The old man and the flea

HBO has a pretty high batting average with its original programming, but Hemingway & Gellhorn still has me shaking my head a week after viewing. It’s the kind of Did I really see that? jaw dropper that only comes around once every decade or so.

Conceived as the chronicle of Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (the penultimate Mrs. Hemingway) fighting and fucking their way through history, the film shows director Philip Kaufman reclaiming his Nineties title as the king of high-minded softcore, literary division. His initial entry (so to speak) into this field, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had enough going on to make it worth another look, but Henry and June (the literary passion of Henry Miller and Anais Nin) kept me snickering into my Raisinets the whole way through. Hemingway & Gellhorn is the further detumesence of Kaufman’s ambitions. When the two writers consummate their simmering passion in the Hotel Florida during a Fascist bombing raid, Kaufman shows them rutting atop a desk as shells explode and plaster dust blankets their bodies. I dunno — drizzles of grit and debris never really worked as turn-ons for me, even with Nicole Kidman, but Kaufman is just getting started. Later on, the scene shifts to Havana and we see the two getting it on in a nightclub dressing room as Cuban hotties twirl their feather boas and get their g-strings nestled properly. James Wolcott likens Hemingway & Gellhorn to one of Joe Eszterhas’ heavy-breathing schlock epics — “the Showgirls of the Lost Generation.” Kaufman goes Eszterhas one better (or worse) by using Forrest Gump trickery to splice his lovers into the Spanish Civil War, with each transition telegraphed by the color draining from the image. “Look Papa, we’re turning black and white! We’re entering history again!”

When people say they don’t like Hemingway, they usually don’t mean the work as much as his image. That’s understandable: It’s an unattractive image, easily ridiculed, and Kaufman (along with his screenwriters) never skips a chance to hammer us with it. Though lip service is paid to Hemingway’s talent and dedication, Hemingway & Gellhorn paints him as a mechanical bull, a capon pretending to be a rooster. The endless dick-measuring with other men, the readiness to cock a leg over any writer who might threaten his top-dog status, the pompous self-mythologizing — all of it gets trotted out here, emphasized by Clive Owen’s blustery performance.  (With his bushy moustache and dorky beret, Owen alternately resembles a buffed-up Groucho Marx and Kevin Kline’s moronic assassin from A Fish Called Wanda.) All of it will be old news to anyone familiar with its source: the 1950 profile Lillian Ross wrote for The New Yorker. What’s more interesting is the fact that the New Yorker piece, widely remembered as a stake through the heart of Hemingway’s reputation, caused barely a ripple in his friendship with Ross:

As a friend, Hemingway was stalwart. He had told me to feel free to write whatever I chose to write about him, and he never reneged. “I thought your piece was a good, straight OK piece,” he said about the Profile initially. A week later, he said: “Don’t ever worry about loseing” — it was his habit to keep the “e” in his participles — “me friends nor anything about piece.” He added, “I take the wind like an old tree; have felt the wind before; north south east and west.” Another time he said that he lost about a friend a day over the Profile. “But what the hell; any friend you can lose you might as well lose them early and anyway it is too late.” Once he said: “Please don’t think you ever have to answer any jerks or ever defend me. I am self-propelled and self-defendable.” And again: “Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s—-? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps.” Several years later, he told me that people continued to talk to him about the Profile: “All are very astonished because I don’t hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say. I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?”

That Hemingway is absent from Hemingway & Gellhorn, as is any hint of the talent that led Gellhorn to hitch her wagon to his star. Ironically, Kaufman and his writers let Hemingway off the hook too easily with their chaotic depiction of the Spanish Civil War episode, though they at least take the trouble to put the key figures into place. Among the writers staying in Madrid at the Hotel Florida was John Dos Passos, who had just completed his U.S.A. trilogy, a kaleidoscopic view of America during and after the Great War that made him Hemingway’s creative equal, if not superior. (To Have and Have Not, completed and published during this period, was certainly bad enough to threaten the reputation earned with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.) Hemingway, a romantic without much interest in politics, admired the Republican side for its underdog status, but his loyalty to La Causa was an accident — if he hadn’t wanted to fuck Martha Gellhorn, he could just as easily have ended up sharing drinks with Franco’s men. Dos Passos was losing his enthusiasm for Communism; the murder of his friend and translator Jose Robles by Stalinist agents would tip his politics heavily rightward. Hemingway, cultivated by the Communists on the Republican side (who abandoned Dos Passos as soon as they landed their bigger fish), blackguarded Dos Passos as a coward and turncoat — something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. (In A Moveable Feast, he famously dismissed Dos Passos as “the pilot fish.”) A viewer who doesn’t know any of this background will only be confused by what little is shown in Hemingway & Gellhorn.     

It’s easy and fun to despise Hemingway for his bad behavior, but it’s foolish to apply that judgment to his work: the brilliant short stories, The Sun Also Rises, and scattered portions of the later novels will always tip the scales to favor the writer over the man. Hemingway & Gellhorn would have us believe that once Gellhorn walked out on him, Hemingway turned into a dazed head case out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with his fourth wife playing a chirpy Nurse Ratched. While the man did come to a dark end, I seem to recall a few other things happening along the way: worldwide acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, a Nobel Prize for Literature, stuff like that. The Old Man and the Sea may not be the greatest book evah, but its hero managed to land a pretty impressive fish. Hemingway & Gellhorn ventures onto even stormier waters, but comes back with something much smaller.

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One thought on “The old man and the flea

  1. 3guys1movie says:

    What a drag that movie was. I was expecting such great things, it being an HBO film and all. Perhaps it should have been called Gellhorn and Hemingway as the caricature they created of Papa was not worthy of top billing.

    Great write up 🙂

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