Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poison Peck Letter

One of the pleasures of my new job is working with interesting collections on the history of American film. Among these are the papers of Pauline Kael, which include several boxes of correspondence from her long tenure at The New Yorker to the last years of her life. There are offered snippets of work from aspiring young critics (e.g., Scott Foundas), letters from directors, screenwriters and actors (including a beaut from Henry Gibson immediately following Kael's celebrated rave for Nashville), and more than a few embarrassing mash notes along the lines of "I've agreed with everything you've ever written!" (Really, I would have asked, why?) There also is plenty of hate mail, most notably following her famous pan of Dances with Wolves, the response of which became so voluminous that The New Yorker actually sent a hand-wringing note of apology to readers with ruffled feathers. ("We are sorry that you did not like Pauline Kael's review of Dances with Wolves....")

One of the funniest and most fascinating poison-pen letters in the collection-- so good that it's in an exhibit display -- is a 1984 missive from Gregory Peck.
Kael, you see, never cared for the Peckster. For a pro-trash sensualist such as herself, he was the type of noble, dignified, widely-admired star all but asking for a mud-pie in the face. On The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), one of Peck's earliest films, she wrote: "The humble hero keeps telling people what an uninteresting sort of man he is, and with Gregory Peck in the role we believe it." On Moby Dick (1956): "Gregory Peck - the least demonic of leading men - is a disastrous Ahab; bearded, he looks like a stock-company Lincoln." To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): "Peck was better than usual, but in that same virtuously dull way." The Boys from Brazil (1978): "(W)hen an actor like Gregory Peck plays a sadistic Nazi geneticist and speaks in an arch-villain's sibilant German accent, you can't keep from laughing." Even for what would be non-archetypal part in Duel in the Sun (1946), Kael extends a hilarious backhanded compliment: "Peck actually manages to bestir himself enough to play of hunk of egotistic hot stuff - maybe the name Lewt McCanles got to him, or maybe the producer, David O. Selznick, used electric prods."

Her few kind words for his performances were always tinged with disdain: "Even Peck seems to blend into the atmosphere" in The Yearling (1946); or, he is "at his most animated and likable" in Roman Holiday (1953). No doubt Kael stuck to her guns to the very end. Still, she had to have been impressed by the actor's long memory when, in 1984, after what was evidently a special theatrical showing of The Keys of the Kingdom, her aforementioned hatchet-job was published (which also included a sweeping assessment that "(t)his is perhaps the most dignified and sexless performance ever given by a rising young male star"), and Gregory Peck followed with a reply.

He begins his letter by asking whether a forty-year-old movie "really merit(ed) that much space," piquantly adding that the film has been on television several times over the years and "there was no real danger of anyone paying to see it in a theater, if your intent was to spare your readers a misspent evening." Then Peck gets to the heart of the matter: "I rather think that you simply could not pass up the chance to get at me again and try to inflict some damage." Recalling Kael's "grudgingly favorable" review of Duel in the Sun, he responds to her crack about the electric prods by asserting that all he did was a takeoff on one of his cousins - "a small-town Lothario" -- and that King Vidor, who directed the picture, "told me to go ahead and play the whole part that way."

If Peck seems to be taking Kael too literally at her word here, that's because he's building a case that she uses her reviews to spread harmful conjecture:

Years ago you placed me.... in a picture called Ice Station Zebra. You had me in it, then you had me fired from it, or you had production stopped, one or the other, because I had the temerity (or so you said) to rewrite, or quibble over Paddy Cheyefsky's dialogue. All of this was false.

I have never seen Ice Station Zebra, a 1968 action-thriller starring Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine, and directed by John Sturges. But its IMDb trivia page (take that for what it's worth) notes that early ads were taken out in Variety confirming Gregory Peck's casting. Perhaps this is what Kael had referred to in her review. In any case, Peck vigorously denies it. "I did not work on Ice Station Zebra," he states, citing the filmmakers' refusal to change the ending as what terminated his interest. "There was no agreement, no contract, no tests, no wardrobe fittings, no filming, not with me." He then asks Kael why she "seized on that lie (or misinformation).... and print it as fact?" and why she retroactively pans his performance in The Keys of the Kingdom, "an undistinguished movie made in 1944?"

The closing of Peck's letter is funny enough, especially when imagining him speak it. ("I suppose one day we shall meet. We may have a civil exchange of a sort. Or not. I will make that determination.") But my favorite passage is a preceding paragraph, worth quoting nearly in full:

I know that you were at Berkeley in the late thirties, possibly as an English major. So was I. Forgive me, but your reviews do read like the earnest efforts of a bright girl still bucking (endlessly) for A's.... I have a nagging thought: Was there something between us that I don't remember? I sense it, but I have no recollection of having known you.

I don't really have a point to sharing all of this beyond personal amusement. Yet I am curious about what everyone thinks about Kael's criticisms compared to Peck's argument. Is Kael's opinion of Peck's acting valid, or is he correct that she is "strident," "embittered," and goes "overboard"? Do Peck's claims of "falsification, clouding my professional reputation" have merit, or does he go a little overboard himself accusing Kael that she "may well have cost me some good roles during the productive years of my career"? Finally, is it more than a bit surreal to recall a time when a film critic may have actually wielded that much power? Thank goodness we have the evidence, or film historians of the future might never believe it.


Larry Aydlette said...

