Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 - September 3, 2001) was a film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine. She was known for her in-depth, well-informed, deeply personal, sometimes impassioned movie reviews. Though she approached movies intellectually, her writing style was strictly in the vernacular, and her guiding thesis was that movies, regardless of other merits, must be entertaining. Many people considered her the most influential American film critic of her day, including critic Roger Ebert, whose own style is heavily indebted to Kael. Others found her prose leaden, her writing pessimistic and given to cheap shots.
Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to Jewish immigrants from Poland. She attended UC Berkeley but did not graduate . She first came to fame in the 1950s, as the movie critic for Berkeley, California radio station KPFA. She published a number of freelance articles on movies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, she wrote a famously negative review of The Sound of Music which, she liked to boast, resulted in her being fired from McCall's magazine (she referred to the movie as "The Sound of Money"). But it was during her stint (1967 - 1991) at the New Yorker, a forum that permitted her to write at some length, that Kael achieved her greatest prominence as a critic.
Kael's first published collection of her movie writings, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), was a best-seller, and it led to a series of hardbound collections of her writings, many with (deliberately) suggestive titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When the Lights Go Down, Taking It All In, and others. Her fourth book, Deeper Into Movies (1973), was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award. 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982) collected her synopses of films that were previously published anonymously in the "Goings on About Town" section of The New Yorker.
Kael also wrote philosophical essays on moviegoing, the modern-day Hollywood film industry, the lack of courage on the part of audiences (as she perceived it) to explore lesser-known, more challenging movies (she never used the word "film" to describe movies because she felt the word was too elitist).
Among her more popular essays were a damning review of Norman Mailer's semi-fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe that attacked Mailer himself as much as the book; an incisive look at Cary Grant's career, and an extensively researched look at Citizen Kane entitled Raising Kane (later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book).
Her opinion that credit for Citizen Kane was deserving for the film's screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as much as for Orson Welles, was seen in movie circles as blasphemous at the time, generating angry responses from Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich and others, and it is still a topic for debate among film buffs today.
In 1981 she accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to be a consultant to Paramount Pictures, but she left the position after only a few months.
Pauline Kael died at her home in Massachusetts in 2001, aged 82, from Parkinson's disease, survived by a daughter.
Kael is frequently quoted as having said, in the wake of Richard Nixon's landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, that she couldn't believe Nixon had won, since no one she knew had voted for him. The quote is usually cited by conservatives (such as Bernard Goldberg, in his book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News), as an example of clueless liberal insularity. Others have speculated that it was uttered during the height of the Watergate investigation, and was meant as an ironic commentary on Nixon's plunging popularity (in other words, how did Nixon manage such a landslide if no one would admit to voting for him?)
At this point, the quotation should be considered apocryphal. No one has ever produced any primary evidence that Kael, or anyone else, made the statement. In addition, there does not seem to be agreement as to the exact wording, the speaker (it has variously been attributed to other liberal women, including Katherine Graham, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion) or the timing (in addition to Nixon's victory, it has been claimed to have been uttered after Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984).
The origin of the meme is unclear. Some have claimed that it was a garbled version of quote Kael gave to the Wall Street Journal. Asked to comment on the election, Kael replied that it would be inappropriate for her to comment, as nobody she knew had voted for him. According to Fred Shapiro of the American Dialect Society, it sprung from an address Kael gave to a Modern Language Association conference on December 28, 1972, during which The New York Times quoted her as saying, apparently facetiously, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."