Friday, June 17

REVIEW: Genius

Directed by Michael Grandage
2016 Biographical Drama
1 hour 44 minutes
From Lionsgate

Colin Firth
Jude Law
Nicole Kidman
Laura Linney
Guy Pearce
Dominic West

In 1978 I was roaming the streets of Manhattan when I came across a bookseller and his small stand on the edge of Central Park.  I saw a book called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Intrigued with the title, I started reading some of it and quickly saw that Perkins had long been considered America's greatest book editor and worked with, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.  Perkins not only worked with them but was responsible for publishing at least their first works.

I had already read all of Hemingway's novels and a few of his short stories and three of Fitzgerald's novels.  I had never read any of Wolfe's four novels at the time but knew a fair amount about him as I did the other two writers.  In fact, I have always loved reading about writers whose personal lives are usually far more compelling than actors who, of course, occupied a lot of time in my brain. So I concluded very quickly that I would enjoy reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius... and indeed I did.  I am sure Perkins would have approved of Berg's stunning work.

It was a given that I would see this film and a near-certainty that I would like it.  At first I was a little put off with the casting... this highly American story was going to feature Brit and Aussie actors... of those listed above, only Laura Linney is an American. Oh get over it, I said, and by and large, I did. Jude Law had so damned much dialogue, most of which had to be said with a fair amount of hysteria, and perhaps that's why he slipped in and out of a number of different accents.  But I didn't care.  

Ok, so this should get you started but now I must give a big ol' SPOILER ALERT.  The movie purports to be a true story and from what I can tell, it is.  As such, the Perkins-Wolfe relationship, which is really all this film is about, is well-documented and you could Google everything that the film offers, so I may as well dive into it.

The book was all about Perkins' entire life with Wolfe dramatically entering it for a period of about six years and it is mainly this period that the film addresses.  Wolfe arrived in New York in 1929 from Asheville, North Carolina... a city he would assiduously avoid after the publication of his first novel.  It was a disguised autobiography that was wildly over-written in the author's rather stream-of-consciousness sort of way.  Every publisher he tried told him to go away.  Perkins, who worked for Scribner and Sons, did not.

Perkins realized his red pencil was badly needed but he saw not only promise, but a new writer possessed of some genius. Wolfe gesticulated, paced the floor, shouted arrogantly and certainly didn't take criticism well.  He was attached at the hip to every period, comma and prepositional phrase that he wrote, but he knew he had little choice but to listen and adhere to what Perkins told him.

And here is the backbone of the story, of their relationship and about the business of publishing books.  Writers don't like their works tampered with but ones like the undisciplined and untrained
like Wolfe sorely needed a Perkins to rein him in.  And since Perkins changed a massive amount of material from what Wolfe wrote, who's book is it anyway?  The whispers in the writing world were that the book was successful because of Perkins and that became the source of great angst between the two men. It is unquestionably an editor's job to make a book marketable, but is it going too far when the shape and the style is mostly the editor instead of the writer. The screenplay plumbs for an answer. What came of all this was Wolfe's first and most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

The real Maxwell Perkins

The steadfast, button-down and low-key Perkins and the fiery, self-centered chatterbox, Wolfe, formed a fascinating friendship.  While one of Perkins' unusual traits as an editor is that he actually sought out talented writers, he was never so taken with anyone as he was with Wolfe.  They unquestionably loved one another despite the equally troublesome nature of their friendship. There's not a question of them being gay although I suspect that had a lot to do with the times.  To a degree, Wolfe, who was the youngest in a large family and in need of feeling a love that was not shared among many, regarded Perkins as a father figure.  Perkins, who had five daughters, likely regarded Wolfe as the son he never had. Perkins was 16 years older than Wolfe.

Both were involved with tough, no-nonsense women, who, incidentally, didn't care much for one another.  Both resented the kind of time the two men spent with one another, despite the fact that it was work-related. Louise Perkins (Linney) was a devoted mother who entertained her husband's writers and wanted to be one herself. Wolfe was in a (5-year) relationship with Aline Bernstein (Kidman), a successful Broadway scenic designer, who left her husband and two children to be with Wolfe.  Despite the always contentious aspect of their relationship, she spent years financially supporting him and encouraged and influenced his writing.

After the successful publication of Wolfe's second novel, Of Time and the River, the two men had a serious falling out.  Of course it concerned Wolfe's bad behavior and the fact that the always-unflappable Perkins finally flapped.  Wolfe went to another publishing house and the two men never saw one another again.

In 1938, at only 37 years of age, Wolfe died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain.  The film ends as it should... with Perkins reading a loving note that Wolfe literally penned from his deathbed.  I stayed for the end credits to make sure I wasn't too misty-eyed for public viewing.

The real Thomas Wolfe

It must have been old home week for some of the actors.  This is the third outing for Firth and Kidman, having shared the screen in The Railway Man (2013) and Before I Go to Sleep (2014). Kidman and Law spent some time together on Cold Mountain (2003).  Firth and Linney were both in Love Actually (2003).

As I understand the low-key personality of Max Perkins, there really is no other actor more suitable to play him than Firth... they are cut from the same cloth.  As such, it would be hard to fault Firth's performance. Wolfe was a far more passionate and noisy personality so of course Law dominates the proceedings.  I not only thought he nailed Thomas Wolfe (not forgetting but ignoring the accent lapses), it's his best performance in awhile.

Aline Bernstein was just a little mad as was her boyfriend.  In many respects they were a good match but he seemed to discard her after he became successful and she didn't, shall we say, take it well. Kidman turns in a credible performance although her part is certainly secondary to the two men.  Here is one instance of a little inaccuracy because in real life, Bernstein was some 18 years older than Wolfe.

Linney wasn't given a lot to do but the strength and love of her character was obvious.  Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Hemingway were both good choices.  Their scenes are few but the characters added some color to Perkins' life at the time.

This is director Michael Grandage's first film and he is to be applauded for his clear and concise vision.  He pulled it all together as did John Logan for his adaptation of Berg's book.  The period look and the mood created was pure pleasure.  The set direction and art direction gave it all a beautiful look... so many fun shots... like looking through a photo album.

Who's interested in seeing a movie about a quiet book editor?  I mean, besides me. Well, I suspect not a lot.  Most young people would be hard-pressed to know who Thomas Wolfe was, much less Max Perkins.  Firth, Law, Kidman and Linney have their devoted fans and it may take them all to put this film in the chips.

It was a story I loved because I go gaga over the world of books and stories of friendship.  

Next posting:
A good 40s film

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