Hollywood follows the mass audience and the mass audience follows Hollywood; there is no leader. The worst of the past is preserved with new dust. How many films that we once groaned at do we now hear referred to nostalgically? When the bad is followed by the worse, even the bad seems good. (Film addicts talk about Grand Hotel or Busby Berkeley's choreography, as if those were the days.) The hostility toward art and highbrowism that infect much of our culture helps to explain the popularity of so many untrained and untalented screen performers. Richard Burton and Dan O'Herlihy do not stimulate the fans; Tony Curtis, Tab Hunter, Janet Leigh, Jane Powell do. Fans like untrained actors; perhaps they like even the embarrassment of untrained actors (why should they tolerate the implied criticism of speech or gesture that derives from a higher culture?). The office girl says, "No, I don't want to go see Howard Keel—he was a professional singer, you know." The taste of the mass audience belongs to sociology, not aesthetics. Those who make big films do not consider primarily the nature of the medium and what they want to do with it, they try to keep ahead of the mass audience.
As the mass media developed, the fine points of democratic theory were discarded, and a parody of democracy became public dogma. The film critic no longer considers that his function is the formation and reformation of public taste (that would be an undemocratic presumption); the old independent critic who would trumpet the good, blast the bad, and tell his readers they were boobs if they wasted money on garbage, gives way to the amiable fellow who feels responsible not to his subject matter but to the tastes of the stratum of his public. Newspaper critics are, in many cases, not free to attack big films (too much is at stake), but they are usually free to praise what they wish; yet they seem too unsure of themselves, too fearful of causing a breach with their readers, to praise what may be unpopular. It is astonishing how often they attack the finest European productions and the most imaginative American ones—safe targets. Attitudes become more important than judgments. The critic need not make any definite adverse comments; his descriptive tone is enough to warn his readers off. Praise which includes such terms as "subtle," "low-keyed" or "somber" is damnation; the critic saves his face but helps kill the movie.
There are people, lots of them, who take big pictures seriously. What is one to say to the neo-Aristotelianism of the salesgirl who reports "I saw The Student Prince last night—it was so wonderful and so sad. I cried and cried, and when it was over, why, I just felt all cleaned out." Only snobs howl at Duel in the Sun ($11.3 million gross), and if you crawled out on Quo Vadis ($10.5 million gross) you not only showed your disrespect for heavy labor, you implied contempt for those who were awed by it. Hollywood productions are official parts of American life, proofs of technological progress; derision is subversive. You will be reproved with "What right have you to say Samson and Delilah is no good when millions of people like it?" and you will be subjected to the final devastation of "It's all a matter of taste and one person's taste is as good as another's." One does not make friends by replying that although it is all a matter of taste (and education and intelligence and sensibility) one person's taste is not as good as another's.
—Pauline Kael, "Movies, the Desperate Art," The Berkley Book of Modern Writing No. 3, 1956, revised for Film: An Anthology, 1959, reprinted in The Age of Movies, Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz, The Library of America, 2011