Carole Kass' life was in film, but it certainly wasn't all about film.
If there is an adjective that describes the late movie critic Carole Kass, it is difficult. Not difficult in the bad sense of harshness or anger. Instead, her "difficult" side showed in times where one needed a foot put down, or the truth told.
She was never proud. After retiring from the Richmond Times-Dispatch after a long career, she was content to write from one to three reviews a week for my little weekly paper, The Richmond State, for $40 per week. And she was not always quickly paid. Yes, she would grumble about the checks being late. I expected that. But in the two years from 1994 to 1996 during which she wrote reviews and stories, she never grumbled about how much the checks were. She knew we were small, and was glad to pitch in and help. Her support was unfailing.
"I'll do reviews," she said, when I first called her about doing some pieces. There was no arguing with her, though, of course, I was glad to have a name with her credentials on my fledgling venture.
Before she came to The State, I was told of her reputation as a "difficult to edit" writer. I will agree with that in one sense: Her sentences were unbelievably long, loaded with semicolons and word tricks. She forgave me as I tried to simplify them and never complained about my editing or trimming, unless, as sometimes happened, I butchered or mangled.
That being said, she was an excellent writer. Of all the lines she wrote, I'll never forget her labeling Rikki Lake, in a review, "John Waters' plump confection."
But the main thing that was great about her reviews was that she had something to say, a larger thesis. She hated so much of the violence and sex in many movies, but was never a prude about it, and so if she came out and said it was gratuitous, you knew it was.
Most people, I think, agreed with her reviews. She was not out to win awards for her writing and would not try to cause a stir about a movie. Instead, she wanted people to see good movies and not waste money on ones that were bad. She believed in giving a brief synopsis of the movie, which many critics today don't do because it takes away from space where they can be clever.
There was another thing about her role as film critic it was just another thing that she had done in her life, but it wasn't her. One of her first reviews for The State was for "Quiz Show." When she turned it in, I remember a wonderful conversation about jobs she had had in New York in the 1950s, working at Variety and other places, before moving to Richmond. Been there, done that. On to the next thing.
She did so many things, including teaching prisoners and volunteering for just about anything, though she worked mostly with the Richmond AIDS Ministry and the American Red Cross, all while her cancer was in remission, or back, or in remission again. She beat the cancer so many times I almost expected her to make it to 90.
I recall her anger at one of the many dimwit editorials of the Times-Dispatch. Some editorial writer, in some strange fit of anti-gay whimsy, had criticized Billie Jean King for spending too much time with AIDS victims. This amazingly stupid editorial had appeared just before King was to appear in Richmond. Kass, who spent thousands of hours with dying AIDS patients, went ballistic. Funny, I don't remember whether she paid a visit to Stewart Bryan to voice her opinion, or not. But if she didn't, it was because it wouldn't help the situation, or she knew she had worn out her welcome.
One Christmas, I wrote an editorial about some restaurant that made everybody work Christmas Day. I thought that was lousy of the restaurant, until she came in and asked where she, being Jewish, should eat on Christmas, and whether she had the right to eat out on days that weren't a holiday to her?
Sometimes we didn't like what she had to say, but we were always better for her having said it. Another day I was busy trying to get something edited, when she came screaming in the door, saying that policemen were outside the office doing something, or arresting somebody.
I told her we didn't do those stories, as we always got beat on them by the daily paper.
"What kind of newspaper are you!" she shouted, as we all ran outside to investigate.
There was just no arguing with Carole.
Through all, Carole had a star quality. If she were starting her career in New York today, you know she would have been a natural for TV, with her blonde hair, Rhoda voice and pert questions.
We were lucky to have her here in Richmond for the time we did. It made it a better place.
Carole Kass died Wednesday, March 29. She is survived by her husband of 47 years, Joseph Kass, son, Nicholas Charles Kass, and daughter, Carrie Lee
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