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Chapter Fifty-Four of The Haunted Heaven: Pauline Kael, My Blessing In Disguise

By Michael Moriarty
web posted June 18, 2012

Speaking ill of the dead is … well … depending upon whom you are speaking to, can be risky.

Speaking ill of Pauline Kael?

Pauline Kael
Here is Pauline Kael as a chubby Jane Alexander

Well, again … here is what her own magazine, The New Yorker of October 24th, 2011 had to say about her in this "one" of what, I assume, have been and will be many more post-mortem tributes:

Also present that night (in addition to Pauline Kael) was the caricaturist Al Hirschfield and Kael started quibbling about the uses of movie criticism. Finally, Hirschfield asked her point-blank, what she thought critics were good for. Kael gestured toward (Sidney) Lumet (the famous film director) "My job," she said, "is to show him which way to go." The evening ended soon afterward. Lumet later explained, "I thought, This is a very dangerous person."

Pauline Kael almost singlehandedly, with repetitiously excoriating reviews, ended my own, breathtakingly brief film career.

I was the other, participating single-handedness. I gave up even trying to woo film-makers after her review of me in my first and almost the last, big Hollywood creation that I headlined in, Report To The Commissioner.

Al Pacino, another Kael "target" at the time, obviously didn't give up. Major stardom was his destination and no one, certainly not Pauline Kael, was going to stand in the way of it.

I'm profoundly grateful for having "given up" on Hollywood. I would not have had these, last, most liberating, free years to wallow in the first loves of my life: music and writing.

Building a "great film career" would have demanded that I abandon myself and my true loves in life, which were neither acting nor movies.

So Pauline Kael did me a favor actually.

Not that it wasn't extremely painful. I mentioned her on a television interview program as the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career as an actor. After seeing this or hearing about it, she wrote me a brief but polite note to explain that she didn't write what I said she had written.

Hmmm …

She simply corrected me by writing that all she'd said in her review of Report To The Commissioner was that my acting was "self-conscious".

I replied, "To quote your hero, Marlon Brando, 'If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger!'"

Why did she even bother to write me?

For the next twenty years much of her time must have been spent "correcting misapprehensions" about her.

By then I was well into the Law and Order television series and … well … my words during this interview show were being heard by many more people than she ever thought should ever pay attention to me at all. Her note came to me … and sounded like her justifiable worries about her "legacy".

The New Yorker and Sidney Lumet's comment about how "dangerous" a "person" Pauline Kael would become prompted this bittersweet reverie that you are now reading.

"A blessing in disguise!"

That was Pauline Kael for me.

Of all the influences in my life, Pauline Kael was the "voice" that necessitated my becoming not a great movie star but a mere television celebrity.

The only thing Kael and I eventually shared in common were alcoholism and cigarettes.

She was tough. Ambitious. New York's tough ambition! Film criticism's Robert De Niro.

Ironically the distinction that De Niro made between himself and Marlon Brando  was to describe Brando as a "romantic".

Pauline's Kael justifiably considered Marlon Brando a virtual God of acting. If De Niro was right about Brando and his "romanticism", Kael certainly had a nostalgia for romanticism in the way she described Last Tango in Paris.

De Niro has said that he comes to a role through its animal nature. In other words, what creature of the wild does the character he's about to play remind him of?

De Niro first riveted the world's attention with his unsurpassed, animal savagery in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. The De Niro/Scorcese attempt to reprise that act with a remake of Cape Fear … was … well … it was hard and, in fact, impossible to beat Robert Mitchum's power to quietly terrorize. Mitchum had done it in Charles Laughton's unforgettable Night of The Hunter (1955) and took the same equipment into Cape Fear (1965). The Mitchum voice alone projected the masculinity of the man and … well … that masculinity alone was always intimidating.

Then again, what was it about Marlon Brando's wafer-thin voice that could terrorize us anytime he felt like it?

Brando's genius could do anything it wished to. The tragedy for film and theater was Brando's increasingly Buddhist desire to not "wish" anything at all.

I discuss in my examination of The Divine Genius of Human Transparency how the God-like mixture of acting genius and human transparency reaches its pinnacle in the performances of Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Just behind him I place Marlon Brando and Sir Laurence Olivier whom I had the privilege to see quite often on stage in London.

Given that Brando had triumphed both on stage and in film, places him just above Olivier whose theater technique became transparently un-transparent when placed before the camera's microscopic ruthlessness.

