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Elizabeth Hay

Photo of Elizabeth Hay

Photo: © Mark Fried

About the Author

ELIZABETH HAY is the author of the #1 nationally bestselling novel Alone in the Classroom, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air, as well as other highly acclaimed works of fiction, including His Whole Life, A Student of Weather, Garbo Laughs, and Small Change. Formerly a radio broadcaster, she spent a number of years in Mexico and New York City before returning to Canada. She lives in Ottawa.

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Books by Elizabeth Hay published by Catapult

Author Essay

The Most Fearless Book I Read (“5001 Nights at the Movies” by Pauline Kael)
by Elizabeth Hay

Even voracious readers can go off books. It happens suddenly. You hit a wall and find yourself unable to take pleasure in any book at all. It is the clearest sign I know of being down in the dumps.

In 1989, my husband and I were living in a dark, narrow, first-floor walk-through in upper Manhattan with our two tiny children who didn’t sleep. I think it’s fair to say that, in a manner familiar to many new parents, I was losing my mind. In those days I would open a book and the words would bounce against my eyes like gravel against a windshield. Fiction especially had this effect. I was trying to write fiction, yet I couldn’t stomach the artifice, concoction and preening length of the novels I picked up. So far gone was I that I couldn’t even understand what ‘fiction’ meant, and in truth I hated the word.

To alleviate our tied-down circumstances, we bought a VCR and set it up at the halfway point of our long dark spaghetti strand of an apartment. On the other side of the VCR were the pigeons in the air shaft, and beyond the pigeons, 5 feet away, the peeling wall of an abandoned building. As it turned out, however, half a block away lay Shangri-La. On the first floor of another five-story walk-up, filling shelves that reached from wooden floor to high ceiling, were thousands of movies encased in black boxes. It looked almost like a library, and was probably the best video store in the city. At the far end, in a sort of Rolodex-bin, were the covers of all the movie musicals ever made. Every weekend, I made a beeline for this bin. In my childhood, you have to understand, we didn’t have a television and few movies were allowed. My father was a high school principal, puritanical by nature, and my mother a rationer by bent. I had a lot of catching up to do.

And so began our movie education. At the ages of 2, 4 and 38, respectively, my son, my daughter and I began to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, and Cary Grant, Cary Grant, Cary Grant. Awash in guilty love, my finger glued to the rewind button, I reminded myself of the blue-rinse ladies who used to sidle up to the sour-faced librarian in my childhood and get the Harlequin romances she saved for them alone. Not that I had sunk that low. I wasn’t reading Harlequins, just movie star biographies. Saturday mornings, while my daughter hopped around in pre-ballet at the 63rd Street Y, I haunted the movie stacks of the public library at Lincoln Center, secretly thumbing through bad books about Hollywood, more ashamed of myself by the minute, and wrestling with the fundamental literary question: why are books about movie stars so boring?

I wanted nothing more than to make the movies last, to extend their two-hour intensity into the rest of my life. But the sad truth is that after the movies ended, I felt emptier than ever. My children and became all too accustomed to the peevish aftermath of movie musicals.

What was I to do? In a pinch I had always turned to books. But they were still failing me.

Then one cold day, in the fall of the year, I came upon the writings of Pauline Kael. Her essay “The Man From Dream City” caught my eye, and within seconds I was beside myself with joy. A smart woman with a sharp tongue and a way with words understood my infatuation with Cary Grant and shared it. Here was a woman with the courage of her romantic convictions. A writer who knew how to take the vividness on the screen and continue it on the page.

Her “5001 Nights at the Movies” is a 4-inch thick volume of thumbnail reviews, blazingly honest and fearless with a particular kind of jazzy fearlessness. On “Notorious”: “Will suspicious, passive Grant succeed in making Bergman seduce him, or will he take over?” On “Casablanca”: “Ingrid Bergman became a popular favorite when Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, the most famous saloonkeeper in screen history, treated her like a whore.” On Michael Douglas in “Romancing the Stone”: “His face exaggerates everything and registers nothing.” On Barbra Streisand in “Funny
Lady”: she’s “no longer human; she’s like a bitchy female impersonator imitating Barbra Streisand.”

What hooked me was that she both condoned my addiction and mocked it. Her passionate ambivalence suited my own temperament. I didn’t want to have my cake and eat it too, I wanted to have my cake and spit out the frosting. Open the book to any of its nearly 900 pages and you have, nailed down, what makes a movie work. She examined – and this is very exciting for anyone who wants to make something, whether it’s a story, or a novel, or anything else – she examined what made a performance fail or succeed, a movie resonate or peter out, and it was often dishonesty that doomed an actor or a movie, a gross eagerness either to please or to impress. I read her reviews with an eye to my own failings.

Movies were something she knew from beginning to end, from the silents through the talkies to World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam and since, Hollywood and elsewhere. Born in 1919 and “blessed with movie-loving parents,” her life paralleled the life of the movies and she was an enthusiast from the beginning. She was also a great reader who studied philosophy, then held a number of jobs before she began reviewing movies when she was 35. When I read her, I felt I was being led by a mature observer through the highs and lows of life. I was being guided by a good writer with a real eye for fakery and bullshit, especially poetic bullshit. No doubt her fearlessness took strength from the cowardice that washed through so much of the industry. Her greatest scorn she reserved for the money-men, her greatest sympathy for the unselfconscious risk-takers, the natural actors, the transparent directors, who threw themselves into their work, no holds barred.

