By far Pauline's biggest undertaking in the fall of 1965 was an assignment from Life: a report on the filming of Mary McCarthy's The Group. The producer, Charles K. Feldman, had bought the movie rights, and now United Artists, the studio making the picture, had assigned it to the quickly rising director Sidney Lumet. Although he had turned out several pictures that had met with great critical praise, including Twelve Angry Men, Long Day's Journey into Night, and The Pawnbroker, none had been a commercial success. Given the book's popularity, it was expected that The Group would be one of the big screen events of the year, and Life felt it warranted major coverage in the magazine. The success of I Lost It at the Movies led Life to Pauline, even though she had never done a piece of straight reportage. (It is doubtful that anyone at the magazine knew or cared about her history with McCarthy's novel and The New York Review of Books.)
Initially Sidney Lumet was delighted to have Pauline covering the picture, as he had been following her work for some time and found her one of the most perceptive and articulate critics to come along in years. "The only thing she was really lacking," said Lumet, "which I feel is true of many critics, is any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." He gave her complete access to the filming, which was being done entirely in New York. On the set Pauline kept herself in the background, never interrupted a shot, never asked questions at tense or inappropriate times. To the actresses she was rather intimidating, despite her low profile — "rather brusque and strict" was how Shirley Knight, playing Polly, the group member who wants only a simple and fruitful marriage, remembered her.
Lumet and Pauline had a very friendly relationship during the weeks that she observed on the set. Not long after The Group had wrapped, Lumet invited her to his apartment for dinner. Also present was Lumet's close friend the show- business caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, with his wife, Dolly. "We had a good dinner and a lot to drink," recalled Lumet. "Oh, boy — did Pauline like to drink. Al had the greatest equanimity of any person I've ever seen. But I could see he was rankled by Pauline, and they got into an idiotic discussion about the function of a critic." The argument went back and forth, until Hirschfeld finally raised his voice slightly and demanded of Pauline, "What do you think the function of a critic should be?"
"My job," snapped Pauline, "is to show him" — pointing at Lumet — "which way to go."
Lumet never saw her again. "I thought, this is a very dangerous person. When she had arrived in New York, she had just come from San Francisco, and I thought, poor kid — she's probably lonely as hell. Little did I know what I was dealing with."
Excerpted from Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. Copyright 2011 by Brian Kellow. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.