Seminal to Pauline Kael's vision of the potentially infinite power of film to change the course of history was acting itself. Such respect for acting's power can be found in her love song to Brando in the review of his performance in The Last Tango in Paris.

She compares that film to the incendiary first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Its "jabbing eroticism" is how she described it.

Well, there's where she and I could never get along. Though erotic for Pauline Kael, the savage, homicidal ruthlessness of Rite of Spring has less to do with fertility than it has to do with death.

That, however, is Kael's point!

Sex and death!

It is Bertolucci's and Brando's "point".

It was, however, the point of Ancient Greece's worship of Dionysius, God of the theater and that culture's undeniably savage inspiration to Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring!!

Conceived of as a ballet, its musical revolution has now made it a constant corner of the world's symphonic repertoire.

However, both Kael and Stravinsky have one thing in common: the unrelenting ruthlessness of their visions. That, of course, appears to be an asset for the male and an indisputable liability for the female.

The most thrilling performance of Stravinsky that I've heard is, for me at least, the unquestionably ruthless precision of Ricardo Muti's version of  Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

Stravinsky must be conducted as if by metronome and performed by human beings with as computer-like a precision as possible. With the awesome ruthlessness involved, Stravinsky, performed as if by machinery but by human beings, becomes … yes … frightening!

Awesome actually.

It can and will strike the fear of God in you!

Which God? That is for you to decide.

Returning to Ms. Kael as a blessing in disguise, she declares, "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?"

What made Kael simultaneously so excited and so exciting?

For one thing: she could talk about sex in ways that only a man would or could.

The script (which Bertolucci wrote with Franco Arcalli) is in French and English; it centers on a man's attempt to separate sex from everything else. When his wife commits suicide, Paul, an American living in Paris, tries to get away from his life. He goes to look at an empty flat and meets Jeanne, who is also looking at it. They have sex in an empty room, without knowing anything about each other -- not even first names. He rents the flat, and for three days they meet there. She wants to know who he is, but he insists that sex is all that matters. We see both of them (as they don't see each other) in their normal lives -- Paul back at the flophouse-hotel his wife owned, Jeanne with her mother, the widow of a colonel, and with her adoring fiancé (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a TV director, who is relentlessly shooting a sixteen-millimeter film about her, a film that is to end in a week with their wedding. Mostly, we see Paul and Jeanne together in the flat as they act out his fantasy of ignorant armies clashing by night, and it is warfare -- sexual aggression and retreat and battles joined.

Unforgettably disturbing is how Pauline Kael's translation of a profoundly European creation, her American, matter-of-fact truth-telling is right on target, both for Americans and for her own, tacitly admitted confessions about what sex must mean to her as well.

The necessity for isolation from the world is, of course, his, not hers. But his life floods in. He brings into this isolation chamber his sexual anger, his glorying in his prowess, and his need to debase her and himself. He demands total subservience to his sexual wishes; this enslavement is for him the sexual truth, the real thing, sex without phoniness. And she is so erotically sensitized by the rounds of lovemaking that she believes him. He goads her and tests her until when he asks if she's ready to eat vomit as a proof of love, she is, and gratefully. He plays out the American male tough-guy sex role -- insisting on his power in bed, because that is all the "truth" he knows.

All the truth that Ms. Kael knows is … well … what she's left with to know, after an experience such as Last Tango in Paris.

If this is not a "Feminist", is Pauline Kael a hot-bloodedly ruthless Realist?

A Mythic Realism, I assume, is, was and has been her prime objective … except for the "visionary" corner of her vocation, the one that made Sidney Lumet think her "dangerous".

Even she would have to admit, however, that it became the job of the artists such as Bertolucci and Brando to show her where her own intuitions must direct themselves.

I, of course, am not a realist.

I'm a Romantic Independent! Politically and aesthetically. The wishfully thinking opponent of legalized abortion.

"Abortion is murder!"

You can quote me on that.

Such is my form of "Realism", which, of course, would make me, not my acting, a "Romantic" for Pauline Kael. I expect from my last contact with her, she held a certain, grudging respect for my Ben Stone in Law and Order.

With the very Catholic Ben Stone in mind, I, Michael Moriarty, have likened abortion to the crime of slavery; and, indeed, that form of Southern, Confederate "Realism" was eventually found to be "un-realistic" if America was to be true to its Declaration of Independence.

