She spent thirty years writing about films and she’s still standing. Standing in front of crowds across Canada and the States to talk about films, new and old, that she has experience with both personally and professionally.
I’m speaking of Kathleen Carroll, former film critic for the New York Daily News, who is headed to the Niagara Integrated Film Festival this Sunday for a screening of Network followed by a Q&A about her experience on the set of that film. Carroll, who runs the Lake Placid Film Circuit in her spare time, took some time to speak with Cinefilles over the phone last weekend about the event, not to mention her experiences being a female critic critic in the time of Pauline Kael, Judith Crist and “Kate Camera-On!”
Read the edited transcript of our Q&A below. And for more information on this screening of Network, head to the NIFF ticketing page.
I know that even though you’re not writing regular film criticism anymore, you’re still very active in the film festival circuit and run the Lake Placid Film Circuit. But what drew you to this festival, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival?
Kathleen Carroll: I have to tell you, I started going to film festivals a few years after I started at the Daily News and that was in the early ’60s. I like to say I was about 12 at the time, but that’s not true. [Laughs] It’s just a fluke that I ended up in the job and it turns out there were two other women working at the Daily News at the time … They just kept saying, ‘Go out and review and a movie!’ and I had absolutely no preparation, or anything. But as we went along I started getting more involved. I went to the Cannes Film Festival and I decided I loved film festivals.
Cannes was very special because not only were you in the south of France, which is very beautiful, but so many extraordinary filmmakers were there. And that’s where I met my great friend, Roger Ebert, and got a chance to get to know him very well. And that’s also where I started my relationship with the Toronto Film Festival.
Both Roger and I were at–I guess it was the Carlton Hotel–and there was a porch setting and there were two men there by the name of Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall and another man and they kind of motioned us over and said, ‘Come have a drink with us.’ And we did and the next thing I know they’re telling us that they were going to start a film festival in Toronto and, you know, they were going to call it the Festival of Festivals. I think Roger and I said, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ even if we were both a little skeptical. [Laughs] We kind of forgot about it and about nine months later I got this call from Dusty Cohl saying, ‘Are you coming?’ and I said, ‘Where?!” And he said, ‘Toronto!’ And I said ‘Alright!’ I couldn’t resist.
And I did go that very first year. I remember it very vividly. They had somehow gotten some really wonderful films–a few from France, some American, but not too many. They didn’t have any stars, or any American stars anyway, and that was the one thing the local press started complaining about. They had a press conference and I stood up and I don’t know what possessed me, but I said ‘Well, the festival’s just starting up and you have to give them time.’ I said ‘It’s a wonderful festival.’ I went on and on and that made me very popular with them and we became great friends over the years.
I would keep coming back because, as Roger Ebert and others discovered very quickly, the American stars and film companies discovered what they could accomplish in Toronto by getting a high profile [star] for their film. And as a writer, the fall season was when you would need to see a lot of films because some of them would maybe qualify for awards eventually and you needed to get interviews for a lot of the actors. This was one place you could come to and not only see the films, but also interview the actors. Now it’s become a huge success and writers have to be there in the fall, just as they feel they have to be in Cannes or other places. At one point, Dusty also put together the Floating Film Festival, a film festival at sea, and we all participated in that too.
So that was my start and my connection to Canada. Although I discovered that I think my father’s family actually came from Ireland to Canada first! Technically, I could have been a Canadian, but my father’s family they moved to Illinois instead. [Laughs]
But I’ve always found I really loved going to Canada. Even growing up in Lake Placid, we were very close to Montreal. I thought it would be fun to have [a film festival] in my home town of Lake Placid and fortunately a fellow–Russell Banks, a wonderful novelist–was also interested and we started out by we screening [the film based on his book of the same name] The Sweet Hereafter. And just recently, just last weekend, we showed two Canadian films including Mommy, the Xavier Dolan film which everyone is talking about.
So would you recommend young critics attend as many film festivals as they can to network and find their way into the industry?
KC: I think that’s not a bad way to approach it. There’s a lot of great appeal just in meeting people of similar interest and having an opportunity to attend a press conference where filmmakers are talking about their experiences of working on the film. Those are very helpful, and it’s very helpful to be able to sit with a director. That’s why I love the film Network.
I was occasionally doing stories where I would go on the set and in the case [of Network], I was invited on the set and I knew not only the director, Sidney Lumet, but I also got to know the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, very well. Paddy was … I had such admiration for him. He was screenwriter, he was a novelist, he ended up winning something like three Academy Awards. And I was also teaching a class at the time–I don’t know how I did it all!–and Paddy, being very generous, was kind enough to come to my class. The students were kind of funny, thinking that I would bring a movie actor in, but he spent two hours talking about his craft and by the end of it, they were just enthralled. He was such a special writer, even writing for these television dramas like Marty.
[Paddy] was in the army and one time he asked to be excused to attend Mass, and then everyone after that called him Paddy, assuming he was Irish. [Laughs] So that was his name forever!
That’s a great story!
KC: It is! And as much as I did know him quite well, he was only 58 when he died. But his output of so many films was just extraordinary.
But it was my treat to go out and do these location stories on movie sets and it was a great way of just learning about what goes on on a set. Network was an extraordinary set to visit and that’s what I’m going to talk about at [NIFF]. Not only were all these superb actors–William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway–there, but Paddy himself was sitting on a chair right on the set.