Great stuff. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with her assessment of Peck, including her tempered remarks about his performance in Roman Holiday, probably his best. My guess is that it stung him because he realized she was so respected, and, in those pre-DVD days, her opinion of him might have cemented his future reputation. Plus, his feelings were probably hurt. Hey, Kael didn't say anything worse than Tuesday Weld's acidic remark about him wearing all his clothes, including his shoes, to do a love scene with her in I Walk The Line. I guess she didn't feel he was committed to the part, or they had that generational Olivier-Hoffman divide on what it takes to put across a role. For what it's worth, I think he's pretty good in that movie, too.

Man, I wish I had a job where I could read Pauline Kael's papers all day!

Fernando F. Croce said...

Very enjoyable read. Though I can pretty much do without her, I wonder what a Clint Eastwood letter to General Kael might have been like.

The Siren said...

What a delightful post. And an awesome job. I like Peck more than Kael did (in addition to Roman Holiday and Mockingbird, I think he's swell in The Gunfighter--don't suppose she got a chance to pan that too?) and more than Larry does, although not that much more. Certainly I can see Kael's point in almost every instance. But I think Larry nails what was behind Peck's letter. And the wrap-up, where Peck's ultimate explanation for Kael's dislike is that he must have had a fling with her, is priceless in its clueless sexism. I hope he was joking. But I don't think so.

Craig said...

Larry - great to see you again! I'd never heard that quip from Weld, but it's a good one. You're probably right about Peck's feelings toward Kael. It's just odd that one of the most successful actors in Hollywood history would be so sensitive. Then again, maybe not.

Fernando - There is one brief correspondence from Eastwood in the collection, where he formally thanks her for contributing her thoughts to "the experience of Eastwood" for a documentary back in the 80s, I think. Presumably her thoughts weren't terribly appreciative. It's unclear whether he's being sincere or tongue-in-cheek.

Farran - Thank you for stopping by! I like Peck too, have come to appreciate him more over the years. There isn't a review of The Gunfighter in Kael's 5001 Nights, but she takes several swipes at him in even movies where he doesn't appear. I'd assumed he was joking with that paragraph about Berkeley, but after reading your take I'm not so sure. At least she liked him in Roman Holiday.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is great stuff. I honestly can't tell if Peck's comment about some possible history at Berkeley is just a jab or the kind of thing written by someone who has stared into the fire for 10 hours trying to figure out why someone doesn't love him and coming up with no other reason. I could picture either scenario being true.

Whether Kael really influenced Peck's career, I don't know. But I'd say probably. I'm not an expert on the subject, but my understanding with Kael is that there was her written influence -- which was significant -- and then there was her influence behind the scenes in Hollywood. It wouldn't surprise me if she took shots at Peck beyond print and that it's plausible casting directors felt that -- in the eyes of Kael -- casting Peck was always the wrong choice.

Craig said...

Kael was influential. But I'm skeptical whether that anything to do with any shortage of good roles in Peck's autumnal period. He was just getting old. Not only that, but he was Old Hollywood through and through, and lacked the edge that Robert Mitchum had, for instance, to successfully make the transition into late-60s/early 70s cinema.

Tony said...

Well, she is 100% correct about Peck/Lincoln in Moby Dick.

Craig said...

No argument there, Tony.

SteveW said...

It's sad--Peck must have been responding to her capsule review of Keys to the Kingdom published in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section. But in 1984 Kael herself wasn't selecting which capsules to run on any given week--that was the job of some staffer, mining the New Yorker database. So Peck is accusing her of wanting to "get at me again and try[ing] to inflict some damage," when it's almost certain that she had little or nothing to do with the decision to rerun that review.

Clearly he felt persecuted in print by her, but at this point he was battling against the ghosts of old bad notices and seeing personal vendettas where none existed. Which I guess is the fate of more than one fading actor. But I doubt that Kael would have approved of that letter coming to light. She was blunt, impolitic, and too proud of her own opinions to sugarcoat them, but she wasn't personally cruel.

Noel Vera said...

Cool stuff. Enjoyed reading Kael, but god help anyone that tried to use her writings as the basis for some kind of system.

"It's unclear whether he's being sincere or tongue-in-cheek."

I'd heard a funny anecdote about Eastwood involving another famous critic that leads me to believe tongue was firmly in cheek.

RosieP said...

Now I understand why I detest Pauline Kael.

Okay, I take that back. She's entitled to her opinion of the man. Personally, I have always found Peck to be a very sexy actor, when he wants to. I loved him in "DUEL IN THE SUN" (the only thing about that movie I truly admired) and in 1957's "DESIGNING WOMEN". Peck's sexiness tends to be rather subtle than obvious. I guess that Kael is the type that goes for the obvious.

Adam Zanzie said...

Craig, apologies for the very late comment - I just read this piece for the first time. One thing I wanted to comment on: the part in Peck's letter to Kael in which he talks about how he supposedly "had the temerity (or so you said) to rewrite, or quibble over Paddy Cheyefsky's dialogue."

His use of the word "temerity" there makes me giggle. Methinks his use of that word in this particular sense was a sly quotation of his famous courtroom speech from Mockingbird: "And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro - who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman...!!!!????"

Craig said...

Thanks for picking up on that, Adam. The play on that word originated in Kael's piece, the one that got Peck hot and bothered, but I wouldn't have known the context if you hadn't mentioned it.

My personal take is Kael was a little hard on Peck, but I can see why he seemed like such a stiff in her eyes. She was good at jabbing people, and that speech - that word - was just the sort of thing that drove her up the wall.