One of Frank Capra’s first talkies, the otherwise lifeless Ladies of Leisure, made a star of the young Barbara Stanwyck. She plays a working-class girl who sits, and eventually falls, for a rich young artist. In one scene just before the two discover they’re in love, the flinty model fails to gaze at the ceiling and embody “hope” to the painter’s satisfaction. “Look through the ceiling,” he says, “Visualize! Sky, space, the universe, stardust, anything! There is no ceiling, don’t you see?” And with a dubious upward glance Stanwyck snaps back, “Horsefeathers, it’s a ceiling. You could ask anybody!”
It’s not hard to see why Pauline Kael loved Stanwyck in general and this performance in particular, calling her “an amazing vernacular actress,” a phrase that might just as aptly describe Kael’s style on the page. She was drawn to comedy because it always finds shortcuts to the awful truth. Most heroines of the screwball Thirties radiate a brashness and candor that can seem a blueprint for Kael’s critical persona, and here especially Stanwyck’s portrayal of a feisty woman trusting the evidence of her own senses—against a man spouting art-school clichés—almost foretells Kael’s career. “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them,” she wrote in her brilliant 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” “and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art.”
Kael’s taste tended toward quick pacing and a down-to-earth story that could grab an audience and make it feel something. A movie didn’t have to be hysterically funny to win her over; she found it especially thrilling when a loose, jocular tone somehow eloped with otherwise straight-faced genres—hence her lifelong allegiance to Jean Renoir and Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme. Praising a movie by another one of her favorites, Jean-Luc Godard, Kael wrote that its “fusion of attitudes—seeing characters as charming and poetic and, at the same time, preposterous and absurd—is one of Godard’s contributions to modern film.” Her most withering scorn was reserved for movies that she took to deny the possibility of laughter or pretended they were above it—her blacklist included much of Bergman, most of Kubrick, and pretty much all of Hitchcock.
Kael was not the first to argue that traditional high-art criticism is wrong for a mass medium: Gilbert Seldes had diagnosed the need for a critical style that didn’t shrink from fun in his Seven Lively Arts, published in 1924; Manny Farber was never afraid of loving shoddy movies and offered a model for Kael in that respect. (The staccato riffs of his movie reviews are often thought to have influenced her prose yet are really too jazzy and haywire for her conversational purposes, which always aim for firm contact with the reader.)…
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