That document's "inalienable right to life" has now been challenged for 38 years by the same Supreme Court that upheld slavery in 1857 with the Dred Scott Decision.

Meanwhile, Ms. Pauline Kael describes Last Tango in Paris with the unrelenting and no-nonsense ruthlessness of a metronome in heat. Despite the sex involved, the affair and its participants are dated. Throw-back glimpses within a generational combat.

What they go through together in their pressure cooker is an intensified, speeded-up history of the sex relationships of the dominating men and the adoring women who have provided the key sex model of the past few decades -- the model that is collapsing. They don't know each other, but their sex isn't "primitive" or "pure"; Paul is the same old Paul, and Jeanne, we gradually see, is also Jeanne, the colonel's daughter. They bring their cultural hang-ups into sex, so it's the same poisoned sex Strindberg wrote about: a battle of unequally matched partners, asserting whatever dominance they can, seizing any advantage. Inside the flat, his male physical strength and the mythology he has built on it are the primary facts. He pushes his morose, romantic insanity to its limits; he burns through the sickness that his wife's suicide has brought on -- the self-doubts, the need to prove himself and torment himself. After three days, his wife is laid out for burial and he is ready to resume his identity. He gives up the flat: He wants to live normally again, and he wants to love Jeanne as a person. But Paul is forty-five, Jeanne is twenty. She lends herself to an orgiastic madness, shares it, and then tries to shake it off -- as many another woman has, after a night or a twenty-years' night. When they meet in the outside world, Jeanne sees Paul as a washed-up middle-aged man -- a man who runs a flophouse.

After reading this, was there still a Feminist lurking beneath the hard-bitten Realist?

Speaking of the final outcome to Last Tango in Paris, Kael writes, "Brando's Paul, the essentially naive outsider, the romantic, is no match for a French bourgeois girl."

"French bourgeois" is vitally important. The French bourgeoisie survived Robespierre's  Reign of Terror by pretending to be "Revolutionaries". They're no one's fool for anyone's good intentions, least of all the Communist-likes of Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir!

As for treating film as a French art gallery, "The colors in this movie are late-afternoon orange-beige-browns and pink -- the pink of flesh drained of blood,  corpse pink. They are so delicately modulated … that romance and rot are one; the lyric extravagance of the music heightens this effect."

As for the fundamental style of the film?

Not Italian. Mildly American. But inescapably French.

French! French! French!

Bertolucci uses a feedback of his own -- the feedback of old movies to enrich the imagery and associations. In substance, this is his most American film, yet the shadow of Michel Simon seems to hover over Brando, and the ambience is a tribute to the early crime-of-passion films of Jean Renoir, especially La chienne and La bête Humaine.

Then there is Kael's public confession of Brando's sexual power over not just the gasping audience but Pauline Kael as well:

His first sex act has a boldness that had the audience gasping, and the gasp was caused -- in part -- by our awareness that this was Marlon Brando doing it, not an unknown actor. In the flat, he wears the white T-shirt of Stanley Kowalski, and he still has the big shoulders and thick-muscled arms. Photographed looking down, he is still tender and poetic; photographed looking up, he is ravaged, like the man in the Francis Bacon painting under the film's opening titles. We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies, and his willingness to run the full course with a study of the aggression in masculine sexuality and how the physical strength of men lends credence to the insanity that grows out of it gives the film a larger, tragic dignity. If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don't?

Why then would Ms. Kael admit to being so erotically aroused by such wham-bam-without-a-thank-you-ma'am sexual abandon? Because she's honest! She never lied about what she thought or what she felt.

Why did Pauline Kael instantly receive so much attention?

Her honesty.

Why wasn't, say, John Simon, the well-known, equally homicidal critic of New York held in equal esteem? John Simon's not a woman. He's a male careerist. Something that Manhattan has in disgusting abundance. Besides, Simon never loved anyone or anything but his own opinion. His raves couldn't fill a seat. His hatchet jobs, however, could end whole careers.

Pauline Kael was, indeed, "possessed"! When in love with a film, her reviews filled movie theaters for months!! She wrote her opinions with the same mad certainty I felt leaving my home, my wife and my country after meeting the Attorney General of the United States, Janet Reno.

Subsequently disastrous Presidential decisions, leading to the nightmare of the Obama Nation, have since corroborated my earlier gut instinct that America was on her way to literal suicide.

President Obama warned us about that coming American harakiri with the words: "A fundamental transformation of the United States of America."