Read everything she’s written about Robert Altman, for instance, not just the capsule summaries in “5001 Nights” but the full reviews published in her volumes of collected writings available in libraries, and you have a portrait of an unpredictable, innovative, unevenly successful director who “has what Joyce had: a love of the supreme juices of everyday life.” She provides a portrait set within the framework of a whole century of movies, history, popular taste. What she gives you is a sense of continuity. I learned about silent stars Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – how they were viewed at the time, how they stand up now. I found out why Bette Davis’ performance in “The Little Foxes” wasn’t as good as Tallulah Bankhead’s on stage, but why Tallulah, for all her greatness, didn’t translate from stage to screen.

I read about movies I would never bother to see, because what she said was useful and interesting. In fact, that fall I read nothing else. I remember lying on my bed in the dim light of our narrow apartment, entranced with her ability to react. There was nothing passive about the way she watched movies. Nothing artificial about her direct and urgent style.

Here’s “The Stripper,” made in 1963, a movie she describes as having “the dreary, liberal Freudian Sunday School neatness of second-rate serious drama,” but with a performance by Joanne Woodward that’s worth watching since “she gives the Marilyn Monroe-ish role a nervousness that cuts through its pathos.” I make a mental note to avoid moral neatness, especially dreary liberal Freudian neatness, and give more thought to Joanne Woodward than I otherwise would have, and I continue reading.

Here’s “Sunrise,” “a near masterpiece” made in 1927 by “the great German director F.W. Murnau,” and with “some masterly sequences: the seduction under a full moon, the wife’s flight (she boards a trolley),” and I see that I’ve underlined these words in pencil to remind myself to think about scenes, especially – why bother with anything else? – scenes of seduction and flight. Here’s “The Sundowners” from 1960, “a large, episodic movie with a strong emotional texture,” and good performances by Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, of whom I’m very fond, and I’ve circled it, though I still haven’t seen it and probably never will. For years I’ve read this book with a pencil because I’m a writer looking for clues about form, character, dramatic shape and momentum, and because I’m a movie lover with a huge appetite for movie love.

How interesting it is to follow an honest temperament. She falls in Love. She gossips. She recoils. She loses her temper. Reaction, intensity, insight. She doesn’t shy away from her reactions, she isn’t embarrassed by them, and as a result the quality of her analysis doesn’t flag. There seems to be no limit to the play between sympathetic and critical understanding in her reviews, nothing that can’t be thought about in an interesting way.

As a hardworking writer who produced week after week, writing in longhand at a drafting table and often through the night, she managed to turn even the worst movie to account, using it to write about the larger world. She was not a snob. She loved movies not “film.” She defended “Charade,” made in 1963 with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and widely panned by the press, as “a debonair macabre thriller – romantic, scary, satisfying,” indeed, one of the most satisfying movies in a year when entertaining movies were not the trend.

We shared the same taste in men. She loved Sean Connery and Gene Kelly and Cary Grant and Jeff Bridges and Peter O’Toole too. And because, in my dark apartment, itself like a tiny arts cinema, I was having lavish love affairs with these men, rewinding movies to watch, yet again, the look on Cary Grant’s face when he realized that Eva Marie Saint was not a tramp but a secret agent, or that Claude Rains and his evil mother were actually poisoning Ingrid Bergman, I needed somebody to reassure me that, though I was certainly going to the dogs, I wasn’t a complete lunatic.

She gave me license to love without apology. She blew away the snobbish restrictions that curtailed my childhood. She allowed for honest love and honest dislike. It takes a long time, a lifetime, for some of us to dislike without apology. There is an art to disliking, just as there’s an art to loving. Pauline Kael might write off a movie, she often wrote off a movie, but she didn’t write off her love of the movies. She was the queen of anti-Puritans.

Here’s a confession. I often got lost in “5001 Nights” to the detriment of everything else. I would be at my desk, boring myself with some current piece of writing, when a movie would float through my mind and I would get up, locate her on the shelf, sit down on the side of the bed and not stir for an hour. I would look up Sean Connery in the index, and read every entry. Or Paul Newman. Or Cary Grant, once again. It was like eating chocolates on a treadmill, since she was tough. I had to read both pleasant and unpleasant things about these lovely men, and why they were effective in one movie and not another. But we agreed about enough. If I had more time for “Guys and Dolls” than she had, she had plenty of time for Marlon Brando.

It will come as no surprise that I’m writing a novel about movies and that Pauline Kael is in it. I’ve relaxed a bit since those tormented days of mad motherhood. The word ‘fiction’ doesn’t scare me the way it used to. Now I see it less as an insurmountable wall than an old corset, well-used and expansive, that can hold just about anything. In the novel, one of the characters, caught in a tug of war between real love and movie love, writes letters to Pauline Kael that she never mails. These moments in an ongoing, one-sided correspondence are the most pleasurable for me to write. I like being in her company. She keeps me connected to the past and steadies me as I move ahead in the story, an ideal character, in other words.

My copy of “5001 Nights” is held together by an elastic band, since I’m no longer the only one who paws through it. My gangly, careless, movie-fanatic son, now 13 years old, can’t believe that Pauline Kael didn’t like “West Side Story.” He’s outraged that she found fault with “Guys and Dolls” but mollified by her ardent enthusiasm for “Nashville” and “The Godfather” and “The Letter.” He is unlikely to ever see the book the way I do, as a sweeping history of movies and movie-watching, a grand, untiring book that holds within it a lifetime of observations on a heroic scale. But at least he knows who she is. I watch with some concern as he carts it off to his bedroom. Be careful, I say. That book is important to me.

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