Hemingway & Gellhorn .. on the heels of brief encounters with the Spanish earth

Jun 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment

Bullfight arena in Valencia, Spain — the kind of place about which Hemingway wrote Death in the Afternoon, perhaps still the best of its sort in English.

Ernest Hemingway was one subsidiary subject that crossed my mind during the Spanish sections of our recent counterweights Western Europe conference circuit.

That no doubt had something to do with the editors’ message of this past May 9 : “We go to Europe for inside story (back for Hemingway and Gellhorn on May 28).”  [And with my own “The short unhappy life of Ernest Hemingway” a few years ago, on March 19,  2009.]

If you retain some kind of guarded attachment to something about Hemingway, even almost in spite of your better judgment, when you are in Spain you are bound to think at least once that it is easy to understand his affection for The Spanish Earth.

In any event, like others among my conference circuit colleagues, I was happy to be back in North America for the premiere of the HBO TV movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, on the evening of Monday, May 28, 2012. And having more or less watched it a second time since then, thanks to the marvels of cable TV today, I am now ready to offer a few brief comments.

A first point of some interest is that the film was directed by  Philip Kaufman, whose other credits include  The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988 — in which a late 1960s “Czech doctor with an active sex life meets a woman who wants monogamy” but never quite gets it), and Henry and June (1990 — in which : “In 1931 Paris, Anais Nin meets Henry Miller and his wife June. Intrigued by them both, she begins expanding her sexual horizons with her husband Hugo as well as with Henry and others.”)

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) has vague but notable similarities with both these earlier Kaufman concoctions. It is a “drama centered on the romance between Ernest Hemingway and WWII correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls and the only woman who ever asked for a divorce from the writer.”

Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen perform only important sex in Hemingway & Gellhorn, but there is quite a lot of it!

Like other commentators again, I can enthusiastically report that Nicole Kidman in her mid 40s (who plays the role of Gellhorn) still has a near naked body well worth further observation.

(And consider as well this report, from the UK Mirror a few days ago: “Nicole, 44, said: ‘I kept asking director Phil Kaufman, Is all this sex — important? I wanted to make sure he wasn’t just getting off … [Playing Hemingway himself, Brit actor Clive] Owen, 47, added: ‘Everyone knows that Phil loves a good sex scene.’”)

* * * *

Beyond this essential introductory point, I have now looked at an even dozen reviews of Hemingway & Gellhorn on the world wide web, to test my own reactions against those of others, whose qualifications to comment on movies may or may not be greater than mine. A few artifacts from this exercise stand out:

(1) For reasons that I think I understand, without quite being able or wanting to articulate them at length, very few reviewers have been willing to offer unstinting praise.

Welcoming committee in Vigo, Spain, May 19, 2012. Another aspect of Spanish culture that Hemingway would no doubt still admire today. (Who wouldn’t?)

An exception is Carole Mallory,  an “actress, journalist, professor and film critic,” who has “written a memoir … about her time with Norman Mailer.” Ms. Mallory reports that: “This spellbinding story — the passionate love affair between Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway — is breathtaking.”

Others have been far less generous. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair over-exuberantly alludes to “the unchained malady of Hemingway & Gellhorn … directed by Philip Kaufman … From his previous work … Kaufman comes across as an intelligent, conscientious liberal humanist with a gift for mood, intimacy, laconic humor, and history on a human-impact scale, and all those virtues might become a bore after awhile. With Hemingway & Gellhorn, it’s as if Kaufman answered the call of wild and it turned out to be a loon.”

Someone called Aaron Weiss (who does not seem to know much about Hemingway to start with) reports that Hemingway & Gellhornseems to lack the punch that makes it truly noteworthy.”  Chris Baggiano urges that “Hemingway & Gellhorn is a C+ paper from a student with an A average and will likely be remembered as a production unworthy of HBO’s lofty reputation, or forgotten entirely.”

The real Ernest Hemingway with the real Martha Gellhorn, on their honeymoon in Honolulu in 1940, at the Halehulani Hotel.

According to Fred Topel : “An A-list cast puts on a hell of a show but can’t shake the feeling of a TV movie …  After all this, I don’t really feel like I know much more about Ernest Hemingway or Martha Gellhorn. More like I’ve just seen the Wikipedia page performed by Hollywood’s A-list.”

