The art of machismo

By Frank Borsellino on July 18, 2012

 

 'Hemingway & Gellhorn' is a study in the art of machismo . . . just as much from a woman as from a man. This film, which premiered on HBO, dramatizes the volatile coming together and falling apart of the famous novelist and his third wife. Martha Gellhorn, a renowned war correspondent and the only one of his brides who was also a fiction writer. The film is a big-name affair, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in the leads and Philip Kaufman directing a screenplay by Barbara Turner ('Pollock') and Jerry Stahl ('Bad Boys II').

It is based on Martha Gellhorn's memoirs, and researched with dialogue that scavenges the principals' own writing, either as history or drama. At the outset of this explosive new film an aged but still feisty Gellhorn recalls how she was more interested in chasing battle action around the planet than in pleasing her man in the boudoir.  'Of course,' she adds, 'there are wars and there are wars.' Especially when one is involved with the ever-mercurial Ernest Hemingway, as Gellhorn was to learn over her intense romance and subsequent four-year marriage to the man. 

art_of_machismo.jpgReally hard to say what was more life-threatening for Gellhorn: the Spanish Civil War or grappling with the demons of Papa Hemingway. To be sure, it's practically impossible to re-create with complete any accuracy an actual person, and biopics are typically deformed by the need to cover a lot of ground in short order . . .As one crisis follows quickly upon another, characters can seem both abnormally intense and insufficiently motivated. Kidman benefits from Gellhorn's relative obscurity in creating her, of course; the original person matters less. And yet given the unknowability of even as public a figure as Hemingway, there are as many plausible ways to play him as to play Hamlet, but Clive Owen delivers a stellar performance...  down to the extra pounds he packed on, apparent in all those sex scenes. One doesn't need to feel that, yes, it was really like this, only that it might have been.

From the moment the young writer Martha, 28, sidles up to the celebrated Ernest, a decade older and covered in marlin blood, at a Key West bar -- Sloppy Joe's -- 'Friend or foe?' asks Hemingway. 'Or faux friend. You never know', answers Gellhorn, who might be Lauren Bacall teaching Humphrey Bogart to whistle. ('To Have and Have Not' 1944)

And they're off, from Florida to the Spanish Civil War to Cuba and China and D-day, as competitors and collaborators. They meet other famous faces (the starry supporting cast includes David Strathairn as a rather too pathetic John Dos Passos and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, as documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, Molly Parker as Hemingway's second bride, Pauline, Parker Posey as Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, Joan Chen as Madame Chiang and Robert Duvall as an unhinged Soviet general); enact passages from future memoirs and biographies rejiggered for dramatic effect; dodge bullets and down cocktails . . . 'You're more of a man than most men I've met,' he says admiringly, as he fails to drink her under the table.

Kaufman, who also directed the erotic period pieces 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and 'Henry & June', puts a lot of energy into sex scenes that make Gellhorn (Kidman) seem like a goddess of the literay world. In a particular scene, one of my favorites, they go at while bombs rain down on their Madrid hotel, covering their naked bodies in plaster dust.

The other scene I truly appreciated was in Cuba at the Copacabana in the dressing room. They sauntered in while the ladies were dancing … he practically dragged her, while both very intoxicated, until they found a spot hidden behind costumes and other paraphernalia . . . he turned her around and raised her dress … just as she was swaying to his thrusts a group of cancan girls stormed in to change. He placed his hand over her mouth and continued pressing on… and they pulsated together in a harmonious rhythm…Kidman had this look of such utter ecstasy. Delicious!

Integrating the actors 'Zelig' style into old newsreel footage, sliding from color into monochrome and back again. Sometimes, you don't notice the trick at all, but even when you do, it can be sort of charming: It gives the film a kind of picture-book quality not out of step with its self-dramatizing subjects.

Yet in spite of his wild chauvinistic ways, something about the freethinking and alluring Gellhorn charms him. Hemingway is smitten, for a spell, until Gellhorn proves to be a tad too independent and not so subservient. Then Ernie gets angry, and you won't much like Ernie when he's angry. He gets really blitzed . . . ornery . . . and self-centred, and declares, 'John Dos Passos is the greatest writer in America ... not named Hemingway'.

Papa is no one's notion of politically correct. But it isn't just self-aggrandizing bravado when he declares himself to be the greatest wordsmith in America. Hard to take that away from him.

The returns in their relationship eventually diminish: The student outlives her need for the teacher, who derides her as 'Little Miss Human Interest'. It turns out that he's the conventional one who needs a base and a gang; she's the footloose free spirit who wants to be where the action is. 

Kidman's Gellhorn and Owen's Hemingway, as well as the others, are mostly on fire, and under fire. And when not dodging gunshots during the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China, Gellhorn and Hemingway are mostly engaged in personal combat – physically and mentally. But the two have something in common: a romanticized idealism. They are rebels with a cause, eager to quash fast-rising fascism, be it in Franco's Spain or Hitler's Germany. Hemingway prevails upon Gellhorn to chuck objectivity in her dispatches for Collier's Weekly.

They are also fearless, bordering on foolhardy. What else to make of their desire for some nookie while their hotel is being blitzkrieged by Franco's bombers … Or Hemingway’s challenge to play Russian roulette with an equally unravelled and real Russian General (Robert Duvall).  The two are also world-class tipplers. But even Gellhorn marvels how Hemingway could put away bottles of scotch, absinthe and wine at night and still take his post at the typewriter the following morning.  'Writing is like Mass. God gets mad when you miss it,' explains Hemingway, whose second bride convinced him to convert to Catholicism.

While the film focuses on the passion between Hemingway and Gellhorn, it also addresses prevailing patronizing attitudes toward women with ambition back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which is when the film is set.

Despite finding religion as well as adventure, causes, acclaim and women, Hemingway, a senior Gellhorn contends in retrospect, was rarely at peace with himself . . . 'He tortured no one so much as he is tortured himself.' Such was the price Papa Hemingway was willing to pay for his place in the writers' pantheon. As is abundantly made clear here.

The movie, which has concentrated more on her journey than his, gives her a kind of payback: It jumps from their final breakup, in 1945, to a diminished Hemingway's suicide some 16 years later. Gellhorn exits on two feet, as the older woman who has remembered this tale, grabbing her backpack and heading out the door. 

 

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