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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Film critic Pauline Kael dies
Pauline Kael
Kael considered cinema as America's "national theatre"
Pauline Kael, one of America's most influential film critics, has died aged 82.

Kael - whose passionate and uncompromising reviews in The New Yorker magazine were esteemed by fans and film-makers alike - died on Monday at her home in Barrington, Massachusetts.

According to her spokeswoman, she had been suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Kael worked for the New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, when she retired.

During that time she made the cinema section one of the most popular on the culturally influential magazine.

She shaped American film criticism for generations to come and, more important, the national understanding of the movies

David Renwick, Editor of The New Yorker

To Kael, cinema was America's "national theatre" and she is credited with helping establish the reputations of acclaimed film-makers such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg.

She also wrote 10 books, including a celebrated collection of reviews Lost it at the Movies, and won a National Book Award in 1974 for Deeper into Movies.

The New Yorker's editor David Renwick praised Kael's unique skills of movie criticism and influence on the US people's appreciation of cinema.

This, he said, was due to her ability to talk to all people on an equal footing, breaking down barriers between high and low brow criticism of films.

"With her reviews of films like Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris, she shared her delight in both the sublime and the profane," Renwick said.

"She shaped American film criticism for generations to come and, more important, the national understanding of the movies."


Kael was born in Petaluma, California, on 19 June, 1919, and grew up on a farm.

She went on to study philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley.

She did not earn a degree at that time but was later granted an honorary doctorate.

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde: One of Kael's favourite films

Kael's father was a movie fan and she in turn became an avid reader and movie enthusiast.

Kael wrote her first movie review in 1953 for a San Francisco magazine. She panned Charlie Chaplin's Limelight as "Slimelight".

She went on to write pieces for Film Quarterly, Mademoiselle, Vogue, the New Republic, and McCall's before making her mark on The New Yorker.

Kael's witty, often slangy, language immediately struck a chord among readers and was considered by many as a breath of fresh air.

She did not subscribe to the notion that movies had to be good for you

Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia University

Also new and exciting was Kael's honesty and refusal to conform to accepted opinion. Her reviews were also founded on acute social, commercial and artistic insight.

Among some of her most famous reviews were her scathing comments about The Sound of Music in an article headlined The Sound of Money.

She thought Rain Man was a "wet piece of kitsch" and she dismissed Dances With Wolves as a "nature-boy movie", mocking director-star Kevin Costner as "having feathers in his hair and feathers in his head".


Kael equally disdained what she saw as pretension pretending to be high art. She had contempt for movies like Last Year at Marienbad and Blow-Up.

And on The Exorcist, Kael wrote: "Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously - shallowness like William Peter Blatty's - is an embarrassment.

Rain Man
Rain Man: Came in for sharp criticism

"When you hear him on TV talking about communicating with his dead mother, your heart doesn't bleed for him, your stomach turns for him."

Kael also scorned the idea of the director as "auteur". There was, however, no doubting her deep love of the cinema. But it was one based on the idea of cinema as pure entertainment.

"What she loved is an appeal of motion pictures that is ultimately a primitive one that goes back to the role of motion pictures as sheer entertainment," commented Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia University.

"She did not subscribe to the notion that movies had to be good for you."

Her favourite films included Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris and Marlon Brando, James Mason, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda were among her favourite actors.


Kael championed artistic creativity, subtlety and craftsmanship in movie-making, skills which she increasingly considered under threat.

She even tried her own hand at experimental film-making as well as writing plays and managing film houses.

But early ambitions to be a movie producer fizzled out after a stint as a consultant for Paramount in the 70s.

She said she could not bear being on that side of the industry where all its shallowness and arrogance were all too apparent.

After her Parkinson's Disease worsened, Kael retired to Great Barrington.

She was married and divorced three time and is survived by a daughter, Gina James, and a grandson.

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