Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.
To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.
Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.
This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too.
The Sting is a formulaic heist/caper flick. And it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is play the two giants off each other for dramatic and comedic effect. It’s goofy, but it likely won Best Picture on this merit alone. It’s one of the only “fun” movies to have won the award up to that point and since. It’s an exception to the staid Oscars that love to reward movies about movies and movies about otherness. This movie is about two straight white men doodling with classic storytelling tropes. That’s fine. Kael, in her review, simply finds The Sting’s rote roots rotten; the kintsugi that holds together the chipped pot less than 24-karat.
The Last Tango in Paris is Kael’s most famous review. Her uncloseted praise for it, at least in broad strokes, endorsed post-vérité filmmaking as normal and creeped realism as conceptually overrated: of course you should inject your movies with raw behavior! This is what makes her takedown of The Sting so maniacally on-brand and hard to argue with. The boys needed to be men and the men needed to embrace women. How can we take The Sting seriously?
If re-scored, The Sting likely would win the Oscar for Best Picture again for 1973: The Exorcist was too weird, Cries and Whispers was too foreign, American Graffiti would have given it a run for its money and A Touch of Class is still irrelevant, regardless of how well-crafted. The Last Tango in Paris, nominated for other awards, was too taboo and we’re missing Serpico as the magnificent spoiler. Whatever the case, we can thank Pauline Kael for calling a spade a spade, even if it’s really a rough diamond.