The gay attacks on Pauline Kael

How did America's leading film critic, who was fearlessly opposed to cant and dogma of all stripes, come to be seen as a homophobe?

Published June 25, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The campaign to tar Pauline Kael as a homophobe began over her review of "Rich and Famous," a 1981 drama with a footnote value as the last film by George Cukor; the plot involves the 20-year friendship of a giddy popular novelist (Candice Bergen) and an occasionally promiscuous highbrow novelist (Jacqueline Bisset). Cukor was famously, but not publicly, gay, a circumstance that Kael, who found the movie idiotic, tried to address without forcing him out of the closet when she wrote, "'Rich and Famous' isn't camp, exactly; it's more like a homosexual fantasy. Bisset's affairs, with their masochistic overtones, are creepy, because they don't seem like what a woman would get into." When Stuart Byron, of the Village Voice, read those sentences, he hit the ceiling:

"I have news for Pauline. However much male gay life has followed promiscuous patterns not available to straights until the advent of the postpill paradise, the gay fantasy has always been exactly the same as the straight fantasy: love and happiness with one person forever ... As for Bisset, it is apparent that Kael, like the straight men who seem to have shaped her romantic consciousness, won't accept that Bisset has one-night stands and sometimes enjoys them -- and yet is not viewed as a sick nymphomaniac."

Vito Russo, the author of the pioneering 1981 study "The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies," echoed Byron's contention in an interview the following year:

"'Rich and Famous' had a promiscuous heroine and got attacked for it, notably by Pauline Kael, who attributed the promiscuity of a heterosexual character, a woman, to a homosexual sensibility, as though straight women have never been promiscuous or been given the permission to be promiscuous. So when George Cukor created one for the first time, Kael said they shouldn't be like that; it's homosexual; they're the ones who are promiscuous."

No one familiar with Kael's writing on women and sex could take these words seriously. The most obvious rebuttal is her review of the 1977 "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," in which Diane Keaton played a woman who, as Kael put it, "cruises singles bars the way male homosexuals cruise gay bars and s-m hangouts." Kael disliked the movie -- not because it was debauched but because it wasn't sensual enough ("The teasing near-subliminal bedroom flashes are 'artistic,' not sensual") and because, like the novel it was drawn from, it moralized and psychologized ("as if a woman wouldn't want sex unsanctified by tenderness unless she was crippled, psychologically flawed, self-hating") for an audience that, in fact, already accepted the anonymous sex. It was "something that most women have done at some time -- or, at least, have wanted to do," she commented. "It's what nice people do when they're not feeling so nice."

In his revised (1987) version of "The Celluloid Closet," Russo wrote, "Pauline Kael attacked George Cukor's 'Rich and Famous' (1981) for having a covert gay sensibility." No: she noted the film had a covert gay sensibility. She attacked it for being, as she wrote, "hopelessly demented ... It's full of scenes that don't play, and often you can't even tell what was hoped for." But she did find the gay undercurrent problematic. "I see it as a picture with what is now called a closeted sensibility," she later elaborated. "The erotic passages simply didn't feel convincing to me as heterosexual, but surely it's not anti-gay to point out that the nuances of male-male and male-female pickups and seductions are somewhat different?" Apparently Russo thought it was, and though the film's pickup scene, with its heavy silences and tight smiles, reads to me as inescapably gay, there's probably no way to prove it. Russo didn't read it that way. No matter how he read it, though, it was contradictory for him to write that Cukor's homosexuality was something Kael "couldn't overtly discuss while the director was still alive because it's such a disgusting thing to say about someone in print that you can be sued for it" -- which misrepresents her reluctance to out him -- and then claim, on the same page, "Pauline Kael simply calls George Cukor a faggot."

Kael took up the treatment of gay characters again in her review of "Victim," the 1961 thriller about the blackmail of homosexuals that Britain's anti-gay statutes then encouraged:

"A minor problem in trying to take 'Victim' seriously even as a thriller is that the suspense involves a series of 'revelations' that several of the highly-placed characters have been concealing their homosexuality; but actors, and especially English actors, generally look so queer anyway, that it's hard to be surprised at what we've always taken for granted -- in fact, in this suspense context of who is and who isn't, it's hard to believe in the actors who are supposed to be straight."

