My Private Screening With Pauline Kael {archive}

New York Times
January 31, 1999

Wes Anderson, the director and co-writer of the new offbeat comedy ”Rushmore,” is a lifelong fan of the New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael, who is now retired. Wanting to show her his film, he tracked her down last fall at her home in the Berkshire Mountains. The following account of his visit is from the introduction to his ”Rushmore” screenplay, to be published on Friday by Faber & Faber.

I already had Pauline Kael’s phone number because I’d found it when I was looking through somebody’s Rolodex a couple of years ago. ”Hello. My name is Wes Anderson. I’m calling for Pauline Kael, please.” I had immediately recognized her voice (from a tape I have of her on ”The Dick Cavett Show”) when she answered the telephone, but I wanted to give her a chance to introduce herself.

”Who are you?” she said, suspicious and steely. I paused.

”I’m a filmmaker, and I’ve just finished a movie called ‘Rushmore,’ and I was hoping maybe I could . . .”

”How long is it?”

”Ninety minutes.”


”Or slightly less. Ninety-ish,” I said.

”That’s a long ‘Rushmore.’ ”

I hesitated. I thought she was making a joke, but I didn’t get it. I said, ”Well, it’s got a pretty quick pace.”

”What’d you do on it?”

”I directed it.”

”Who wrote it?”

”Me and my friend Owen Wilson.”

”Who’s in it?”

”Bill Murray.” This was my trump card. I knew from her reviews that Bill Murray was one of her favorite comedians.

”Which Bill Murray?”

There was a silence. ”The Bill Murray. You know Bill Murray. You love Bill Murray.”

”What was he in?”

My mind drew a blank. ”What was he in?” I repeated the question. I could only think of one title. ” ‘Meatballs,’ ” I said.

It didn’t ring a bell. ”You’ll know him when you see him.”

She laughed uncomfortably and said, ”O.K.” She asked if ”Rushmore” was my first film, and I told her no, that I’d directed a movie called ”Bottle Rocket.”

There was another silence.

”Well, lets hope this one’s not too thrown together.”

I thought about this. ”How do you mean thrown together?” I said.

She didn’t answer. I waited. She laughed quietly, and then she seemed to warm up all of a sudden: ”O.K., send me the tape,” she said.

”Actually, to tell you the truth, I’d prefer to screen it for you. Is there a movie theater near you?”

She paused. ”There’s the Triplex.”

”Let me show it to you at the Triplex.”

She sounded skeptical. ”How are we going to do that?”

”I’ll get the studio to set it up.”

”That could be expensive,” she said.

”Well. Let’s stick it to them,” I said.

She liked the sound of this. ”O.K., let’s stick it to them,” she said. She told me she didn’t drive, and that someone would have to pick her up and take her to the theater.

I said: ”I’ll do it myself. How do I get to your house?”

”I don’t know,” she said.

”O.K. I’ll figure it out.”

A few weeks later I drove from Cambridge to Ms. Kael’s house in Great Barrington, Mass. I brought some cookies with me which I thought I would offer her during the first reel.

Her house is stone and shingle and very large, and I saw a deer duck into the trees at the corner of the yard as I came up the driveway. I knocked on the screen door and she looked out. She was sitting in a wooden chair. ”My God, you’re just a kid,” she said.

She told me to open the door. I tried it. I told her it was locked. She told me the lock had been stiff for 20 years, and that I should just fiddle with it. She said she knew it was 20 years because she’d just finished paying off her mortgage.

I fiddled with the lock for a minute and got the door open. We shook hands and I said: ”It’s very nice to meet you. How are you?”

”Old,” she said.

She was a few inches under 5 feet tall, and she stood shakily with a metal cane that had four legs at the base. We both had on New Balance sneakers.

She has Parkinson’s, which makes her shake a little bit and leaves her unsteady. She told me she had been in the hospital with meningitis during the week after we spoke on the telephone, which explained her forgetting who Bill Murray was. She told me I would have to hold her hand and help her get around, and I told her that would be just fine. On the way to the theater she told me she’d invited her friend Dorothy to join us. ”I would’ve gotten a group together, but I didn’t want to have too many people, in case the movie isn’t any good.” I nodded and pulled into the driveway next to the theater. There was a small-town police station there, and I stopped in front of it.

”You can’t park here, Wes.”

”Oh, I think we’ll be O.K.”

She shook her head. She said that this was proof I was a movie director. No one else would think they could double-park in front of a police station.

We went into the lobby and she introduced me to Dorothy. ”This is Wes Anderson. He’s responsible for whatever it is we’re about to see.” Then Ms. Kael told me I should change my name. ”Wes Anderson is a terrible name for a movie director.” Dorothy agreed.

I ran out to move the car, and then found Ms. Kael and Dorothy sitting near the back of the theater. Ms. Kael explained, ”I like to see the whole screen.” I offered them some cookies, and Ms. Kael immediately started eating one. ”These don’t have butter in them, do they?”

”My guess is they probably do,” I said.

”I’m not supposed to eat butter,” she said, but she kept eating. Ms. Kael and Dorothy watched for an hour in total silence. Then Dorothy, who is a real estate agent, got paged and walked out, and that was the last I saw of her. Finally, the movie ended, and I took Ms. Kael’s hand and walked with her out of the theater.

”I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes.”

I nodded.

”Did the people who gave you the money read the script?”

I frowned. ”Yeah. That’s kind of their policy.”

We started slowly down the steps. ”Just asking,” she said. It was a short walk to the car. ”At this point, I would usually tell you not to worry if you have to carry me, since I only weigh 85 pounds. But you look like you don’t weigh much more than that, yourself.”

I was a little disappointed by Ms. Kael’s reaction to the movie. I started reading her New Yorker reviews in my school library when I was in 10th grade, and her books were always my guide for finding the right movies to watch and learning about filmmakers. I’d gone to great lengths to arrive at this moment. ”I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie,” she said, and I felt she meant it.

I drove us back to her house. We went inside, and Ms. Kael invited me to sit in her study and talk.
THE house is full of books, and the rooms are large, with lots of windows. She took me to a closet in a room so crammed with tall stacks of boxes that you had to turn sideways to squeeze around them. The closet had extra copies of all her books. She told me I could have any of them I wanted. They were first editions, and I wanted to take a dozen of them, but eventually I just chose two.

I asked her to sign one of them for me, and she said this would take a few minutes. Her Parkinson’s makes it difficult for her to write. That’s why she quit The New Yorker. I asked her if she’d ever dictated a review, and she said, ”I think I wrote more with my hand than with my brain.” She said she would never write again.

”Glad to hear it,” I said, thinking of the review of ”Rushmore” that she wasn’t going to write. She looked up at me. She smiled faintly.

Then we sat for a while talking about movies, and she finished signing my book, and I told her I had to get back on the road. I was headed for New York, and it was already getting dark.

She walked me to the door, and we chatted a little longer. She told me to keep in touch, and we said goodbye. I didn’t look at her inscription until I’d checked into my hotel room. It said:

”For Wes Anderson, With affection and a few queries. Pauline Kael.”

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