The woman whose brash, biting and pioneering critiques for The New Yorker inspired a generation of movie writers (for better or worse), died Monday at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, after a battle with Parkinson's disease. She was 82.
Over more than three decades, Kael played favorites with those she loved (trumpeting films like Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver) and pulled no punches against those she couldn't stand (she once wrote that Kevin Costner had "feathers in his hair and feathers in his head" after 1990's Dances With Wolves), primarily within the pages of The New Yorker.
Roger Ebert, one of her successors to the film critics' throne, heaped praise upon Kael for putting her emotions and genuine love of movies into her reviews.
"Better than anyone else, Pauline Kael communicated the immediate, sensual, voluptuous experience of seeing a great movie," Ebert wrote Tuesday in his column for the Chicago Sun-Times. "She was known for her harsh judgments, but it was in her praise that she stood alone, as the most influential American film critic--maybe the most influential critic of any art form--of her time... She changed the way we talk about the movies."
She may have changed the way people talked about the movies, but Kael herself insisted she never changed the way people felt about the movies themselves.
"I think my influence was largely in style, not substance," she told The New York Times in 1998. "Other critics sound like me because my writing has influenced them. They've rarely agreed with me about movies."
But Kael did her best to convince them that she was right. She used her powerful pen to pump up films such as 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H in 1970 and Hal Ashby's Shampoo in 1975. Her championing of Scorsese's Mean Streets helped launch the director's career. And she rarely tried to hide her love for actors and actresses such as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Sean Connery, Anjelica Huston and Jessica Lange.
Later in her career, Kael condemned the state of moviemaking. In a 1980 essay titled, "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or the Numbers," Kael lamented that "studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible for the prearranged and anticipated deals."
Kael was born in Petaluma, California, in 1919 and developed her affection for cinema from her film buff father. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley from 1936 to 1940, but didn't earn a degree (she later picked up an honorary doctorate). Her first review came in 1953 for a San Francisco magazine, in which she not-so-lovingly dubbed Charlie Chaplin's Limelight "slimelight."
Kael went on to write for Life magazine in 1965, McCall's in 1965 and 1966 and The New Republic in 1966 and 1967. She was almost 50 when she joined the New Yorker in 1968. She stayed there until 1979, but after a brief stint working in the film biz, she returned in 1980 and stuck around until 1991. Kael also penned more than 10 books, including I Lost It At the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Of course, as it happens with critics, not everybody loved her. George Lucas named the evil General Kael after her in 1988's Willow. And former New York Times critic Renata Adler dismissed Kael's reviews as "piece by piece, line by line, without interruption, worthless."
Love her or hate her, everyone talked about her reviews. "What she said seemed to matter," critic Leonard Maltin told the Associated Press. "She provoked response, discussion, arguments. She was so passionate."