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.