Brian Kellow

Brian Kellow talks about his book on Pauline Kael

Left: Cover of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011). Right: Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is the first biography of the celebrated film critic, and the latest book by the New York–based writer and editor Brian Kellow. While he illuminates Kael’s rise penning many important film reviews for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Kellow also pays close attention to her early years as the manager of the Berkeley Cinema Guild, a historic movie theater in California. The book is available this month from Viking Press. On November 11, Kellow will be interviewed by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca.

FOR ME, the most exciting part of any biographical research is the interviewing process. I do a lot of interviews, and I’m puzzled by biographers who don’t make every effort to get hold of primary sources. I’ve found that my interviews often become a kind of scavenger hunt: If the person you’re talking with likes and trusts you, he may throw a lot of other phone numbers your way, leading you to people you hadn’t considered. After four books, I’ve also gotten pretty good at determining if someone I’m interviewing isn’t reliable. I think a lot of people don’t mean to mislead biographers, but they have memory lapses or they’ve been dining out on the same terrific story for so long that they’ve come to believe it’s true, which it may not be. For this book, I interviewed about 160 people from different chapters in Pauline’s life. I always do all of my research before I write one word; I have to have the strongest possible sense of where I’m going before I begin. Some people didn’t seem to want to talk about her: I was sorry to miss Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and a few others. The biggest surprise I had in the interviewing process was getting the whole story from UCLA professor Howard Suber about how Pauline filched his research for her essay “Raising Kane.” That was kind of a shock, you know? I checked it very carefully, and there’s no question that she did it. Strange, because for the most part, she was quite aboveboard in her behavior. I guess we all have our moments.

I knew from the beginning that I desperately wanted to do this book, but I wasn’t sure it was going to work. Pauline herself made a point of the fact that her body of work constituted her autobiography. That was sort of a clue for me, actually: At a certain point, after she got to the New Yorker in 1968, going to the movies really was her life. And then I got to thinking about how I could make that work dramatically. And I figured out that I could trace the development of her taste through her early years, and then show how that all played out when she got the New Yorker job. I also thought it would be a good idea to interview a lot of the directors and screenwriters, even some of the actors, whose work she reviewed. I wanted to ask them about the repercussions of her reviews––when they thought she was on target and when they thought she was a mile off. I thought that would give the book added dimension. I wanted to include a real sense of what was going on in the movies during the 1960s and ’70s. Actually, I can’t imagine that the book would really work without that information.

Pauline’s friends seem to like the early part of the book most of all––I think because she compartmentalized her life. Even for people she knew well, her early years were a mystery. It’s strange: Pauline was exceptionally tight-lipped about her growing up and her beginnings in San Francisco, her marriage. I remember reading an interview somewhere with Jacqueline Susann where she was asked her age and she said something very Jacqueline Susann–ish like, “Just say I was born when my first book published.” I think Pauline kind of thought that she was born when I Lost It at the Movies was published—that is, in 1965. I always work hard on my books, but I think I worked harder than ever on this one, because I knew she didn’t like the idea of having a biography written and I wanted it to be as complete and detailed––and also as fair––as possible. In her personal library, which is now at Hampshire College, she often writes hilarious comments in pencil in the margins of books—things like “bullshit” or “What a pontificating old poseur”—I think that one was in Frank Capra’s autobiography. I don’t know what she’d write in the margins of my book. She’d probably be horrified that it even exists.