Reviewers

Marilyn Butler

  • Three-Quarter Face by Penelope Gilliatt
    Secker, 295 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 436 17958 X
  • Show People by Kenneth Tynan
    Weidenfeld, 317 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77842 0
  • When the lights go down by Pauline Kael
    Boyars, 592 pp, £8.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2726 2

The short topical review-article is a literary discovery of the last two hundred years or so – the age of mass literacy and the mass-circulation newspaper. A good review column is read by more people than any criticism at book length, and often deserves to be. It should have been the review and not the novel that Jane Austen meant when she hailed the form in which ‘the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ She might also have had reviewers in mind, not novelists, when she noted their extraordinary sheepishness in alluding to their own skills. Some of the very best are nowadays competing with one another in that ungenerous and impolitic custom ‘of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding’.

Most of us would never have heard of Penelope Gilliatt and of the late Kenneth Tynan if they had not been weekly columnists. Both made a name as the Observer’s regular reviewers of (respectively) films and the theatre. It is true that Gilliatt was also a novelist, and that Tynan became the literary manager of the National Theatre. But when each transferred their sphere of operations from London to New York, they conquered a new public through their journalism, especially for the New Yorker, which first printed many of the pieces in their new books. Even so, in the late Seventies they seem to have been leaving behind the common-or-garden review in favour of something longer, presumably more lucrative, almost certainly more fun to write – the star profile.

Profiles and not bread-and-butter reviews make up Tynan’s book and much of Gilliatt’s. Tynan is here bent on recommending his new form, which he does by insinuating that it is an older activity than his former practice of reviewing:

Many publishers believe that modern readers care only for long-distance, marathon writing, and that there is no room left for such middle-distance, eight hundred metre stuff as essays. Out of the window – if these experts are right – goes Montaigne. To the bonfire with William Hazlitt, closely followed by Max Beerbohm, Sainte-Beuve and John Aubrey. A brusque kiss-off to Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, La Bruyère and the best of Mencken, not to mention Svetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; and into the garbage goes Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, perhaps the finest book of profile-essays ever written ... I am not, of course, claiming a place for myself among the masters I have named above. (Although, when Lamb is at his most whimsical, I sometimes think I could go a couple of rounds with him and not make a total fool of myself.)

With such connections, the ‘profile-essay’ leaves behind its poor relation, the review. Not a word of the studio hand-out, and no hint that the story of a star’s private life has become an ancillary service of the entertainment industry. Perhaps it’s a detail that Johnson wrote about poets, while Tynan, with the single exception of Tom Stoppard, prefers performers. Or that some of Johnson’s subjects were obscure, while Tynan’s other four are stars of stage, screen or box – Ralph Richardson, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks and Louise Brooks. Still, he makes a polished bid for literary respectability, and Penelope Gilliatt, introducing her own collection, has an even more exalted sense of what she is about:

The mysteries of creativity are not to be found in misquoted gossip-press cuttings or even in verbatim public statements ... The essence of a profile proper, I believe, lies in spending convivial and discursive time with a person over weeks, sometimes spread out over years ... First of all, one has to love and admire and have pondered over the subject’s work and cast of mind. This is why the writing of a profile is kin to creating a character in fiction ... It takes fiction, with its fugitive insights and heed, to tell us about the prevailing idiom of a character. The centre of things lies in listening and watching at the living moment. To my mind, tape-recorders tell very little. After a time – the length of time depending on whether the person is either shy or reassured by the sight of someone taking notes of talk in cars or at mealtimes, which Nanny said wasn’t polite – my way of going about it is to make notes in one of my scores of black leather notebooks ... The truth lies, of course, not only in talk, but also in behaviour. Sometimes one catches it as the character sees friends, plays word games, or goes walking with a dog. One can go shopping with people, or cook, as I did with the late, great Jean Renoir in Paris, or deal with pigeons on a terrace as I did with Woody Allen.

Earlier in the Seventies, as a working critic, Gilliatt spent rewarding afternoons watching films. She is at her best when, after a session of classics, perhaps at the Museum of Modern Art, she recapitulates the early careers of individual directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock or Satyajit Ray. Her warm descriptive style, sympathetic, unanalytic, excels when it seeks to do nothing more than to report the experience of seeing a film. But Gilliatt seems dissatisfied with the effect, judging by her zeal to dress up some of the original reviews with self-conscious little prefaces, and so to convert them into the more cumbrous literary pieces of her new manner.

