The Long Moan

is much more beautiful than ‘pretty’ people…. The banality of mere prettiness is a blight on American movies.””]“[Streisand] is much more beautiful than ‘pretty’ people…. The banality of mere prettiness is a blight on American movies.”In Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (DaCapo Press), by Francis Davis, the famous film critic recalled complaints about her pan of the French Holocaust documentary, Shoah (which she called “a long moan”). “The Holocaust was something that readers of The New Yorker were very sensitive about,” she said, “as they were about Rain Man and other movies about illnesses.”

This somewhat cranky remark suggests Kael felt the responses were just examples of hyper-sensitivity from privileged, politically correct liberals and the Holocaust just one more “issue” over-protected in the arts. But, in her collections over the years, her actual reviews of films with Jewish subjects and stars reveal Kael’s deeper feelings about her own people and culture.

Through her decades-long career, Kael, of course, reviewed lots of movies about Nazism, and her opinions ranged from sort of appreciative (The Pawnbroker is “terrible” yet “wrenches us”) to openly derisive (The Night Porter‘s “porno-profundity is humanly and aesthetically offensive”). Beneath much of it was a savvy, sometimes appalled reaction to how (mostly Jewish and male) moviemakers approached the issue. For example, she criticized Ingmar Bergman for exercising typical show-biz self-absorption (The Serpent’s Egg is “a schlocky cry of hopelessness…related to his recent difficulties with the Swedish tax authorities”). More often, though, she thought the problematic relation to the Holocaust stemmed from these filmmakers’ unhealthy need to continually condemn, wallow, and warn.

The Boys from Brazil,” Kael wrote, “is a cautionary fable — another one! — about the ever-present dangers of Nazism.” In Ship of Fools:

[Writer] Abby Mann had a new cops and robbers formula…. The world was divided between Nazis and Jews, and the twist was how you told one from another, because some Gentiles, though they might look like Nazis, risked their lives for Jews and so were as good as Jews, while some Jews might not be proud of being Jews, might even consider themselves Germans (– or Americans?), which made them dupes for the Nazis…. [Mann and director Stanley Kramer] are the greatest fingerpointing team since [Roy] Cohn and [David] Schine.

And it wasn’t just the Holocaust that occasioned their rubbing one’s nose in awfulness — the filmmakers clearly presented a an overall acceptance of Jewish victimhood. Sidney Lumet’s Daniel portrays the (thinly-veiled) children of the Rosenbergs in such a way that “feeds strains of public hysteria and fear of anti-Semitism…. Is there any purpose except to make Jewish audiences quake and weep and feel helpless?” In Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, “the Inquisition is presented as a paranoid fantasy, with Jews as its only victims.”

“It’s a relief,” she wrote of Barry Levinson’s Avalon, “to have an immigration story that isn’t all pain and hardship.” In fact, her dislike of the nine-hour Shoah had much to do with its insistent, almost obsessive fatalism. “It’s saying ‘We’ve always been oppressed and we’ll be oppressed again.'”

While Kael may have been onto something, she also may have been merely impatient with or squeamish about so many portrayals of pain. The holocaust — and suffering in general — were never her best subjects; pleasure was. As anyone who read her criticism knows, the movies both provoked and symbolized sexual excitement for her; her whole career was another kind of “long moan.” And how Jews portrayed this drive in themselves was her real focus.

For Kael, most male Jewish directors and actors had made themselves completely impotent. In Lenny, she condemned Dustin Hoffman’s casting as Lenny Bruce, because “he’s so nonthreatening…his putziness is just what Bruce despised…. Bruce was uncompromisingly not nice.” In The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss is “playing a good Jewish boy…a cuddly Teddy Bear trying to be sexy, the Jewish boy next door.” In California Suite, “the tall, lean [Walter] Matthau tries to look small and flustered and despairing…confirming comic stereotypes of henpecked, baggy pants Jews.” Jack Lemmon is a Gentile hired by Jews to play Jews because he expresses, among other things, “gutlessness.” And Woody Allen is also “nonthreatening…safe — the schlump who wins without ever imposing himself.”

