A Moveable Feast

The Wonderful ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn:’ Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen, and the HBO Movie

Allen Barra loves the HBO movie about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s short, stormy relationship.

Courtesy of HBO

It wouldn’t be quite right to call Hemingway & Gellhorn, the magnificent 2 ½ hour bio epic by Philip Kaufman (HBO, Monday at 9 p.m.) “the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make any more.” In truth, Hollywood has never been particularly interested in the lives of writers nor faithful to their work when adapting it for the big screen. (A running gag in Hemingway & Gellhorn is the bad casting of Helen Hayes in the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms.)

Ten years ago it might have seemed as if doing a movie on the life of Ernest Hemingway for HBO was a sort of consolation prize, but to see the film is to understand that it couldn’t be done any other way. Hemingway & Gellhorn has a tremendous sense of historical sweep, from the Spanish Civil War to the Normandy Invasion to the Chinese Civil War, and after each interval moving back to the political turmoil in the U.S. It’s more like the movie Hollywood never made–and in an age when big budget feature films are increasingly marketed to adolescents and frat boys, never will make.

The film has the kind of cast that used to be associated with Oscar favorites: David Strathairn as John Dos Passos; Molly Parker as Pauline, Hemingway’s second wife; Mark Pellegrino as Max Eastman; Peter Coyote as Maxwell Perkins; Joan Chen as Madame Chaing Kai-Shek; Parker Posey as Hemingway’s last wife, Mary; Tony Shalhoub as a Russian journalist; and Robert Duvall as a Russian general.

But Hemingway & Gellhorn is dominated by its stars, Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, both of whom attack their roles with a hearty bravura and over-the-top enthusiasm that lets you know how fired up they were to do this movie. To describe it in a way Hemingway might appreciate, they seem like two heavyweights who admire and respect each other for a full 15 rounds, You feel by the end that, like great fighters, they held back nothing, that all the passion and intelligence that went into shaping their performances is on the screen.

The film begins when they met in Key West, Fla. in 1936 and carries them through a stormy courtship and even more tempestuous marriage. (They were married in 1940, divorced in 1945.) The relationship was based on an attraction that transcended sex; they admired each other yet were at times bitter rivals. Gellhorn was the better journalist and war correspondent, a fact that gnawed at Hemingway. She was the only one of his four wives who could challenge him as a word slinger, both on paper and verbally.

Owen is wonderful, but this is really Kidman’s picture. For one thing, we see Hemingway largely through her eyes, as she saw him—in all his wildly talented, unbridled egotistical glory.

Blind and battling cancer, Gellhorn took an overdose of pills in 1998 at age 89. Until the end, nothing angered her so much as writers and journalists who were only interested her as a window into America’s Championship Novelist. One feels, though, that she would be happy with her screen depiction: she has both the first and final words in the film.

There is another reason besides the great Kidman to celebrate Hemingway & Gellhorn: the return of Philip Kaufman. Kaufman, who is 75, directs here with a verve and snap that, if we didn’t know whose film it was, we might attribute it to a rising young filmmaker.

Kaufman made the film with a relatively small budget by pulling off the miraculous trick of disguising locations in Oakland and San Francisco as Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, the legendary Hotel Florida in Madrid, and Chiang Kai-shek’s military headquarters. (For historical shots, he relied on newsreel footage that he sepia-toned and inserting similar-toned footage of his actors.)

I don’t think there has been a stranger or more remarkable career in all of American film. One of Kaufman’s movies featured in last month’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective was his first, Goldstein–which he made in 1964 at age 28. He shared the 1964 Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes with Bernardo Bertolucci for Before the Revolution. Bertolucci, who is four years younger than Kaufman, has made nearly twice as many films, and yet Bertolucci’s often seem dated while Kaufman’s best films seem fresh and contemporary.

Why some weren’t popular is a question film critics and historians have debated for years now. Probably, as former New Yorker critic Michael Sragow put it when he introduced a Kaufman retrospective at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, because many of Kaufman’s films were not only years ahead of Hollywood, they were years ahead of their audience.

Cribbing from Kaufman became so common that some directors never tried to hide it–for instance, Roland Emmerich ends his sci-fi potboiler Independence Day with a battered but proud Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum walking across the desert and into the camera as the wreckage of their ship burns in the background, thus doubling the ante on the close of The Right Stuff, where Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager strides defiantly away from a fiery crash.

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And yet Kaufman has eluded many critics whose critical theories tie up directors’ work in neat bundles. Auteurists who put look for elements of a director’s personality in his films might be stuck with Kaufman. Those who like to point out consistent themes also run aground. Where is the connection between his account of the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972); his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), one of the great adult horror films ever made; and his adaption of Richard Price’s rollicking novel about New York neighborhood street gangs, The Wanderers (1979)? (Except that all were made from genre material and that Kaufman added extra layers of meaning to the stories.)

One might tag “literary” to Kaufman’s name for his uncanny instinct in adapting supposedly unadaptable books such as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1983) and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and for synthesizing two considerable bodies of work by Henry Miller and Anais Nin for Henry and June (1990). What to do with the majestic but little seen The White Dawn (1974), a story of stranded whalers rescued by Eskimos in the Arctic.

He has often been dismissed as uncommercial, but since the public never had a chance to see several of his films, how would we know? It’s also true that Kaufman probably would have had a much more successful career–successful in the eyes of the world–if he had relocated to Los Angeles instead of insisting of doing so many of his project in and round the Bay Area. (He certainly would have been more prolific.)

He got to spend almost an entire career working with his family, including his son, Peter, who served as producer on several films and his wife, Rose, who collaborated with him on every until her death in 2009. As Kaufman’s camera lingers admiringly over Kidman as the aging Gellhorn, it’s easy to speculate that he intended a kind of homage to his late wife and partner.

He has lived where he wanted and still got to make The Right Stuff and his greatest film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And now, Hemingway & Gellhorn. That’s a life well spent.