I happened to be rereading Pauline Kael's Taking It All In, a 1984 collection of her film reviews from The New Yorker, at the same time I was working my way through The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories. Kael was a professional movie critic, while Greene was a novelist who supported himself by writing about movies on the side.The reviews in these two books appeared nearly 50 years apart. Kael's reviews are longer, better written and more interesting than Greene's, yet I was struck by how often comments written by one sound like they could have been written by the other.
Greene writes that Kay Frances in The White Angel (1936) is "handicapped by her beauty." About Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) he says, "she toted a breast like a man totes a gun." He writes about the "fragile, pop-eyed acting of Miss Bette Davis" in The Sisters (1938). All these phrases sound, at least to me, like something Kael might have written.
Greene's frank commentary about female stars once got him in serious trouble. Writing about Shirley Temple, then just 8 or 9 years old, in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Greene said, in part, "Her admirers -- middle-aged men and clergymen -- respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His review led to a libel suit again Greene and his publication, Night and Day, which the defendants lost.
One surprise in the two books is that Greene, a novelist himself, has much less to say about the novels from which movies were adapted than does Kael. In most cases Greene gives no clue that he has read the book in question, even when it happens to be a popular book of the day, such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, while Kael time and again makes it obvious she has read the novel and knows what changes were made to turn it into a movie. She writes, for example, "E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime was already a movie, an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds -- figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams, and history, all tossed together." Writing about Sophie's Choice in 1982, she says, "(Author William) Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable." Thus her film reviews become, at times, literary reviews as well. I don't find that kind of literary analysis in Greene's reviews, although to be fair he apparently had much less space to work with in Night and Day and other publications than Kael had in The New Yorker.
By the way, Kael reviewed Sophie's Choice in the same issue she reviewed Tootsie and Gandhi. Guess which one she liked best? Tootsie. She disliked both of the other films. Kael, like Greene, didn't write favorably about films just because they were serious movies that critics were expected to like, even if the general public didn't. The movies Kael and Greene liked and hated can be quite surprising, which is one reason both collections remain worth reading.