Kael also condemned the flip side — ostentatious displays of vulgarity. Of 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, she dryly noted, “the implication is that Mel Brooks is a Polish Catholic. That’s a first.” She lamented that “Jewish actors playing Jews have a tendency to overdo it, as if they thought they would be taken for Gentiles if they behaved normally.” Her review of Funny Girl noted that once-camoflagued “urban Jewish humor” in Broadway musicals had now lost its “Midwestern mask.” She credited the “experience and tact” of the director William Wyler for keeping the film from becoming “raucous and embarrassing.”

Ultimately, she felt these filmmakers had internalized a perception of Jews as sexless — or else gruesomely oversexed — so that, to please America, they had to appear to be either. The underlying motivation was WASP envy.

Woody Allen came in for the lion’s share of criticism for this kind of self-loathing, maybe because Kael thought he compulsively expressed it. The danger signs started in 1973’s Sleeper: “he’s very well organized…he overvalues normality.” By Stardust Memories in 1980, the condition was full-blown: “he wants to be one of them: a stuffy macho WASP.”

This was made manifest in Allen’s — and other men’s — withering portraits of Jewish women and their sexual preference for Gentiles. In Interiors, “the two mothers appear to be the two sides of the mythic dominating Jewish matriarch…the first a nightmare of asexual austerity, the second an embarrassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness.” In Stardust Memories, “the only undemanding, unpushy characters — three women — are all Gentile.”

In Lumet’s Daniel, the actresses playing Jews “are subjected to brutal long takes in which they expose their cold ungenerous natures.” In Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss “gives the shiksa the love and understanding she has always needed…. [H]e says that he fell for her right from the start, as soon as he saw her little snub nose. Of course. That’s the shiksa’s secret weapon — she wins by a nose.”

By contrast, Kael offered touching defenses of the lushly excessive faces, figures, hair, and manner of Jewish actresses. In Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand is:

much more beautiful than ‘pretty’ people…The banality of mere prettiness is a blight on American movies. Who can tell those faces apart? The Italian actresses, with their big, irregular features, became so popular here because we were starved for a trace of life after all those (usually fake) WASP stereotypes.

In The Way We Were, she admired Streisand’s “large, expressive mouth — her finest, most sensitive feature.” The Heartbreak Kid‘s Jeannie Berlin has “ripe lusciousness.” In Yentl, Amy Irving has “a sleepy, plaintive beauty,” accentuated by her “mass of thick, curly, dark-red hair.” Debra Winger has “thick, long, loose hair,” “puffy lips like a fever blister,” and “it helps that [she’s] kept her own nose; it’s straight with an aquiline hint — just enough to make her look strong and distinguished.”

In what world would these odd, luscious, carnal creatures find appreciative men? The work of Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer — original author of Yentl and Enemies: A Love Story — might reveal the answer. “Ornery, mischievous,” with a “dirty mind of genius,” Singer created worlds of “confusing sexual urges” where “sex always gets in the way of finding God” and “good intentions are thwarted by the tingle of the groin.” For Kael (of Polish heritage herself), Enemies brought out the best in director Paul Mazursky: “here he’s warm and sensual without being showy”; and Mandy Patinkin in Yentl: “friendly and warm…[and] also charged up sexually.”

Singer’s folktale earthiness leads one to Kael’s revealing, impassioned rave of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. Rhapsodizing about its star, Topol, she wrote:

[H]e’s a rough presence, masculine, with burly, raw strength, but also sensual and warm. He’s a poor man, but he’s not a little man…. [He’s] an actor with a heroic presence, a man’s man, an actor with male authority…his brute vitality makes Tevye a force of nature…. Perhaps because Topol is an Israeli Jew, not an American Jew, he plays with a strength closer to peasant strength than to an American urban Jewish image.

All her relevant themes were repeated in this review. She praised the restraint of the (in this case, Gentile) director and castigated other performers for their broadness: “[Norman] Jewison does not permit the Jewish performers to be too ‘Jewish’: that is, to become familiar with the audience with that degrading mixture of self-hatred and self-infatuation that corrupts so much Jewish comedy…. Why do Jewish performers like Molly Picon love to overdo being Jewish when they play Jews? What do they think they are the rest of the time?”

