Meryl Streep vs. Pauline Kael


I was asked to contribute an essay for an anthology about Pauline Kael to be published by Scarecrow Press. The editor of the book, Wayne Stengel, graciously allowed me to post the essay I submitted here. If it by any chance it piques your curiosity about Sophie’s Choice, come see the film tonight or tomorrow at the New Beverly Cinema

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The great, lasting gift of Pauline Kael’s body of work may be its unfailing ability to provoke debates and disputes, but there remain a few aspects of her film criticism that are indisputable. Without question, she was a great observer of performers, one who made her habit using her reviews to detail her ongoing relationship (not physical, maybe, but definitely emotional) to a star across their various movies. And, more than anyone else of her time (or maybe even any time), she was a critic who related watching movies to having a body and feeling desire. Look at the titles of her books: I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady. She called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice “whorey” in the same breath as praising it as “the liveliest American comedy so far this year.” At a college-town lecture, she countered a question about her controversial review of Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart with a question of her own: “Do you remember your first fuck?” She fought unsuccessfully to review Deep Throat in the New Yorker, and later capped off her famous rave of the X-rated Last Tango in Paris by admitting Bertolucci’s film “has made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing.” She was forever drawn to performers and films which, as she put it admiringly of Henry James’ The Bostonians, had “sex right there at the center.”

As Kael’s biographer Brian Kellow put it, the critic “generally preferred actors “who conveyed some kind of ripe sensuality, inflected with a certain craziness or messiness.” Just as intensely as she praised an actor like Marlon Brando for his sexual presence on screen, Kael could sharpen her knives on performers who she felt didn’t use their bodies to the fullest.  One actress whose physicality made her a Kael bete noir was Meryl Streep. 

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Kael first noticed Streep in The Deer Hunter, and actually singled the actress out for praise (calling her “a real beauty…[who] doesn’t do anything standard; everything seems fresh”) in what was otherwise an incensed pan of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War film. In her 1980 essay “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” Kael went on to wholly dismiss two Streep films, Kramer vs. Kramer and The Seduction of Joe Tynan, as fantasies for “over-age flower children,” but waited until reviewing Karel Reiss’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman to consider Streep as a body on screen. The verdict? “She’s pallid and rather glacial,” Kael sniffed of the actress, who by this point had won an Oscar for Kramer (just her second major film role) and had occupied a cover of Newsweek in January 1980 under the headline “A Star for the ‘80s.” Kael went on: “Meryl Streep’s technique doesn’t add up to anything. We’re not fascinated by [her character]; she’s so distanced from us that all we can do is observe how meticulous Streep— and everything else about the movie— is.” Streep’s unsatisfactory physique came up again in Kael’s review of Still of the Night in 1982, in which she essentially compared Streep to a corpse, claiming the actress didn’t “resemble a living person; her face is gaunt, her skin has become alabaster.” But the piece de resistance — the moment when Kael’s scrutiny of Streep’s physicality no longer seemed happenstance or accidental — came with her review of the film that would net Streep her second Oscar in three years, Sophie’s Choice:

I felt more sympathy for Meryl Streep, the actress trying to put over these ultimate-horror scenes, than I could for Sophie herself […] Streep is very beautiful at times, and she does amusing, nervous bits of business, like fidgeting with a furry boa— her fingers twiddling with our heartstrings. She has, as usual, put thought and effort into her work. But something about her puzzles me: after I’ve seen her in a movie, I can’t visualize her from the neck down…she in effect decorporealizes herself. This could explain why her movie heroines don’t seem to be full characters, and why there are no incidental joys to be had from watching her. It could be that in her zeal to be an honest actress she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance. Instead of trying to achieve freedom in front of the camera, she’s predetermining what it records.

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Kael would continue to offer harsh assessments of Streep’s screen presence in other films she reviewed before her retirement from criticism in 1991. In Silkwood, “Meryl Streep gives a very fine performance as Karen Silkwood,” Kale wound up, then delivered the punchline: “considering that she’s the wrong kind of actress for the role…in her starring performances she has been giving us artificial creations. She doesn’t seem to know how to draw on herself, she hasn’t yet released an innate personality on the screen.” In Out of Africa, Kael insisted that Steep’s highly-specific Danish accent “puts quotation marks around everything she says.” But it is the Sophie’s Choice review that’s most often quoted — or misquoted, as in a 1987 LIFE Magazine profile of Streep, in which Brad Darrach claimed that Kael “likes to say that Meryl acts only from the neck up.” (“What does that mean, act from the neck up?,” said Streep’s Joe Tynan co-star Alan Alda, according to Darrach. “Should she act with her knees more?”)

The “abuse” Streep suffered at the pen-wielding hands of Kael had become such a large part of the actress’ legend that in 2008, seven years after Kael’s death, Streep finally fired back. “I’m incapable of not thinking about what Pauline wrote,” Streep admitted in an interview with The Guardian designed to promote Mamma Mia! “And you know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair, and the heartlessness of them got her.”