Troy Patterson concludes: “‘The most essential gift for a good writer,’ Hemingway once said, ‘is a built-in, shock-proof, bullshit detector.’ While you watch this curio of literary mythmaking, yours will be buzzing away.”

In “The Buns Also Rise: Tom Carson Reviews Hemingway & Gellhorn,” Mr. Carson reports that “a project like Hemingway & Gellhorn” cannot “possibly be something other than high-grade trash.”

And  Robert Lloyd at the Los Angeles Times writes: “Although based on research, with dialogue that scavenges Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s writings, this HBO biopic is never quite believable.”

(2) At the same time, almost all these critics of the movie also at least  allude to  some compensating virtues. Very few want to dismiss it altogether out of hand. Even  James Wolcott at Vanity Fair notes that “Hemingway & Gellhorn is [also] available for viewing via HBO’s On Demand. Whatever else, you won’t be bored.”

Entertainment in Vigo, Spain, Sabado 19 de Mayo 2012.

Chris Baggiano concedes that the “quality” is “still above average.” And: “If you are a big Hemingway or Gellhorn fan, or perhaps just a fan of the particular time period then Hemingway & Gellhorn will be a pretty good watch.”  Fred Topel allows that: “At two and a half hours it keeps a rather brisk pace so I never felt bored, or tempted by the distractions in my home.”

Troy Patterson feels obliged to admit that “Nicole Kidman … banters with the insouciance of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not [a now old movie based on an old Hemingway book].  Kidman gives a spot-on performance as that hard-living woman journalist,” Martha Gellhorn.

Tom Carson similarly concedes that the movie is “very entertaining … There hasn’t been such an unabashedly (not to say gaudily) romantic treatment of the Spanish Civil War since the Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’ on London Calling 30-odd years ago …While the real Gellhorn was hard as nails—and more power to her—our Nicole is only as hard as her nail polish, and more power to her … Mainly because they’re both fun to watch … the leads help a lot to keep things lively … Kidman is … too girly” but “often very affecting just the same. And have I mentioned that she looks damn good in slacks? That’s not even the only reason I couldn’t help enjoying a lot of Hemingway & Gellhorn. The movie’s a crock, but it’s not a boring one.”

Unreal Hemingway with unreal Gellhorn in Hemingway & Gellhorn, 2012.

Despite being critical on other fronts, Mike Hale in “Literary Lions Stalk Each Other Through Wars and Across the World” still reports that “Mr. Kaufman, in his function as traffic cop, keeps the action moving, and despite the script’s repetitiveness, the film doesn’t feel overly long.”

Finally, in “Hemingway & Gellhorn review: The fun also rises?” Ken Tucker urges that: “For a two-and-a-half-hour-plus biopic, it was maddeningly, irresistibly watchable. Every time I thought I was going to throw in the towel (which usually occurred when Kidman appeared as Gellhorn in old-lady make-up, lowering her voice in an inadvertent Boris Karloff impersonation), the film simply took off in a fresh direction and I was hooked all over again … This is Kaufman’s second ampersanded biopic (the other was 1990’s Henry & June, about Henry Miller), and he knows how to bring the larger than life down to scale, and when to ramp ‘em up.”

(3) I was myself especially impressed by some comments I bumped into on a website called “CAFE SELAVY … AN ECLECTIC REFLECTION ABOUT LIFE IN THE PRESENT. PHOTOGRAPHY. BRIEF WRITINGS” :

“I don’t know what it would be like to have watched Hemingway & Gellhorn last night without a deep background in Hemingway studies. I just can’t imagine what I would have heard and seen .

Mysterious photo of young lady who seems to look a little like Nicole Kidman in her youth, from the Café Selavy website’s post on Hemingway & Gelhorn.

“Almost everything I have ever watched about Hemingway or his work other than academic material has given me pause.  They are chock-full of errors.  The first two that struck me while watching the HBO movie last night were that Hemingway did not have a deep, masculine voice and that Martha Gellhorn was no raving beauty …

“ … almost didn’t watch the movie after reading Maureen Ryan’s vicious review in The Huffington Post.  ‘It’s not just crap,’ she writes, ‘it’s expensive, painfully “artistic” crap …   ‘Pseudo-intellectual,’ she says …

“Another reviewer (I can’t remember which one, but I think it might have been a critic from the New York Times) belittled the use of stock footage and the insertion of actors into it as well as to the switching from black and white to sepia to color.  The review was equally as ripping …

“Fuck ’em.  I enjoyed it.  More than enjoyed it, really. All the things they complained about seemed good enough to me. I’m not saying the thing was high art.  Those two critics may even have been right. I don’t know. But for the most part, the film’s makers had facts right. The writers and director had done their homework.

