Cinema Guild manager from 1955 to 1960.
Kael continued to juggle writing with other work until she received an offer to publish a book of her criticism. Published in 1965 as I Lost It at the Movies, the collection sold 150,000 paperback copies and was a surprise bestseller. She was also given a job at the mainstream McCall's women's magazine.
The same year, she wrote a blistering review of the phenomenally popular The Sound of Music in McCall's. After mentioning that some of the press had dubbed it 'The Sound of Money,' Kael called the film's message a 'sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.' Although, according to legend, this review led to her being fired from McCall's (The New York Times even printed as much in Kael's obituary), both Kael and the magazine's editor have denied this. According to McCall's editor Robert Stein, 'I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day's Night.'
Kael was then asked by William Shawn to join Her first review in the New Yorker was a rave about Bonnie and Clyde, in which, according to critic David Thomson, 'she was right about a film that had bewildered many other critics.'
Her colloquial, brash writing style was initially considered an odd fit with the sophisticated and genteel New Yorker; Kael remembered 'getting a letter from an eminent New Yorker writer suggesting that I was trampling through the pages of the magazine with cowboy boots covered with dung.' However, it was during her tenure at the New Yorker, a forum that permitted her to write at some length (and with presumably minimal editorial interference), that Kael achieved her greatest prominence; by 1968, Time magazine was referring to her as 'one of the country's top movie critics.' Kael noted that during this period her reviews were so interesting because the movies were so compelling.
In 1970, Kael received a George Polk Award for her work as a critic at the New Yorker. She continued to publish hardbound collections of her writings, many with (deliberately) suggestive titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When The Lights Go Down, Taking It All In, and others. Her fourth book, Deeper Into Movies (1973), was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award.
Kael also wrote philosophical essays on moviegoing, the modern Hollywood film industry, and the lack of courage on the part of audiences (as she perceived it) to explore lesser-known, more challenging movies (she never used the word 'film' to describe movies because she felt the word was too elitist). Among her more popular essays were a damning review of Norman Mailer's semi-fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe; an incisive look at Cary Grant's career, and an extensively researched look at Citizen Kane entitled Raising Kane (later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book). Her argument was that Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane's screenwriter) deserved as much credit for the film as Orson Welles, a thesis that provoked controversy and hurt Welles to the point that he considered suing Kael for libel.
In 1979, Kael accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to be a consultant to Paramount Pictures, but she left the position after only a few months to return to writing criticism in mid 1980.
In the early 1980s, Kael was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As her illness worsened, she became increasingly depressed about the state of American movies, along with feeling, she explained, that 'I had nothing new to say.' On March 11, 1991, in an announcement The New York Times referred to as 'earth-shattering,' Kael announced her retirement from reviewing movies regularly. At the time, Kael explained that she would still write essays for The New Yorker, along with 'some reflections and other pieces of writing about movies.' However, she ended up publishing no new work in the ensuing ten years, besides an introduction to her 1994 compendium For Keeps. In the introduction (which was reprinted in The New Yorker), Kael stated, in reference to her film criticism, 'I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have.'
Though she published no new writing of her own, Kael was not averse to giving interviews, in which she alternately praised and derided newly-released films and television shows. In a 1998 interview with Modern Maturity, she said she sometimes regretted not being able to review, saying, 'A few years ago when I saw Vanya on 42nd Street, I wanted to blow trumpets. Your trumpets are gone once you’ve quit.' She died at her home in Massachusetts in 2001, aged 82.
Pauline Kael books from Marion Boyars:
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Raising Kane and Other Essays
State of the Art
Taking It All In