Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn
David Strathairn as John Dos Passos
Molly Parker as Pauline Pfeiffer
Director: Philip Kaufman
Editor: Walter Murch
Ernest Hemingway, machismo swaggerer and all around man’s man, was the subject of another film Monday night. No, he wasn’t the morose, shell shocked Hemingway of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. He was the guy who changed the chemistry of a room upon his arrival. The kind of person who sucks up all the oxygen and demands to be center stage. The guy who dispenses advice because he believes he’s the perfect vessel to do so.
Am I sounding like I drank a glass of hater-ade?
I have a love/hate relationship with the guy. Was he talented? That goes without saying. Read his short stories and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Read his novels, and well, there’s no consensus. You may love them, you may hate them. When I was in high school, The Sun Also Rises was my personal cure for insomnia. I kid you not.
But as much as I think the guy an incorrigible ass (may he rest in peace), I think HBO may have pandered to the public opinion of the man.
But first, synopsis:
Hemingway and Gellhorn is a biopic of the careers and relationship of both involved. We all know who the man is. What you may not know was that he was married to the pioneering war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn. He met her in Key West in 1936, while he was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer (and yes, this is the same Pauline that he left Hadley for back in Paris.) They covered the Spanish Civil War, and according to the film, he was the guy who pushed her to fulfill her writing potential. I haven’t read any of her autobiographical work, so I don’t know if that’s true or not, but HBO asserts it’s so.
We were good in war, but when there was no war we made our own. The battle neither of us could survive was domestic life.”
Ironically, the literary man most accused of being an anti-feminist pig was married to one of the most independent, trail blazing women of her time. It turns out that Hemingway was all about Martha when he was the one encouraging her, but once she came into her own, he was the petulant, attention-needing man-child who would go on to steal her accreditation from Collier’s as their war correspondent in order to one-up her. In the scene where she learns he’s done this, especially when he could have received it (accreditation) from any other publication –He is Hemingway, after all!—she calls him out on his constant posturing (he’d rather be with his friends, launching faux-battles, than be out reporting on a war) and his desperate need to be seen as The Man (and I’m not talking about the symbol for The Establishment here). Hemingway isn’t going take that lightly. Nope. He slaps the living the daylights out of her and as she drives away, he calls out for her, desperate.
Clive Owens may well possibly be the hottest man in Hollywood. He oozes sex appeal. He looks like he could give a rat’s ass about his appearance, which makes him even more devastatingly attractive. Yes, I’m a fan, can’t you tell? And yet, his performance of Papa H. falls so far short of anything I’ve seen him do, I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll try anyway…
The Writing: The one-liners scattered about the film were disjointed and actually distracted from the flow of the story, instead of contributing to it. In one scene as Martha watches Hemingway pound the keys of a typewriter with intensity, she tells him she’s stuck. The words won’t come. He then retorts the famous line about there not being anything to typing, you just have to sit down and bleed (roughly paraphrased). It was as if Clive Owen couldn’t even believe the BS written in the script. And, people, there were a lot of really. bad. sentences. For example:
“Gellhorn, you inspire the hell outta me.” I don’t think Robert DeNiro could have pulled that off.
The Pressure: Clive Owens has talked about preparing for this role by reading all of Hemingway’s material. I’m guessing he’s talking about the novels and shorts, and not his letters. As readers (and some of us writers), sometimes knowing the monumentalism of something actually spurs on a paralytic-type situation. Sort of like not being able to read Crime and Punishment because it’s not just a very long book about poverty and alienation, it’s freaking Dostoevsky, you know? You have to approach the text with reverence. And what if it all goes over your head and reveals your staggering ineptitude? I’m thinking that sometimes getting in someone’s head (especially if it’s Ernest’s) isn’t always a good thing when you’re an actor and so much of it depends on personal interpretation.
Kidman’s performance: Dead on. I have no complaints, until the end when there’s a noticeable lowering of her voice that doesn’t ring true (it’s only the last three or so minutes). Her make-up people did a phenomenal job of aging her.
Kidman was able to deliver a pitch perfect performance of a woman who carved out her own damned place in a Man’s World. Even if I sat there, a little confused by the conflicting role written into the script (she’s a badass, but she needs Hemingway to hold her hand to get over Writer’s Block?!) I still heard standing ovations in my head because the. woman. can. act.
Eventually, Ernest and his third wife call it quits. He’s in a car accident with the woman who will one day be his fourth wife, and when Martha gets there and sees him laughing without a worry in the world (after he’d stolen her accreditation) she tells him she wants a divorce. The jealousy, the insecurity, the competitiveness have rung her dry.
What burns brightly tends to burn out quickly, and the two go from making love in exploding hotel rooms, to screaming matches over reporting on wars, to calling it off for reasons most of us can understand.
In the end, the film fails to fulfill its promise of delivering a tragic love story between two larger than life people. I have to blame the writers. Except for Gellhorn, everyone else was one dimensional. Ernest was a narcissistic, jealous bully. His second wife, Pauline, was written as a shrew. In one scene, when she learns he’s having an affair with Martha, she tells him, “This is a Catholic house!” Really, writers? You DO know she was sleeping with Ernest when he was married to Hadley, right?
This movie tries to recall Bogie and Bacall, but it doesn’t.
As my daughters would say, EPIC FAIL.