[This is part two of a thee-part article, The Queer Perils of Pauline and Priscilla.]
In his biography of Pauline Kael, Kellow claims John Schlesinger’s 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday “posed a particular challenge for her,” if not two challenges—not only was the screenplay by Penelope Gilliatt, her co-critic at the New Yorker (each wrote for six months at a time, Pauline in winter and fall), it was close to Pauline’s own earlier sexual involvement with, in serial fashion, the bisexuals Horan and Broughton. Yet she claimed the film “was very far from my life and my temperament.” Her temperament perhaps, unable to compromise, but not her life–Horan had left her for two other men, and Broughton had thrown her out for getting pregnant. (Broughton spent the last ten years of his life with, to him, an incarnation of his childhood fantasy, the “angel-like” Hermy, real-life filmmaker Joel Singer. One of his earlier lovers was Henry Hay.)
In Sunday Bloody Sunday’s bisexual triangle, Alex (Glenda Jackson) and Daniel (Peter Finch) share Bob (Murray Head), both realizing the situation is temporary, until Bob moves to New York. Pauline found Finch’s Daniel “possibly a movie first—a homosexual character who isn’t fey or pathetic or grotesque,” and his lovers adequately “coping” with the situation.
Pauline also appreciated Elizabeth Taylor’s “comic toughness,” honed in Mike Nichol’s 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in Brian G. Hutton’s 1972 triangle X, Y and Zee. But be careful of this one, if you watch it on YouTube, and here’s a SPOILER ALERT–the final scene, where Zee (Taylor) seduces her husband (Michael Caine) Robert’s mistress Stella (Susannah York) is missing from one copy, although it’s intact on a Slavic paradubbed entry, and again separately, as another YouTube entry. (The next year Taylor reunited with Hutton in NIGHT WATCH (another SPOILER ALERT is needed here) to butcher her errant husband (Lawrence Harvey) and his paramour (Billie Whitelaw)—a far less subtle way of getting even than seducing your husband’s paramour.
Around Pauline gathered a group of acolytes, called “Paulettes,” many of them gay, many of whom on her recommendation obtained positions as respected critics at various publications—including David Edelstein, David Denby, and Joseph Morgenstein. So much so that in Michael Sarne’s film of Gore Vidal’s 1970 Myra Breckinridge John Huston, as Myron/Myra’s uncle Buck, cracks, “Why are all film critics little old ladies or gay men?” As Pauline’s influence grew, the controversies about her work also grew—her arguments over the auteur (author) theory with Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice; Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Kane Mutiny” in Esquire deconstructing her essay “Raising Kane” in The Citizen Kane Book (Bantam, 1971); a disastrous six months as a script consultant for Warren Beatty at Paramount (1979-80); Renata Adler’s essay “The Perils of Pauline” in The New York Review of Books condemning When the Lights Go Down (Rinehart and Winston, 1980), the seventh volume of her collected reviews, as “worthless.” But no more accusations of homophobia plagued her until George Cukor’s last film, Rich and Famous (1981).
Recruited from Broadway as a dialogue director for early talkies, Cukor began directing with Tallulah Bankhead in Tarnished Lady (1931). Soon he was known as “a woman’s director,” drawing inspired performances from Constance Bennett, Katherine Hepburn, and Jean Harlow–and for his Sunday all-male pool parties at his home, designed by William Haines. Hepburn appears in male drag through most of his Sylvia Scarlet (1935). By the time he was fired from Gone with the Wind (1939), possibly because of an earlier Haines tryst with Clark Gable, he had already directed Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Bennett, and Claudette Colbert—and in that same 1939 also directed Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, and Rosalind Russell in The Women. Cukor let Rosalind run free as Sylvia Fowler, the most gossipy of the women for whom, as Joan says, “there is a name—but it’s seldom used outside of a kennel.” The result for Russell was a series of outrageous roles culminating in Morton DaCosta’s Auntie Mame (1958).
