Of all the great movie critics, present and past, I suppose the one whose judgments about particular films I am least likely to endorse is Pauline Kael. But I would rather read her than anyone this side of James Agee, and that’s because of the sensibility she brings to her movie reviews. She’s so openly personal and invested — and this lasts for about twenty years, from her early work for literary quarterlies and radio stations to somewhere around the middle of her New Yorker career. As the eighties progressed she became more full of herself, more dictatorial, more insistent that her view was the only view. And of course at times she was dishonest. But before the rot set in she was consistently brilliant.
Just one example: here she is in 1968 writing about The Lion in Winter, which means writing about Katherine Hepburn, which means writing about so much more:
Seven years ago, in Pocketful of Miracles, when Bette Davis became lovable and said “God bless” to Glenn Ford with heartfelt emotion in her voice, I muttered an obscenity as I slumped down in my seat. I slumped again during Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, because Katharine Hepburn had become sweet and lovable, too. The two great heroines of American talkies, the two who dared to play smart women (who had to), the two most specifically modern of women stars — the tough, embattled Davis and the headstrong, noble Hepburn — have both gone soft on us, have become everything we admired them for not being. They had been independent enough to fight the studios, but they have given in to themselves. The public has got them at last as it always wanted them. They have become old dears — a little crotchety, maybe, but that only makes them more harmlessly lovable. And though, of course, we can’t help prizing them still — because what they once meant to us is too important a part of our lives to be relinquished — there’s a feeling of dismay, and even of betrayal, when we watch them now. They make us fearful that they will humiliate us by turning piteous, and they mustn’t; we’ve got to have a few people who know how to age gracefully in public, who don’t go flabby with the joy of being loved every time there’s a fan or a reporter around.
Everything about this is wonderful, but the key clause, the most completely Kaelian clause, is this one: because what they once meant to us is too important a part of our lives to be relinquished.