At age 69, New Yorker film critic David Denby owns at least two marks of modern media distinction. He is not on Twitter, and he still gets to mete out erudite, long-form print media movie critiques. A collection of his magazine essays spanning 1999 to 2011 make up his latest book Do the Movies Have a Future?, out next week from Simon & Schuster.
At the New Yorker, Denby famously alternates on the cinematic beat with Cambridge, UK based professor Anthony Lane. Part Six of the book is also about “Two Critics” – iconic predecessors James Agee and Pauline Kael. In the piece about Kael (an amalgamation of 2001 and 2003 articles), Denby recalls how she delivered a death blow in the early 1970s via telephone, informing him that he was simply not cut out to be a film critic.
“I was a graduate student in California going nowhere fast,” Denby tells FishbowlLA via telephone. “And if Pauline Kael hadn’t taken an interest in me – and she took an interest in many, many people, particularly young people – I probably would have become a professor of film, which is of course not bad. But this has been a lot more fun.”
“When she said, ‘This is not really for you,’ of course it was a blow and I was very upset,” he continues. “But she wound up hurting my feelings and not my career. In fact, in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because if I had stayed within that circle, I don’t think I would have ever grown up. She was so powerful that you wanted her approval. Internally, you conformed to her opinions… It was sort of like, ‘What would Pauline think?’ And I think that’s a bad habit for anyone to get into, particularly a critic. So in a way, by being kicked out, I was forced to be my own man.”