Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Caught this last night on HBO, reluctantly. Martha Gellhorn is one of my all time favorite writers, and like any favorite creator whose work I relate to or become deeply involved with, I feel a proprietary sense of protection, like don't mess with this artist, and just the way the title puts her name second makes clear it's about the thing she hated most: being associated with Hemingway instead of standing on her own.

Some critics, including me think she was one of the greatest, perhaps even THE greatest, war correspondents of all time. She had an incredibly adventurous and independent and creative and successful life in many ways in the years before she met Hemingway and for many decades afterward.

But, she and Hemingway did fall for each other and did marry (she reluctantly though) and were "together" for several years. Together is in quotes because Gellhorn went off to various theaters of war to write about them even while they were married, sometimes with Hemingway.  So I felt sorry for Gellhorn for having a film made about her that centers around her relationship with Hemingway.

I admire some of Hemingway's writing. IN OUR TIME is one of the most unique and uniquely original collection of stories ever written, and he wrote them when he was very young. They, along with his blockbuster first literary success, the novel THE SUN ALSO RISES, made Hemingway the Dylan (Bob) of his times in many ways. I.e. a hero to a younger generation who felt he expressed the truth of their experience and their world.

Then he went on to become almost a caricature of himself, which the movie definitely shows. But there have been tons of books about him, and movies made from his books that seem to be about him (A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, even FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, which the movie posits he wrote to and in many ways for Gellhorn). While Martha Gellhorn has only recently had a biography of her come out, and her letters (both pretty fascinating for my taste) and led a life infinitely more brave and varied and independent and obviously longer (she lived well into old age, still writing and chasing wars etc.).

I would have loved to have seen a film that centered on her and her life in which Hemingway was just one of the men in it. It almost seems sexist to make a movie about her that's basically about him (the film ends with her being interviewed as a "great war correspondent" and then being asked about Hemingway and her ending the interview, which seems like a cheap way for the filmmakers to excuse themselves for doing exactly what she accused many of doing, reducing her existence and accomplishments to sidekick of "the great man" jive).

Then there's the movie itself. It uses a lot of old newsreel and movie footage and uses computer editing techniques to place the actors in the scenes of real people and events and it looks exactly as cheesy as that sounds. It also turns the lives of the famous people in the flick, including the two leads (Hem played by Clive Owen as over the top as I've ever seen him, and Gellhorn by Nicole Kidman) into sound bites and tweets, as though they always talked the way they wrote (Woody Allen tweaked that so well in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS where Hemingway was a parody of himself but in a way that also obviously admired him and made him seem more human etc.).

There are some great cameos, but you almost miss them if you blink, like Parker Posey as Mary, or Peter Coyote doing an impressive job as the editor Maxwell Perkins (I didn't even recognize him until he spoke) or Robert Duvall as a boorish Soviet Russian general. Maybe the best performance, and a bigger role came from Tony Shalhoub as a Russian journalist.  David Strathairn plays, or is directed to play, John Dos Passos as basically a big wuss. And so on.

All that talent and expertise doesn't add up to a great flick or even a great biography or docudrama. Just a kind of TV version of the lowest common denominator lives of famous people etc.


AlamedaTom said...

Ouch! I recorded this and was going to watch it. Now not so sure.

~ Willy

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed, in the script, and the directing.

First of all, why hire non-American actors, who were especially unable to come up with decent accents. Clive Owen was not tolerable as Hemingway, and incredibly un un sexy. I don't know what Nicole was doing with her basso voice. Not sexy either. And the director took every chance he could to have a sex scene. Nasty.

However, what really made this exercise barely watchable was the omnipresent alcoholism of both of them. Nothing noble, romantic, or bigger than life about them, or their relationship.

I know you are a big fan of her Michael, but to me they were a couple of drunks.


Lally said...

Tom, I'd love to see what you think of it. And Suzanne, you're totally right about why not use "American" actors, and also, Gellhorn was in her twenties I think when they met, not Nicole etc. And you're also right that the movie makes them seem like just a couple of boring boorish drunks. I'm not sure she was, especially at that point, or ever, but it was his drunken boorishness and meanness that eventually led her to leave him.

Anonymous said...

What's amazing, is that I don't think the writer and director realized that all the drinking, anger, and violence would turn people off. Really lazy thinking on their part.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I have never abided the drunken boorishness of Hemingway, and I think his books suck.


Lally said...

Suzanne, another good point. As for his books, a lot of writers, maybe just older ones now, who didn't or don't necessarily like the man or his behavior (I responded immediately to the anti-semitism and racism in THE SUN ALSO RISES the first time i read it as a kid and hated the man outright from that point but...) but, still can't deny that under the initial influence of Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO Hemingway took what he learned from that and other sources (like Stephen Crane et. al.) and refined "American" fiction writing technically to such a simple direct clarity in his minimal use of adjectives or complex, long sentences etc. giving rise essentially to a lot if not most of "modern" prose writing, particularly in fiction and the almost Hemingway parodying tough guy detective fiction etc. So most post-Hemingway writers are indebted to his stylistic innovations one way or the other and recognize that, despite the man's obvious faults and failings. One scene I would have loved for them to have in that movie was the time Wallace Stevens, the poet and New England Yankee insurance company lawyer who wore a suit and wrote a much more complex and nuanced poetry than Hemingway's prose when confronted with "Hem" in I think Florida knocked him out!

Robert G. Zuckerman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert G. Zuckerman said...

Wallace Stevens "The Snowman" a favorite. I tried to get on this film as still photographer, as I've always loved Phillip Kaufman, especially "The Wanderers" a classic. They didn't hire me and I'm not saying that's why the film doesn't work but it's part of the overall mindset and choices made that definitely affected the outcome. Ive been working with Tony Shalhoub for the past two months on "Pain and Gain" in Miami. He's a gentle, luminuous man.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite American authors is Theodore Dreiser, 1871-1945: AMERICAN TRAGEDY, SISTER CARRIE .


Lally said...

You're right Robert. And Suzanne, ditto, one of mine as well.