2001-09-03

PAULINE KAEL, American film critic died on this date (b. 1919) An American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991, Kael was known for her “witty, biting, highly opinionated, and sharply focused” movie reviews. She approached movies emotionally, with a strongly colloquial writing style.

She was often regarded as the most influential American film critic of her day and made a lasting impression on other major critics including Armond White and Roger Ebert, who said that Kael “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades. Kael and gay filmmaker and poet James Broughton had a daughter in 1948 and is featured in the current award-winning documentary on his life, BIG JOY.

In the early 1980s, largely in response to her review of the 1981 drama Rich and Famous, Kael faced notable accusations of homophobia. First remarked on by Stuart Byron in The Village Voice, the accusations eventually “took on a life of their own and did real damage to her reputation.” In her review, Kael called the straight-themed Rich and Famous “more like a homosexual fantasy,” saying that one female character’s affairs “are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into.” Byron, who “hit the ceiling” after reading the review, was joined by The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo, who argued that Kael equated promiscuity with homosexuality, “as though straight women have never been promiscuous or been given the permission to be promiscuous.”

Outrage over her review of Rich and Famous led several critics to reappraise Kael’s earlier reviews of the sixties Gay-themed movies Victim and The Children’s Hour, including a wisecrack Kael made about the Lesbian-themed Children’s Hour: “I always thought this was why Lesbians needed sympathy — that there isn’t much they can do.”

Gay writer Craig Seligman has defended Kael, saying that her perceived “bigotry” was simply her showing “enough ease with the topic to be able to crack jokes — in a dark period when other reviewers….’ felt that if homosexuality were not a crime it would spread.'”

Kael herself rejected the accusations as “craziness,” adding, “I don’t see how anybody who took the trouble to check out what I’ve actually written about movies with homosexual elements in them could believe that stuff.” In her review of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, she referred to Tchaikovsky’s lover in the film (played by Christopher Gable) as a “prissy faggot”.