In practice, her ‘three-quarter face’ portraits seem just a series of interviews with celebrities of the film world like Buñuel, Godard, Jeanne Moreau and Woody Allen. In theory, they are a minor art-form, owing something to the skills of the novelist and of the painter or photographer. Gilliatt seems to imitate the painter’s notion of composing a portrait visually, and her film-makers pose against elaborate backgrounds, as in 18th-century conversation-pieces or studies of animals in their natural habitat. Buñuel shoots a film in a Seville square at 2 a.m., Jeanne Moreau cooks rabbit in the kitchen of her French farmhouse, Woody Allen has been spreading glue on the parapet of his New York apartment to discourage the pigeons (though the glue served only to discourage them from leaving).

Once the talk begins, the claims for its significance seem distinctly overblown. You don’t create a portrait by inviting someone to talk about himself and his work: portraits are the work of the artist, not of the sitter. Careers don’t come into focus this way either. Those whose profession it is to conduct tutorials know that it isn’t easy to nail down the greater and lesser truths about art in conversation. It is, quite clearly, much harder when you are serving your own rabbit stew or listening through an earpiece to actors speaking their dialogue. Inviting the illustrious to ramble on egotistically has thrown a harsh light on their manners, and revealed that they must have had to concentrate much harder when they were making films. It’s not as though there is anything remarkable or professionally significant, either, about the film-makers’ off-duty pursuits. Who needs to buy onions in the market with Godard or take a sleeveless cotton nightdress to Moreau’s sister in a Fulham hospital? Moreau remarks that the art of the film should not be autobiographical. Quite so, but that leaves the film profile-writer further out along the same limb.

One trouble about Gilliatt’s artiness is that she is thinking of every art-form but the right one. Tynan’s awareness of the literary essay proves more àpropos than Gilliatt’s preoccupations with portraiture and fiction. The first principle of essay-writing is that, whatever or whoever the ostensible subject may be, the personality the reader remains most aware of is that of the essayist. Gilliatt, who is so painstakingly aware of the small details in her composition, seems surprisingly unaware of the largest feature – namely, herself. No question for her of the naturalist’s hide, or of a discreet vantage-point just inside or just outside the frame of her picture. She sits there centre-shot, thinking up at least half of the best lines, scribbling away in her black leather notebook, and, in the end, blocking out much of the view. It’s impossible to read these interviews without becoming curious about what her subjects thought of her. Of her purist refusal to use a tape-recorder, for example, which must have imposed an unwonted drag on the mental processes of her creative friends, especially if she also omitted to learn shorthand. Her preference for artless, unstructured conversation over the planned sequence of questions is all of a piece, an obsession with the appearance of naturalism that ends by producing a wholly unnatural effect: it’s surrealism, but it’s certainly not Buñuel.

Tynan, on his day a finer descriptive reviewer than Gilliatt, is also a warier profile-writer. At his best he does splendidly, but his less-than-best sinks to depths that his reviews surely never plumbed. Among the solecisms, it is interesting to find confirmation of a thesis of my own that name-dropping, like double-entendre, is an overwhelmingly male habit. Of course Gilliatt gushes over her famous friends, as she does at her first mention of Diane Keaton – ‘witty, brilliant woman’. But there’s nothing in Gilliatt so egregious as Tynan’s carelessly dropped aside, after he has quipped that for a television interviewer to treat Sinatra as a Godfather is at least better than treating him as God: ‘(I get memory flash of cable sent to me by Gore Vidal when he agreed to accept my younger daughter as godchild: “Always a godfather, never a god.”)’ The Johnny Carson profile, in which this by now well-known mot appears, shows brilliant powers of observation, but it can also be read for its persistent and peculiarly modern small snobberies. Tynan conducts his hero to Harvard, and then insinuates that the Middle Western Carson, in his indigo blazer and white slacks, is much less at home in an older institution of learning than is Tynan himself. Rather unfairly, there’s nowhere Carson goes that Tynan isn’t comfortably ensconced in first. The profile opens with an adulatory account of two exclusive Beverly Hills parties, Carson’s presence at which proves his social eminence, and it can’t escape the attention of the doziest reader that Tynan was there to witness his arrival.