Is this bigotry? To me it shows enough ease with the topic to be able to crack jokes -- in a dark period when other reviewers (like Time's), as she jeered, "felt that if homosexuality were not a crime it would spread." But her larger -- and more controversial -- criticism is that the film's rectitude tips over into piety:

"I'm beginning to long for one of those old-fashioned movie stereotypes -- the vicious, bitchy old queen who said mean, funny things. We may never again have those Franklin Pangborn roles, now that homosexuals are going to be treated seriously, with sympathy and respect, like Jews and Negroes."

Predictably, Kael's gay critics miss the irony (and the humor) in this passage and conclude that she's arguing against treating homosexuals "with sympathy and respect." But here, as that "seriously" signals, those terms are corroded. (Compare the pejorative spin she always gave virtuous.) "In 'Victim,'" she complained, "there is so much effort to make us feel sympathy toward the homosexuals that they are never even allowed to be gay." To Russo, "This was like saying that there was so much effort to make us feel sympathy for blacks in 'Nothing but a Man' or 'One Potato, Two Potato' that they were never allowed to tap dance or eat a slice of watermelon." Nonsense. It's Russo who, with the best intentions (and I use the word advisedly), is falsifying his experience. As Kael had argued back in "Movies, the Desperate Art," "The situation is not simple. Art derives from human experience, and the artist associates certain actions and motivations with certain cultural and vocational groups because that is how he has observed and experienced them ... It is the germ of observed truth that pressure groups fear, a germ which infects only the individual but which the group treats as epidemic."

She wasn't cavalier. "To allow the artist to treat his experience freely may be dangerous," she acknowledged. But to deny that freedom -- to demand "whitewashes, smiles and lies" -- is worse. And, if I can say so without being misinterpreted, there is considerable beauty in tap dancing. Twenty-four years after "Victim," Kael returned to her defense of the nelly queen in her review of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Hector Babenco's 1985 film version of the Manuel Puig novel about a window dresser and a revolutionary locked together in a Latin American prison cell. Babenco's adaptation struck her as timid -- it would have been better, she thought, "if the sexual relationship between the two men had been ongoing (as it is in the book), and not just the one-night affair of the movie" -- but her larger objection was to Babenco's treatment of the gay window dresser, Molina, who represented "the delirium of excess" to Puig and to her. "Babenco, in all his earnestness, is out to prove that silly old queens are useful, upstanding citizens, and he has steamrollered the romance and absurdity out of the material," she protested. "I don't believe that Puig saw any need for Molina to be redeemed."

And Kael was alert to real homophobia. A 1972 observation about blaxploitation films -- "These movies are often garishly anti-homosexual; homosexuality seems to stand for weakness and cowardice -- 'corruption'" -- still applies to the hip-hop scene. She denounced Ken Russell's gay-themed movies ("homo-erotic in style, and yet in dramatic content ... bizarrely anti-homosexual") as "flaming anti-faggotry." And she was sensitive to subtler kinds of homophobia, as in the 1977 ballet picture "The Turning Point":

"Would movie audiences care whether the male dancers were actually homosexual, as long as they moved with precision and refinement, and could soar when necessary? Maybe some still would; maybe there is a sound commercial instinct behind this picture's attempt to ingratiate itself by showing ballet as 'normal.' But ... it would be more honorable to take a chance on the audience."

In fact, sifting through the dozens upon dozens of references to homosexuality in Kael's work, I find only one that really bothers me. In the 1961 British film "A Taste of Honey," the unmarried and pregnant young working-class heroine sets up household with a sissy friend who sees her through her pregnancy and helps her care for the infant, until the girl's hateful mother shows up and throws him out. Kael likes the material (but not Tony Richardson's direction of it), finding an "old-fashioned but sweet pathos" in the friendship that takes her back to the pictures of an earlier era: "The sweet man is now a motherly little queen who looks after the heroine, but the basic emotion is the same as it was in the gentle sentimental love stories of the twenties and thirties -- the hero and heroine, friendless babes in the woods who need each other." But this "beauty-of-pathos stuff," as she once called it in reference to Chaplin (and the end of the picture reminds her of Chaplin), also puts her on her guard:

"Audiences longing for a hero to lavish their sympathies on have a new unfortunate they can clasp to their social-worker hearts: the ideal 'little man,' the homemaker, the pure-in-heart, childlike, nonthreatening male, the man a girl can feel safe with -- and who could be more 'deprived'? They can feel tender and tolerant, and they can feel contemptuous, and in-the-know at the same time: the man a girl can feel safe with is a joke, he's not a man at all."