No one listened.

Pauline Kael was unquestionably not a Liberal and I doubt if she would follow any Party Line about Barack Obama. Ergo her insightful contempt for American, male intellectuals.

Much of the movie is American in spirit. Brando's Paul (a former actor and journalist who has been living off his French wife) is like a drunk with a literary turn of mind. He bellows his contempt for hypocrisies and orthodoxies; he keeps trying to shove them all back down other people's throats. His profane humor and self-loathing self-centeredness and street "wisdom" are in the style of the American hard-boiled fiction aimed at the masculine fantasy market, sometimes by writers (often good ones, too) who believe in more than a little of it.

That's her indirect shot at Norman Mailer.

Here is where her grievances with Norman Mailer erupt, when comparing him with Brando, as an artist and as a man.

The excitement of Brando's performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be. At the simplest level, Brando, by his inflections and rhythms, the right American obscenities, and perhaps an improvised monologue, makes the dialogue his own and makes Paul an authentic American abroad, in a way that an Italian writer-director simply couldn't do without the actor's help. At a more complex level, he helps Bertolucci discover the movie in the process of shooting it, and that's what makes moviemaking an art. What Mailer never understood was that his macho thing prevented flexibility and that in terms of his own personality he couldn't improvise -- he was consciously acting. And he couldn't allow others to improvise, because he was always challenging them to come up with something. Using the tactics he himself compared to "a commando raid on the nature of reality," he was putting a gun to their heads. Lacking the background of a director, he reduced the art of film to the one element of acting, and in his confusion of "existential" acting with improvisation he expected "danger" to be a spur. But acting involves the joy of self-discovery, and to improvise, as actors mean it, is the most instinctive, creative part of acting -- to bring out and give form to what you didn't know you had in you; it's the surprise, the "magic" in acting. A director has to be supportive for an actor to feel both secure enough and free enough to reach into himself. Brando here, always listening to an inner voice, must have a direct pipeline to the mystery of character.

Kael, rather like Truman Capote, could and would alienate even her own set of literati!

I myself, having been described by the sports writer Dick Schaap as having "alienated all of Manhattan" with my attacks on Janet Reno, find the inevitably ecstatic loneliness of Pauline Kael quite comforting. The inevitable isolation because of her bold, if not always graceful, admirably sharp-shooting brutality.

An Ecstatic Loneliness is to be the title of my next "Memoir", the one to follow the published Gift of Stern Angels.

This portrait of Pauline Kael, however, has, much to my satisfaction, just become the Fifty-Fourth Chapter of my other memoir, The Haunted Heaven. Nothing fits the ecstasies of this haunted house, home or exiled soul more exquisitely than memories of Pauline Kael.

Oh, I've just discovered one more thing she and I share: neither of us were or are Communist.

I was, to be embarrassingly frank, a brain-washed Liberal for quite some time.

However, the category of "useful idiot", as a former KGB member referred to American Liberals, could never be hung on the back of Pauline Kael.

Her review of the decidedly Marxist film, Salt of the Earth, described it as "Communist propaganda"!

She also "snarked" about one of her fellow, literati club members as being, "Catholic, Communist and a Lesbian!"

People had to sleuth their way to the subject of such disdain: most likely Simone de Beauvoir.

Where does such a critical tornado as Pauline Kael leave Pauline Kael?! She is nothing but Pauline Kael. One of a kind. No one like her.

Without her, and now under the Obama Nation's influence, The New Yorker magazine has wilted down to fly-droppings-sized print and overly stuffed pages of advertisement.


She was The New Yorker's biggest set of cojones and indisputably my life's greatest blessing in disguise!

Without her the film world might be safer but Manhattan and The New Yorker are a Martini without gin, a Black Russian without Vodka, Guys and Dolls without a live orchestra and Gypsy without Ethel Merman!

As much as I like Rosalind Russell as an actress, she's no Ethel Merman.

No one in the theater could raise the hair on the back of your head more instantly than Ethel Merman singing I Had A Dream! I saw her in Gypsy and the film version without her was like New York Magazine without Pauline Kael.

Few American critics, of any gender or publication, whether it be the New York Times or Paris' Herald Tribune, have ever left as profound a mark on their targeted readers as Pauline Kael did.

As for her objects of scorn?

This poor, scorned player found Pauline Kael a blessing in disguise! ESR

Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at rainbowfamily2008@yahoo.com.






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