It’s odd to find Tynan occasionally so heedless of the impression he makes, since in general he orders his effects very carefully. Two of his five portraits are very good indeed. Ralph Richardson is described in an elaborately constructed piece in which biography and interviews interweave with ‘interludes’ of pure Richardsonian behaviour. The theme of these interludes is that Richardson is accident-prone, and his unluckiness became most marked whenever he got anywhere near Vivien Leigh. In 1937 or 1938, shortly after Vivien Leigh had set up home with Olivier in a bijou residence in Chelsea, Richardson and his future wife Meriel Forbes called round one Guy Fawkes night with a box of fireworks, a housewarming present in a more literal sense than was intended. Tynan gives the scene in Sir Ralph’s own words:

‘I took the biggest rocket out into the garden – it was one of the kind you use to attract attention if your ship is sinking – and there I set it off. It came straight back into the dining-room and burned up the curtains and set the pelmet on fire.’ According to Olivier, it also wrecked a lot of priceless antique crockery and left him and Vivien, who were cowering behind the sofa, blackened about the face like Al Jolson. ‘I knew that Vivien had taken great trouble with her decorations, and that her pelmet was unpleasantly burned. But it was my benevolence that had caused it all ... I have to admit that I was very hurt, next day, when nobody rang me up to say, “How kind of you, Ralph, to have thought of bringing those fireworks.” ’

Nevertheless the Oliviers forgave the Richardsons, and some years later invited them to inspect the country house Vivien Leigh had done up, upon which occasion Richardson managed to crash from the attic through the ceiling of the guest bedroom. It shows a fine theatrical instinct in Tynan, this alternation of static interviews, ‘talking-head’ scenes, with wordless episodes in the style of Buster Keaton. Even when Richardson is interviewed he retains the same Alastair Sim persona, pouring out for Tynan a dreadful drink in a half-pint tumbler, which starts with three fat fingers of Gordon’s gin, followed by a huge slug of French vermouth:

I reach out for my drink. He shakes his head and adds a lavish shot of Italian vermouth. I repeat business; he repeats headshake. Into each glass he now pours three thumbs of vodka. ‘That,’ he says gravely, ‘is what makes the difference.’

Tynan’s study of Louise Brooks is not farcical but feeling, more short story than profile. He describes with studied detachment her career in the Twenties and Thirties, and a remarkable world it uncovers – Wodehouse’s flapperish New York followed by Isherwood’s Berlin. Then comes a transition, as Tynan focuses upon himself in the Seventies, becoming aware of this extraordinary half-forgotten beauty embalmed in celluloid, discovering that she is still alive in Rochester, New York State. The meeting between the two is full of emotion, more extravagantly so than any Gilliatt interview, and the roles are those of star and acolyte: but this is a savage parody of the film star interview, since it features a clever old woman, ex-alcoholic, crippled with arthritis, living the life of a recluse in two bare rooms. It’s a small work of art, good enough to expunge the Carson lapses, good enough to persuade us that the most dazzling of British post-war reviewers wasn’t wasting his time when star-gazing.

If Pauline Kael’s book is finally better than the other two, that is largely because she isn’t apologetic about her journalistic brief. She includes one profile, to be sure, that of Cary Grant, but it’s an account of his career and says nothing about his capacities as a buyer of onions. The rest of Kael’s book is an anthology of her regular contributions, also to the New Yorker, and a remarkable record it is. She has been reviewing films since the early Sixties, with the New Yorker as staff critic since 1968; and it is a prodigious feat to have kept at the chore over such a period, and to continue to do it so well. Something is due to a sharp, terse, springy prose. More derives from a personality with wide human sympathies. But good writers and attractive human beings must abound in metropolises like New York and London, and such qualities alone would not sustain Ms Kael’s task, without the specialised technique she has evolved, the highly intelligent mastery of what her curious profession calls for.