At the time, you’d go to the set of a movie and the screenwriter was nowhere to be seen–usually, they’d be hiding out in a hotel room pounding out the latest changes in the script. But in this case, Paddy was right there. Paddy’s wrote very dense and even his sentences were quite long, and for the actors that was a bit of a challenge, but they clearly admired him. And Sidney Lumet, of course, very much loved Paddy. They were a great team, I think.
Did you pick Network as the film you wanted to talk about for this festival?
KC: I suggested it. I don’t remember exactly how we came to that conclusion, but I just knew that I had the story about being on the location. And there were two icons of the film business, Paddy and Sidney Lumet, working together.
Lumet was very special too. It’s interesting, you think of Lumet making these New York stories but he was actually born in Pennsylvania. [Laughs] Everyone thought of him as a total New Yorker, and there was something about his movies that captured the wonderful energy and intensity of living in New York City.
Lumet he said it wasn’t totally joyful making Network because he was very worried about his comedy skills. He was very good at making jokes, but he was working with Chayefsky, who was the modern Molière. So that was something special about this whole atmosphere on the set. Obviously Paddy and Sidney had an honest respect for each other.
And Peter Finch, he did win a posthumous Academy Award for his film. He and William Holden were just in awe of Chayefsky’s skills with dialogue. The lines were very dense and not easy to memorize at all. At one point, Holden said he tried to ask if Paddy would change a couple of lines in it and Paddy said, ‘Alright, I’ll try.’ And after a while, he realized that Paddy was right. I think Paddy changed it back to what it was originally!
How did you feel watching the movie for the first time after being on the set? Did it live up to your expectations and experiences?
KC: It really did. I mean, I was only there [on set] for one day, but even then I knew this was a very sophisticated film and I was very impressed. It was so sophisticated and intelligent and dealing with a subject that we all sort of lived with, which was the idea of all this insane television and marketing of television. I really was taken with it from the beginning and I was really pleased for Paddy and Sidney, because they were two of my most favourite people in the film industry.
Did you have any challenges being a young female critic at the time? Because it seems like it was still a bit of a boys club, even if there were women like yourself and Pauline Kael making their mark.
KC: Oh, Pauline was lovely. And Judith Crist, another extraordinary woman in the industry who was very, very bright. I was in awe of her and Pauline.
I’ll tell you, it’s a funny story. I did not know this story until I several years after I was working. There were two other women working in the department when I first started: Wanda Hale and the other was Loretta King. The Daily News was founded by man named Joseph Patterson. He was known as “The Captain” because he has been in WWI, and in those days men who had been in service often took their titles. He was part of the Chicago Tribune family originally and the Tribune sent him to New York, as I understand it, to start the Daily News. So he was the publisher and the founder and everything else at the Daily News, and it became, eventually, very successful. And it turned out the Captain really loved movies.
[The Captain] really loved to go to the movies and in the afternoon sometimes he would sneak off to the theatres on 42nd street, which were probably better at the time than when I started. At the time the film critic for the paper was a man by the name of Paul Gallico, who went on to write a children’s book called The Snow Goose. [Paul] apparently didn’t like any of the movies and as it goes, the Captain got very mad at him. He went into his head office and said, ‘Paul, I don’t ever want to see you again! Some people really like movies!’
Fortunately, Paul got very lucky. He had friends in the sports department and they said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll hide you and put you in this corner.’ And as it turned out, he became a very successful sports journalist! In the meantime, the Captain decided that only women should review movies. He did actually say to Paul, I think, that women had a more intuitive understanding of movies and understood them more. So his first thing to do was to hire his sister-in-law, who was, of course, Loretta King, my boss. [Loretta] wrote under a made up name, which was kind of the thing that was done in that time period. She used the name that I think the Captain made up, which was Kate Cameron, but of course it was actually ‘Kate Camera-On. ‘ They made up this phony byline for her!
I had no idea of this story and I was working with her all this time. But I just thought [this story] was great and that he insisted this. So all this time I was working at the Daily News until maybe the last ten years or so, it was all women. I had no idea that I fell into this thing. I was very lucky.
That’s an incredible story!
KC: That’s why your publication is perfect. [The Captain] really felt that women loved movies. I wish I met him I never had a chance to.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer women looking to get into film criticism now?
KC: I think you have to love what you’re doing. You have to love writing. And I think in terms of writing about film, you have to be as honest as you can be.
What you’re really trying to do is write about the experience, what it’s like to see the film, and sum it all up the best you possibly can. It’s just really trying to analyze your own emotions, because movies really are about feelings and emotions. I don’ t think there’s such as a thing as objective film criticism. If you’re writing, you’re naturally going to be affected by our own experiences, education, everything.
I can see that honesty going back and reading some of your old reviews, particularly your original Star Wars review.
KC: Oh that’s so funny!
You basically summed it up perfectly, as in the script isn’t anything special, but the effects are wonderful and it’s campy fun for anyone that likes that kind of thing. I read it and felt like, ‘That’s exactly what it is! She said it exactly how it is.’
KC: [Laughs] I had no qualms about doing that.
The NETWORK screening and Q&A is being held at the Niagara Integrated Film Festival on Sunday, June 21 at 4 p.m. ET.