When Critics Ruled the World

Even though Roger Ebert was probably the most influential film critic in America prior to his death, for years New Yorker Magazine critic Pauline Kael wielded the kind of power few people in the industry could claim.

Years after her death she is still the most revered film critic in America and a new documentary, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, has just been released which serves as a primer to those too young to remember her writings.

Pulsatingly subjective, exhilaratingly assertive, compulsively absorbing, Pauline Kael wrote about movies in a way they’d never been written about before. Director Rob Garver examines her life and legacy as America’s most controversial critic.

The documentary seems to hit on all the beats you would expect from a film like this, the main one being how difficult it was being a woman in a male-dominated field which everyone is so quick to latch on to these days.

It also includes current filmmakers gushing how great she was because they never had to worry about their films doing poorly as a result of one of her reviews.

Before The Dark Times

Kael’s power was a result of how films were released prior to the blockbuster era.

Before Spielberg and Lucas changed Hollywood, a film was not released everywhere across the country on the same day. First, they were released in major markets like NY and LA, and after their run there finished they slowly moved across the country. Some cities would not see a film open until months after its initial release.

Because of this, getting a good review in those cities first would make or break how well they were received and wanted in the rest of the country afterward. 

Since Kael was the biggest critic in the biggest market, she had the most power.

Her notoriety was so huge that when George Lucas made Willow he named the film’s villain, General Kael, after her because of the bad review she game Return of The Jedi.


One of the things the doc does not look like it will get into and probably purposely ignore is how she was basically the Harry Knowles of her day and could easily be bought off in order to get a good review.

The book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was about Hollywood in the 70’s and how it turned into the current money-making monster.

In it, Kael is a prominent figure. One of the stories it tells is how when Warren Beatty was making Bonnie and Clyde, he knew how badly he needed a good review from her to make the film a success.

Also knowing how starstruck she was, he invited her to the editing suite to meet him and everyone involved, and then took her out to dinner so she could experience the Hollywood lifestyle with a big star.

Not surprisingly, the film got a glowing review from her.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is playing in NY and LA but expands nationwide in January.