“I’ve read so much of the biographies that it was fun just watching it dramatized  and paraded about in a faux-documentary way.  And while Hemingway’s voice wasn’t right, I think they caught the essence of his personality. I say that as someone who never met him but as someone who has drunk on different occasions with two of his sons, his brother, and a niece …”

(Mmmm … I don’t know about the niece. But something about these Café Selavy comments — and the accompanying mystery girl photo — made a lot of sense to me!)

(4) Last but by no means least, I ultimately bumped into director Philip Kaufman talking about Hemingway & Gellhorn with Charlie Rose (on the Business Week site, of all places).

Director Philip Kaufman, from San Francisco, discusses Hemingway & Gellhorn with Charlie Rose.

This Charlie Rose interview includes a short trailer for the movie, and, especially if you haven’t seen the movie yet yourself, I think it’s well worth watching — both for what it says about the movie and for what it tells us about Kaufman’s intriguing career, based in San Francisco.

One thing that the interview underlines is how the great discovery of the movie isn’t anything about Hemingway (about whom a great deal is now known, much of which is not all that attractive). It’s the much less familiar fascination of Martha Gellhorn.

Here I also quickly remember that I originally concluded my March 19,  2009 article on  “The short unhappy life of Ernest Hemingway” with: “ … I have in the course of my research for this article on Hemingway also learned that Gillian Anderson (of X-Files fame) is going to produce and star in a ‘biopic’ about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn … Martha Gellhorn, it seems to me, may be the kind of writer whose life is in fact more interesting or worth remembering than anything she wrote. (And I say this quite objectively, having never read any of her writing.) I have long been a fan of Gillian Anderson as well. And a new movie in which she plays Martha Gellhorn is something I think I could really enjoy … “

Apparently, as may often enough happen in such matters, Ms. Anderson’s plans were finally overtaken by Philip Kaufman’s project, with Nicole Kidman playing Martha Gellhorn. (See, eg: “HBO Greenlights ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ Starring Clive Owen And Nicole Kidman … Tuesday, June 15, 2010” ; and “GILLIAN ANDERSON ABANDONS ROLE AS MARTHA GELLHORN … Thursday, July 8, 2010.”)

Gillian Anderson finally abandoned her role as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn — which is a shame, even if Nicole Kidman has arguably given the most brilliant performance of her career in Hemingway & Gellhorn.

This was in some ways unfortunate, I think. As the Café Selavy site notes, in real life “Martha Gellhorn was no raving beauty” — in the way that Nicole Kidman certainly is. (Although, as I urged in my 2009 article, it still does seem to me that she was the most obviously attractive of Hemingway’s four wives.) In a few other respects as well (and without in any way disparaging her attractions), Gillian Anderson might just have given us a more authentic Martha Gellhorn than Ms. Kidman.

At the same time again, I should equally underline that I agree with the young lady with whom I watched Hemingway & Gellhorn (both times). Its great discovery (as Philip Kaufman himself would seem to urge) is in fact the much less familiar fascination of Martha Gellhorn. And the finally most striking thing about the movie is Nicole Kidman’s performance as Martha Gellhorn. It may be a little more “Hollywood” than, say, Merchant and Ivory or Gillian Anderson might have given us. But Ms. Kidman has shown that, along with still looking very good in or out of slacks, she is a careful and gifted actress of some kind of deep talent.

As a very final note here, I would just say too that I agree myself with almost all the other comments from others who have watched Hemingway & Gellhorn, as noted above!

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  1. I did drink with Hillary, though you wonder at that. It was at a party in the 1980s at Hemingway’s house. My girlfriend won a best costume prize as Lady Brett Ashley. She was making a documentary at the time. I was not who I would become yet, but we spent a good portion of the evening chatting. I think. It was a party after all.

    c.s.

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