Soon Cukor’s all-male pool parties were eclipsed by those of Cole Porter, in a mansion also designed by Haines, but Cukor’s career as a women’s director continued to flourish. He acted out scenes for his performers in advance, not to the liking of some of them, especially Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights (1960). Ironically, more men won Oscars in his films than women—including James Stewart, Ronald Colman, and Spencer Tracy. Rich and Famous is a remake and update, however, not of a Cukor film, but of Vincent Sherman’s Old Acquaintance (1943) staring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, neither of whom were ever directed by Cukor on film. (Davis lasted one year in a Cukor 1920s theatrical stock company, like Loren disliking his obsessive role-playing.) Both films are about two successful women writers, friendly enemies for many years, and the earlier one does have a certain campiness. In their most famous exchange, Davis shakes Hopkins by the shoulders to get some sense in her head, pushes here onto a divan, after a sight pause says, “Sorry,” and makes a quick exit.
In writing about Rich and Famous, Pauline paid no heed to Cukor’s long career (no one at age 81 had directed a major studio film before) or the occasional campiness of the film’s original material. She considered Cukor “heartless” and went straight for another part of his anatomy.
“What perplexed Pauline most,” according to Kellow, was that “the entire film was suffused with a gay sensibility.” Candice Bergan, as the trashier of the two writers (the Hopkins role) seemed almost “a big, goosey female impersonator” and Jacqueline Bissett’s kissing of the abdomen of a young hustler, made the film seem almost “made by young hustlers.
“Rich and Famous isn’t camp exactly; it’s more like a homosexual fantasy,” she wrote. “Bissett’s affairs, with their masochistic overtones, are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into.” Pauline’s gay readers, and the nasent gay press, particularly Stuart Byron in Village Voice, which had been antagonistic toward her for decades, took umbrage—now that straight women had the pill, they were free to sleep around, yet what both sexes really wanted was “love and happiness with one person forever.” But it may be that Rich and Famous is a “homosexual fantasy,” a summation of Cukor’s desire. Ex-Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers, in Full Service (Grove, 2012) claims Cukor preferred young men, although he did set him up once with Steve Reeves. This is the sort of biographical information that could not have been published at the time—certainly not while Cukor was alive.
I first heard that Rock Hudson was gay in a lecture by Pauline in 1960. My own take on her is not that she’s so homophobic.–she is often referred to as “heterosexual,” but on the Kinsey scale of hetero/homosexuality, I’d give her a 2—heterosexual, but “incidentally homosexual.” Two of her three known affairs were with bisexual men and she was a very domineering mother to Gina, her only child.
Orson Welles, who often is cited as detesting her because of her essay “Raising Kane,” has been quoted, “I enjoy reading her. She’s usually wrong, but she writes about performers, which no one else does.” She had a taste for feminine beauty, as well as masculine—Cyd Charisse may read her lines as if she’d learned them by rote in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), but “when she wraps those legs around [Fred] Astaire all is forgiven;” she “fell out of like with Barbra Streisand” in Funny Lady; the only problem with Alessandro Blasetti’s Peccato che sia una canaglia (Too Bad she’s Bad, 1965) is that you “forget to read the subtitles when Sophia Loren sails across the screen.” “Raising Kane” was not about Welles as an actor, but an attempt to dislodge the auteur theory, i.e., that each film should be seen strictly as part of a director’s canon. (I remember a professor teasing her, “Now remember, Pauline, there are are no good and bad films—only good and bad directors.” She scoffed.) The ‘theory’ is more correctly referred to as the auteur politic today.
The one personality piece Pauline ever published, “The Man From Dream City,” is on Cary Grant, a star who appealed to everyone—including, from studio photographic evidence, Randolph Scott. (They batched together between marriages.)
Pauline wanted to publish a book called Lays of Ancient Hollywood, with “The Man From Dream City” as its centerpiece, but no publisher would accept it.
Pauline was a product of the 1960s, but she and the times, as well as the New Yorker, were headed in slightly different directions. Yet the last volume of her reviews published before her 2001 death, For Keeps (Dutton, 1994: there have been several compilations since then), a selection of what she considered her best, omits her reviews of The Children’s Hour, The Sergeant, and Rich and Famous.