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Film critic Kael dead at 82

GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Pauline Kael, considered one of the most important American film critics of the last 50 years, has died.

The 82-year-old Kael, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died Monday at her home here.

Kael's writings championed several American directors while they were still unknowns, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg. She loved movies that challenged audiences, and used a lively, acid-tipped pen to excoriate films that did not.

In a 1980 essay, "Why are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers," she wrote that "The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible for the prearranged and anticipated deals."

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In an Associated Press interview in 1989, she lamented, "You can't get college kids interested in going to any sort of daring movie now. They're perfectly willing to sit through the same old crap, a larger version of what they've seen on television all their lives. They may even resent it if they go to a film that has subtitles, or that has any kind of complexity."

"What she said seemed to matter," film critic Leonard Maltin told The Associated Press after learning of Kael's death. "She provoked response, discussion, arguments. She was so passionate."

Breaking down barriers

Kael was born in 1919 in Sonoma County, California. She majored in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley from 1936 to 1940, but did not complete her degree. The school later granted her an honorary doctorate.

In 1953, she wrote her first review for a San Francisco magazine. Kael garnered national attention in the '60s, while she was a critic for The New Republic and then The New Yorker magazine, where she worked from 1968 to 1991. Her work also appeared in Film Quarterly, Mademoiselle, Vogue, the New Republic, and McCall's.

Her 1969 essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," written for Harper's magazine, was named in 1999 as No. 42 on a New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.

David Remnick, The New Yorker's editor, said Kael broke down barriers between low and high cinema in her reviews, delighting in both the sublime and the profane.

"She shaped American film criticism for generations to come and, more important, the national understanding of the movies," Remnick told the AP.

Her views often defied popular taste. She thought 1988's "Rain Man" a "wet piece of kitsch." She dismissed 1990's "Dances With Wolves" as a "nature-boy movie" and famously mocked director-star Kevin Costner as "having feathers in his hair and feathers in his head."

"She could be dogmatic, of course and Lord help you if you disagreed -- that was the tone of many of her reviews," Maltin said. "But she spoke with great authority and great love. She loved movies and that was crystal clear every time you read her."

But she also admired many films that were criticized at the time they were released, particularly 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde." She likened "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) to "Rite of Spring," calling it "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made."

Auteurs and Welles

Although she ridiculed the auteur theory of film, which exalted a director's stylistic and thematic fixations, she was a longtime admirer of many directors, including Altman, Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Satyajit Ray. Marlon Brando, James Mason, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda were among her favorite actors.

Kael also loved the films of Orson Welles, but raised the hackles of the director with her 1971 essay "Raising Kane." In that work, she wrote that Welles contributed little to the Oscar-winning screenplay and plotted to receive sole credit at the expense of collaborator Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles denied her allegations, and several friends and admirers defended him.

Kael's books, mostly collections of reviews, include "I Lost It at the Movies" (1965), "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (1968), "The Citizen Kane Book" (1971), and "Taking It All In" (1984).

Her "Deeper Into Movies" won a National Book Award in 1974. In 2000, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.

• Cinemazine: 'Pauline Kael: Criticism as an Art'

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