She applauded how the movie eschews a self-aggrandizing wallow in suffering:

Younger members of the audience — particularly if they are Jewish — may be put off the movie if their parents and grandparents have gone on believing in a special status with God long after their oppression was over, and have tried to prop up their authority over their children with boring stories about early toil and hardship…. Too many people have used their early suffering as a platitudinous weapon and so have made it all seem fake.

And finally: “It is an anomaly of American entertainment, in which Jews have played so major a role, that it is not the Gentiles but the Jews who have created the Jewish stereotypes, and not to satisfy any need in the Gentiles but to satisfy the mixed-up masochism of Jewish audiences.”

For Kael, Topol was unassimilated and so neither obediently weak nor vulgar, and he loved his own women: He was sexy. Kael’s longing was for the ancestral father figure and his sexual image before the Jews came over and caved in; hers was an idealized, erotic dream of the old country (or, in the case of Israel, new and old.)

It was an absurd, plaintive, impossible dream, of course; but, as she might have asked, why wouldn’t it be? Echoing her admiration for the Singer stories — and summing up a major part of her worldview — she wrote in her review of the 1973 French film, Going Places:

[S]ex screws us up, we get nicked in the groin or jumped from behind; idiots make out better than we do, and some people are so twisted that no matter what we try to do for them they wreck everything. And sex between men and women is insanely mixed up with men’s infantile longings and women’s maternal passions. Sexually, life is a Keystone comedy, and completely amoral — we have no control over who or what excites us.

In other words, Kael’s feelings about Jews and sex were as full of craziness and contradiction as the movies she reviewed.

Pauline Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991 and died ten years later. Provocative and pathetic portaits of Jewish sexuality still occur, without her insights. She never reviewed Schindler’s List, with its virile Aryan superhero, rodentish Jewish subordinates, beautiful naked Jewish death camp victims, and S&M Nazi romance. (In Afterglow, she tellingly called it “heavy-handed.”) The career of Adam Sandler, overtly Jewish and sexually moronic, was also past her time. (“I don’t get Adam Sandler at all,” she said in this last interview.) She never saw the sexy Israeli tragicomedy Late Marriage.

She wrote about movies from the fifties through the early nineties, a rich time in which Jewish entertainers revealed themselves, expressed themselves, then largely submerged their identities again in another wave of assimilation (from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld). It was a period in which Jewish stars were replaced by WASPs and then by computer graphics (from Dustin Hoffman to William Hurt to Roger Rabbit). In movie terms, this time is in itself an old country, for which one can feel — reading Pauline Kael — irrational nostalgia and deep, dizzying, and ridiculous desire.


The Pawnbroker (1965, Sidney Lumet, dir.) and Ship of Fools (1965, Stanley Kramer) reviewed in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Funny Girl (1968, William Wyler) reviewed in Going Steady

Fiddler on the Roof (1971, Norman Jewison) reviewed in Deeper into Movies

The Heartbreak Kid (1972, Elaine May), The Way We Were (1973, Sydney Pollack), Sleeper (1973, Woody Allen), Lenny (1974, Bob Fosse) and The Night Porter (1974, Lilliana Cavani) reviewed in Reeling

Going Places (1973, Bertrand Blier), The Boys from Brazil (1976, Franklin Schaffner), The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross), California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) and The Serpent’s Egg (1978, Ingmar Bergman) reviewed in When the Lights Go Down

Stardust Memories (1980, Woody Allen) and History of the World: Part I (1981, Mel Brooks) reviewed in Taking it All In

Daniel (1983, Sidney Lumet), To Be or Not to Be (1983, Alan Johnson) and Yentl (1983, Barbra Streisand) reviewed in State of the Art

Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) reviewed in Hooked

Enemies: A Love Story (1989, Paul Mazursky) and Avalon (1990, Barry Levinson) reviewed in Movie Love

Laurence Klavan is a playwright who lives in New York City.