Meryl Streep’s job is to act and to promote the movies in which she acts by submitting to interviews and projecting a fascinating star persona. Pauline Kael’s job was to take in movies, performances, and the whole of the image that a star projects to their audience, and to essentially report on how all of the above made her feel. (An argument could be made that this shouldn’t be a film critic’s job description, but it’s certainly an accurate description of how Pauline Kael approached her job.) If there is an unspoken professional contract between critics and art makers, there’s no trace of awareness of this pact in Streep’s comment. There’s no acknowledgement that Kael’s words are her work, or that this work is both a kind of art, and in some sense its own kind of performance. There’s no gesture of respect, phony or otherwise, for position and status, and the implied prerogative it would seem to carry with it to allow Kael to say whatever she thinks needs to be said about a given film and the elements in it. There’s no demurral. In researching my book, Meryl Streep: Anatomy of An Actor, I read dozens of interviews with Streep spanning about 35 years, and catalogued hundreds of quotes. This was one of the few moments of absolute candor, one of just a handful of times when Streep let a personal feeling trump her very savvy understanding of the politics of publicity. Her comments were clearly spontaneous, emotional, and unprofessional — all adjectives that Streep likely thought could fairly be applied to Kael’s written judgements of her. 

Instead of observing a theoretical professional code of conduct, Streep paints the conflict between her and Kael as a kind of proto-Mean Girls dynamic — ostensibly because, as she perceived it, Kael went there first — but Streep’s comments are, in some sense, more brutal than Kael’s. Of course, if her actual intention was to be truly catty or vicious, Streep could have gone further. She could have fleshed out the “otherness” that she implied to be the source of the critic’s nagging insecurity, by noting that Kael was a have-not in the beauty sweepstakes, whose romantic career consisted of multiple frustrated liaisons with gay and bisexual men. She could have subsequently suggested that Kael’s preoccupation with the bodies of performers had something to do with the the critic’s own body having failed her as a sexual object. Instead, while acknowledging that she was still bothered by words written 25 years in the past, Streep cooly eviscerates Kael as a permanent adolescent who let her own decades-old pain color her judgement. 

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How true does Streep’s conception of Kael’s motivation ring? It’s true that Kael was a “poor Jewish girl” who essentially dropped out of Berkeley when she ran out of money, and it’s true that if she had been someone who had developed an allergy to “rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair” due to bad experiences, you couldn’t find a better avatar to dredge up that resentment than Meryl Streep circa the late 1970s-early 1980s. But based on everything else we know of Kael, it seems more likely that any resentment Streep sparked in her had less to do with Kael’s unshakable memory of Berkeley bullies, and more to do with her professional struggles. 

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Pauline Kael loved being a star, even on the relatively small level of Berkeley fame that she enjoyed while writing program notes for the Berkeley Cinema Guild and reviewing movies on KPFA, but she wasn’t really famous, or even able to make a comfortable living, as a critic until she was well into middle age. Long before that, she expressed disdain for sudden fame. Writing to a friend in the mid-1940s about her ex-lover, the poet Robert Horan, Kael commented that his recent, higher-profile work felt “hurried and a little too chic. Success doesn’t come that easily if you’re really serious…” Once Kael did have a high-profile platform, she felt compelled to use it to champion underdogs, and undercut virtually anyone for whom success seemed to come too easy.

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Kael may have been initially perturbed by Streep’s apparently easy fame, and felt determined to take the girl of the moment down a peg. But Streep, of course, wasn’t merely the the flavor of the month — she didn’t go away. As she continued to star in films that Kael was obliged to take seriously, the critic’s resentment might have increased. Maybe Kael was kicking herself for her own lack of foresight regarding Streep’s longevity — or ashamed that her arguments continued to fall on deaf ears. Kael was famously confident in her power not just to set the critical agenda, but to actually change filmmakers’ minds. Long before her friendships with Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman incurred whispers of impropriety, she allegedly burned her social bridge to Sidney Lumet by pointing to the director in polite company and saying, “My job is to show him which way to go.” 

Another big part of her identity as a critic was to stand in opposition to a trend. Kael apparently felt a self-righteous mission to balance the scales by zigging where others zagged. To quote a radio broadcast from December 1962 in which Kael eviscerated the safe liberal climate of the very station on which her voice was being heard, “Do you really want to be endlessly confirmed in the opinions you already hold?” As Kellow put it, “she was determined to let her readers know that she was one critic not taken in” by the hype du jour. Meryl “Star for the ‘80s” Streep was the first to admit that her early career was marked by “excessive hype”: “For a while there it was either me or the Ayatollah on the covers of national magazines,” she sighed in 1981. Maybe Kael dished it so aggressively because she felt Streep had grown big enough to take it. 

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Or maybe she didn’t “feel” anything about Streep at all. These types of attacks were part of what would now be called the Pauline Kael brand, and as with anything branded, there was something soulless about their manufacture; they were not, Kael would say, motivated by personal animosity. In fact, Kael claimed to be surprised when her attacks on filmmakers or other critics were ever taken seriously or personally. Kellow uses the word “detachment” to describe Kael’s attack mode. Kael’s daughter Gina, at her mother’s funeral, was more specific — and more critical. Gina noted that Pauline “truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs … This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.”

 

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Given the critic’s apparent blindness (willful or otherwise) to the consequences of her acid pen, what would Kael have made of Streep’s long-delayed response? It’s easy to imagine that Kael would have claimed Streep was flattering herself in thinking that a mere actress could be a thorn in a critic’s side. Streep may have been more of a convenience than an annoyance, an easy target that gave Kael a chance to do some of the things she most loved to do, a high-profile idol around which Kael could paint her own critical philosophy. Ultimately, her criticisms of Streep could conceivably be about a lot of things, but particularly in hindsight, they hardly seem to have anything to do with Meryl Streep. Here, as was so often the case, Pauline Kael’s true subject may have been Pauline Kael.