In 1968, New Yorker editor William Shawn decided to start taking the movies seriously. Up to that point, the magazine’s film critics, men like Brendan Gill and John McNulty, had always thought themselves better than their beat; their work evincing amused detachment from the vulgar entertainments that sated the grubby masses. In a 1946 essay called “The Country of the Blind,” New Yorker super-critic Wolcott Gibbs, a man of the theater, asserted that “the cinema resists rational criticism almost as firmly as a six-day bicycle race, or perhaps love.” Shawn, who realized that cinema had long ago gained respectability, thought it now merited the same sort of close attention as theater or fiction—and realized that existing personnel weren’t up to the task.
His first hire was Penelope Gilliatt, a British novelist and playwright who considered film every bit the artistic equal of, well, herself. Though she had been writing about film for The Observer in London, Gilliatt never really considered herself a critic, a reporter, or even a journalist. Instead, she saw her nonfiction output as an extension of her more creative work, and in her 12 years on staff at The New Yorker, she penned a steady stream of keenly drawn profiles and reviews that blurred the line between the two, often abstracting the form altogether. Gilliatt’s prose is allusive, her observations at once breathtaking and unmoored. She cared little for robust analysis, or literal transcription of quotes, or banal factuality. Penelope Gilliatt treated criticism like literature, and if she didn’t always hit her mark, at least she had her reasons.
Today, Gilliatt, if she is known at all, is known for her downfall. Almost from the time she arrived at The New Yorker, Gilliatt was hampered by alcoholism. It affected her work; Shawn covered for her. In 1979, she was disgraced by a plagiarism scandal when she swiped a large chunk of The Nation’s profile of Graham Greene. That marked the end of her time on The New Yorker staff, though Shawn did throw her an assignment now and then. This makes for a sad, even pathetic, biography, at odds with the refinement and hauteur that characterized her writing. Disgraced and increasingly ineffectual, Gilliatt puttered along writing fiction until her drinking killed her in 1993, at age 61.
But her work shines as a model of a lost genre of film writing—the evocative, intelligent personality piece, less concerned with passing judgment on a movie than with understanding its maker. In much of her 1980’s anthology Three-Quarter Face: Reports and Reflections, long out of print, Gilliatt isn’t that interested in great works, but rather with the people behind them; the profiles and reviews contained therein are tools with which to magnify the workings of the creative mind.
The pieces collected in Three-Quarter Face span 1966 to 1979, as America was recovering from revolution and film still processing its own anti-authoritarian upheaval. Gilliatt, mannerly and aloof in the best British tradition, but with a touch of mysticism, preferred foreign fare and exalted genius; she subscribed to auteur theory and then some, as if doubling down against the more anarchic, untoward directions that American film was taking—spurred on, notably, by Pauline Kael, her contemporary at The New Yorker (the two women alternated six-month stints as the magazine’s chief reviewer). More than once, she writes approvingly of directors who edit in their heads while shooting a film; prizing an economy of effort, never shooting more than they need to, because they already know where they’re going with it. Beginning with a profile of Luis Buñuel and ending with a series of reviews of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Three-Quarter Face offers a gallery of artists in full control of their medium depicted by someone who was in full control of hers.
If read unsympathetically, Gilliatt can come off as an especially sophisticated lightweight; an inveterate namedropper and hobnobber, eager to let her accomplished subjects know that she is one of them. (Her screenplay for Sunday, Bloody Sunday was nominated for an Oscar in 1972, and you get the sense that she never let anyone forget it.) Gilliatt was sometimes criticized for getting too close to her subjects, and the showy intimacy of her writing and reporting may grate on those who prefer their journalism impartial or adversarial. But we shouldn’t mistake it for fluff. Nobody understands artists like other artists, and there is art to be made in this mutual understanding.