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.
The book’s title refers to Gilliatt’s journalistic approach, as articulated in her introductory essay. “The face is three-quarter turned to us in leisure and in friendship,” she writes. “But a vital quarter is always inexplicable except through paying attention to a man or woman’s talk, small-talk, gestures, way of living, choice of intimates, professional endeavors.” Gilliatt thought that a mixture of journalistic observation and novelistic reflection could unlock something secret and profound about the nature of creative genius. If James Agee appointed himself cinema’s prophet, Gilliatt volunteered herself as the caretaker of its auteurs. “The point of a profile is to record exact expressions of focused and very particular minds,” she once wrote. She was referring to her subjects, but she might as well have been talking about herself.
Gilliatt was born in London in 1932 and raised in Northumberland, where her father was the director of the BBC in the North East region from 1938 to 1941. At 14, frustrated by her parents’ separation, Gilliatt claims to have run off to America, on a freighter ticket she funded in part by selling scripts to the BBC. Both of her parents thought she was with the other. Gilliatt attended Queen’s College in London and then earned a scholarship to Vermont’s Bennington College. She worked an office job in New York until winning a writing contest conducted by the British edition of Vogue and returning to London, where she eventually became an editor at the magazine. In 1961, Gilliatt began writing about film for The Observer. She published her first novel, One by One, in 1965; the book later served as source material for Sunday, Bloody Sunday.
Following the collapse of her second marriage, to the playwright John Osborne, Gilliatt relocated to New York right as William Shawn was doubling down on the New Yorker’s efforts at cultural criticism. The arrival of Kael soon thereafter—another woman, and another truly idiosyncratic writer—said something about just what radical terrain Shawn felt cinema to be. The two frequently disagreed, and could not have been more different, stylistically and ideologically. Shawn had a nearly adversarial relationship with Kael; he was over-protective, even indulgent, with Gilliatt. Kael sometimes wrote as if she were making up the medium on the fly. Gilliatt was not only a true believer in the European canon, she prized the sort of access and elitism that was completely at odds with Kael’s sensibilities. Kael wanted to convince you of things. Gilliatt took it as a given that certain people, places, and things were worth discussing, and wrote as if the reader ought to share those assumptions.
This assumed consent can make much of her writing feel somehow encoded, insular. Her point of view may be somewhat fussy, and she can seem smug and unbearable at times (“Jean Renoir said something of this sort to me in Paris when we were shopping for gigot of lamb”), but the way she goes about drawing characters—at once stark and impressionistic—makes her profiles read fresh, even today.