Writer/director Rob Garver’s documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a fascinating look at a woman who carved out a life as a writer in an industry that has been famously unforgiving for opinions offered by female voices. Kael built a career as a movie critic in a very important time in cinema, right when the studio system was breaking down, and helped make names for a number of maverick directors of the 70s, most notably Arthur Penn director of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. A single mother who struggled to create a place for herself and survive on meager pay, she has been both loved and hated by fellow writers, film historians, and creatives inside the film industry, often for the same reasons. She was mouthy, opinionated, and passionate, and she didn’t mind saying exactly what she thought, no matter the consequences. Much like the way many people feel about women like politicians Hillary Clinton or, more recently, Elizabeth Warren, It’s hard to quantify how many hated Kael for her opinions themselves, or for the fact that she dared express them, or have them at all.
A number of high profile Hollywood insiders speak of her in glowing terms on-camera, but the film also includes footage of people who often found themselves on the wrong side of her pen, including William Peter Blatty and Woody Allen. Kael’s own thoughts and opinions are offered in her own voice or in archival footage, and her writings and letters are voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker. Though the film techniques used in the documentary don’t stretch past the tried and true, the information in it is educational and diverting enough. You can thank Pauline Kael herself for that.
The thing we wish we didn’t have to admit is that a number the truths spoken by Pauline Kael are the same truths we struggle with many years later. Pay was nonexistent or negligible then, and often still is today. Sexist attitudes about women in the film industry, whether they are writers, or artists above or below the line, are still being fought today. That doesn’t mean the documentary isn’t worth seeing, especially for Pauline Kael fans and movie lovers. Kael famously said that critics need only do two things consistently. We must always work to be better at our craft, and we must always be courageous. Whether you love or hate her work, this is a great reminder to anyone, regardless of what part of the business world they are in, from a woman who proved an important part of film history.
3 out of 5 stars