The short review, in Pauline Kael’s hands, is not so personal as the longer profile or three-quarter face or star interview. She doesn’t pose directly for the camera, like Gilliatt, or sidle here and there into shot, like Tynan. Though capable of deploying the authorial ‘I’, she does it without intrusive egotism, in a matter-of-fact tone that merely implies that one of us has had the luck to see this film – if luck it proved to be. (‘I’m a very easy laugher, and I didn’t laugh once at The Sunshine Boys.’) Equally, her attitude to film producers and to film actors lacks the idolatrous reverence that is as noticeable in Tynan’s work as in Gilliatt’s. She writes of the film persona of Burt Lancaster or Marlon Brando or Sean Connery, all actors she likes to watch, as though these are nevertheless people we all know, and don’t have to fawn on. She never suggests she has any privileged knowledge of them off the screen, and what emerges of her non-professional life breathes a faintly puritanical ordinariness, nothing to do with showbiz or celluloid.

A reviewer is in the nature of things discussing a work his readers have not yet seen. Kael does not want an effect of superior knowledge, and she works to reduce the gaps between herself and the reader, the reader and the unseen film. ‘When the lights go down’, she is, you feel, in the amateur’s mood of cheerful expectation. The first part of her review is often an apparently naive account of the first half of the film, all judgment withheld. It is as though one part of Kael wants the cinema to be what Charles Lamb demanded that the theatre should be, a dream world free from the tyranny of the ego and the superego, a ‘happy breathing-place from the burthen of a perpetual moral questioning – the sanctuary and quiet Alsatia of hunted casuistry’.

Both Tynan and Gilliatt have a similar affection for imagined worlds, and at least as much talent for pure description. But Kael uses more cunning in immersing the reader, in suspending disbelief. She makes the unseen film imaginable through an adroit system of cross-reference to films her readers are more likely to have seen: to earlier work by the same director or earlier performances by the same actor. On actors, indeed, Kael’s technique is specially appropriate, for she knows better than to treat the Hollywood star as the impersonator of a range of different characters, as Tynan is able to present Richardson. Cary Grant flopped when he tried to play a grubby racketeer in None but the Lonely Heart: ‘A movie star like Cary Grant carries his movie past with him. He becomes the sum of his most successful roles, and he has only to appear for our good will to be extended to him. We smile when we see him, we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him.’

A single film takes its place in the pattern of cultural experiences we all share; no other film-reviewer makes such pertinent use of this fact. The charm of Kael’s performance does not rest upon one’s sharing her opinion of a particular film. The process by which she made up her mind is so open and engaging that it has its own innate probability, and the eventual decision seems ours as much as hers. In mid-review, and apparently in mid-film, she shifts her tone and point of view, and her article’s second movement becomes as coolly intellectual as the first half was warmly intuitive. It still wouldn’t make sense to refine too much on a film which only she has seen: Kael makes her judgment in the light of humane values, an appeal which doesn’t demand prior knowledge of us. Thus, after expending much alert sympathy on One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (‘one hell of a good film’), she ends by puzzling over the impact on the audience of Milos Forman’s neo-realism, his moral neutrality, as exemplified also in his Loves of a Blonde:

He might feel at one with his losers; maybe that explained his refusing to spare them from exposure. But what of the audience? The audience laughter at what I found painfully embarrassing – was that the right response, was that what he wanted? Did it really mean humane acceptance?

Though she likes the quick cultivated cross-reference (Cary Grant is, for example, ‘the Dufy of acting – shallow but in a good way’), Kael makes an essentially middle-brow, non-specialist appeal, to values like decency; and it’s interesting that she often likes a frankly popular film, such as King Kong, and tends to dislike pretentious esoteric ones, particularly what she calls ‘important-movie stuff’, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Fred Zinneman’s Julia.

Of the Grub Street vices, envy comes high on the list, and in the eyes of rival practitioners nothing fails like success. Renata Adler, yet another writer for the New Yorker, has produced a splenetic review of Kael’s book for the New York Review of Books. She even paid Kael the presumably unintentional compliment of seeming to echo some of her most familiar techniques, including the admiring backward glance at her subject’s early career: ‘I, for one, continued to believe that movie criticism was in quite good hands with Pauline Kael,’ she says, with every appearance of insincerity. This follows an account of the job of a reviewer so debunking that it makes one wonder how reviewing a reviewer can possibly be a worthwhile activity. Jane Austen was right to suggest that this professional fifth-columnism rebounds inevitably upon the heads of those who practise it. ‘Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.’