Rather than brush these words aside, I'll concede that I wish she hadn't written them, or written them this way. Are they homophobic? No. She isn't making a pronouncement about gay men; she's referring to a specific weakling, and she never had room in her heart for weaklings. The problem with the passage isn't homophobia but sexism; "not a man at all," with its implication that effeminacy (or, by extension, femininity) represents a failure of worth, is a locution no right-thinking writer would use today, and one that Kael herself would have shunned in her later years. It reflects the tenor of the times better than it does the tenor of her thought -- there's no other evidence that she considered women inferior to men. But, but ... if she really was the model of tolerance I knew her to be, then why did she become a symbol of bigotry to a group of gay critics? Part of the answer lies in her tone. I don't mean simply the pugnacity, though the pugnacity always inflamed readers and made them want to argue back (which was part of what made her addictive). It's also the lack of piety and especially the contempt for liberal pieties. Kael assumed that she didn't need to profess her goodwill. She would have found it offensive -- to her readers and to herself -- to assure them she was enlightened. But her failure to assure them had consequences, and not just around gay issues. Recently I met a young woman who admires Kael but, to my surprise, faulted her for a deficiency of feminist consciousness. Kael, she argued, passed up too many opportunities to offer a feminist analysis in her reviews. No doubt she's unaware that years ago Stanley Kauffmann noted the "persistent feminism" in "I Lost It at the Movies," that Andrew Sarris decried Kael's "misapplied feminist zeal," or that the young men who composed the editorial board of Movie accused her of "fanatical feminism." This young woman wasn't entirely wrong. Kael had firm politics, but she was wary of what firm politics could do to criticism. Although she could be ferocious in pointing out how a coffee-table book or a movie like "Straw Dogs" demeaned women, she was equally ferocious in demonstrating, in her reviews of "The Stepford Wives" and "One Sings, the Other Doesn't" and "Entre Nous," how a shallow and self-serving feminism could distort dramatic thinking. Ditto her views on sexual orientation: what she called special pleading irked her not because the plea wasn't just but because too often it outbalanced verisimilitude, character development, art. Without artistic integrity, "intentions" were useless -- worse than useless.

Kael was direct. If she had disliked homosexuals, she would have said so; she wasn't, as she wrote so disdainfully of Stanley Kramer, running for office in the arts. But the enemy wasn't gays. The enemy was fraud, the enemy was cant, and she had an almost visceral need to expose it. If the tone in some of her earlier reviews now strikes us as less than sensitive, it hardly seems fair to hold a critic writing in the early '60s to post-Stonewall standards of delicacy. And it should be remembered that she wrote those reviews at a time when the rest of the press typically referred to gay men and lesbians in terms that survive today only on the far-right fringe. Her attitude is gay-friendly in her reviews of such explicitly gay-themed movies as "By Design," "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Law of Desire." In 1982, she showed how the cross-dressing comedy "Victor/Victoria" was actually reactionary in its sexual attitudes; the movie's popularity with gay audiences mystified her.

The gay attacks on Kael are obviously painful to me, and not just because, as a gay friend of hers, I feel injured by assaults on her good name. To me they represent something far more destructive. They embody the same hopeless script that progressives have enacted again and again for the past century. Why does the left persist in exhausting itself by attacking its allies instead of its enemies? Why do deviations from orthodoxy provoke so much bitterness that the left winds up shifting its energy, its passion, away from the true threats? What was gained by creating a straw villainess out of Kael at a time when homosexuals had so many real antagonists who were virulent, indefatigable and gleefully out in the open?

There was something horrible in the way a group that had once been persecuted by smears turned itself into a smear factory. But the '80s was an ominous era for gay men and women. The backlash that had begun in 1977 with Anita Bryant's successful campaign against an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Fla., seemed to be gathering strength. In 1986, the Supreme Court shattered any hope for constitutional justice when it endorsed, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the continued criminalization of sodomy. And then, of course, there was AIDS -- the epidemic that was to claim both Byron and Russo among its countless casualties -- and the indifference of the Reagan administration to the death toll. The necessity of militance was clear, and the rise of Larry Kramerism was probably inevitable. Activists felt, as they always have, that if a few bystanders fell under the bullets, they always have.

By Salon Staff

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