GENIUS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Michael Grandage, 2016
Thomas Wolfe was an American literary phenomenon: a North Carolina-born novelist and prodigy who hoped to write books of Shakespearean verbal grandeur, of Tolstoyan dramatic scope and Dickensian humanity, and to live a life to fit those vast ambitions. He’s also an artist who tends to be ignored or underrated these days. A pity, because whenever you read one of his huge novels (especially “Look Homeward Angel” and “Of Time and the River”), his talent and his mixed but munificent literary gifts flame right off the page at you.
Like Jack Kerouac, a similarly poetic, adventurous and self-destructive literary figure, Wolfe tended to project himself into his tales. He became the hero of his own epic life — and his blazing eloquence was both the raison d’être and engine of that life. Wolfe was a master of the long lyrical sentence and the unabashed confessional tone, and he could plunge us into his consciousness, and that of his literary alter-ego Eugene Gant, like some savagely brilliant literary mad man hurling himself form the cliffs of his imagination, to the whirling torrents and dangerous rocks below.
Genius — a movie that I liked and would like to defend — is the story of Wolfe’s life and literary rise and fall, and of his relationship with Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s celebrated editor at his first publisher, Scribners. Perkins is as much (or more) the hero, and the genius, of this tale, as Wolfe was — a consummate reader, analyzer, pruner and re-shaper of prose who was perhaps the most revered literary editor of the twentieth century, and, by all accounts, deserved to be.
Perkins was also the editor who discovered and nurtured both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway –two great literary lights of their era, and ours — as well as James Jones, of “From Here to Eternity,“ Erskine Caldwell (“Trouble in July“ and “God‘s Little Acre“) and Marguerite Young (“Miss MacIntosh, My Darling”). The film, which sticks closely to the facts, is set in the ‘30s and the height of the Depression. And when young Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, the witty social satirist and author of “The Bonfire of the Vanities“) bursts into Perkins’ office near the start of the story, he seems more than ready to face the rejection and harsh dismissal that have dogged his heels at every office of almost every other publishing house in New York.
Jude Law, who plays Wolfe, acts up a storm. When we watch his first invasion of the Scribners offices, seething with self-regard and borne aloft on a windstorm of egoism — we can tell we’re watching, unforgettably, a writer in love with his own legend and an editor who has all the tools, all the sensitivity. and the iron will to help him perfect both his work and his image.
But he doesn’t have to stand alone. Perkins — who wears a dark fedora hat almost everywhere, inside and out, and who wears it now while the hatless, tangle-haired Wolfe takes over his office and his life — has read Wolfe’s voluminous manuscript. (His novels sometimes came to Scribners’ in crates.) And the star editor has decided to recommend that the house publish it — just as it published, on Perkins’ call, “The Great Gatsby“ for Fitzgerald, and “The Sun Also Rises“ for Hemingway.
More importantly, Perkins, who is already a godlike figure in New York City publishing circles, intends to personally edit the overweening manuscript — of the novel then entitled “O Lost,” which eventually became the best-selling, ecstatically reviewed “Look Homeward Angel.” The master of trimming will pound it into publishable shape. Perkins is used to dealing with troublesome writers and huge literary egos, but he may sense that this is going to be the most grandiose and stormy of them all. He may guess that he is about to embark on a voyage into wrack and lightning and whirlpool — into a battering emotional/critical duel, with a writer who will make Perkins’ previous pet geniuses Fitzgerald and Hemingway look like gentleman scholars sipping tea.
The movie that follows is based on a prize-winning historical/biography of enormous detail and copious research: A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius,” a literary chronicle that unabashedly makes a hero out of Perkins and a tragic poet and twisted clown out of Wolfe. Genius the movie, backed up by Berg’s prodigious research, makes a hero of Perkins too — thanks in large part to the superbly contained and stunningly civilized characterization of Max in the film by that consummate British actor, Colin Firth. The screenplay of Genius, more literate and more impassioned and psychologically richer and deeper than most of what we see on screen these days, was sympathetically and admirably written by playwright/screenwriter John Logan (of Gladiator, Hugo, The Aviator and the James Bond film Spectre) and was filmed, in his cinema debut, by the much-praised, much-prized British stage director Michael Grandage — who followed Sam Mendes as artist director of England’s highly regarded Donmar Warehouse.
We probably remember Colin Firth best for the quiet dignity he brings to such roles as the sensitive aristocrat/hunk Darcy in the BBC film of Jane Austen‘s “Pride and Prejudice,” and for his Oscar turn as the vocally challenged King George in The King’s Speech (which won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor award for Firth). He brings the same dignity, and sharp intelligence, decency and humanity into his and Berg’s and Logan’s portrait of Max Perkins.
Working with a very flashy fellow cast, which also includes Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s emotionally wounded lover Aline Bernstein, Firth quietly takes over every scene. He makes Max someone special, the crucial conduit between great but sometimes difficult (or even tragic) writers and the more intelligent reading public who needs those writers but sometimes ignores them. And who need him, the perfect editor, as well.
In the eyes of the moviemakers, Perkins was an unsung hero whose artistic contribution to the novels of his protégées (or clients) was immense. If those now legendary writers were, especially in the case of Wolfe, Perkins’ unruly prodigies, he was their largely unheralded teacher and paterfamilias. The writers needed his gifts of civility and bridge-building — and he needed the writers for their brilliance and passion for words, and for their great, influential work that would survive them all. Perkins, a frustrated writer, treasured his authors for the literary worlds they made and the characters into whom they breathed life, for the wondrous books they wrote that Perkins couldn’t write himself.
Jude Law plays Wolfe almost maddeningly as a great, wayward fictionist, but also as a self-indulgent child: battling Max, irritating Max’s playwright wife Louise (Laura Linney), and mistreating Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a noted New York costume designer and Wolfe’s lover and first big city patron. Bernstein’s hurt essence is movingly captured by Nicole Kidman, acting the part with a voice like acid and an expression full of love and bile.
Law plays Tom with gusto and relish and a cocky dreamy little smile. He’s likable and magnetic. But he’s also infuriating. (Hemingway is especially contemptuous toward him.) We can see Tom’s greatness as a writer, and we can also see — in the memorable scene where Max edits a love scene from O Lost down to almost nothing and makes Tom like it and accept it — how much savvier Max is about getting Wolfe’s work to the public. The movie appreciates them both, and lets us appreciate them both too.
You can read Berg’s title two ways — as referring to Max Perkins: the Editor who was a Genius, or as a phrase designating Max Perkins, the Editor who recruited and helped up to success and fame a whole string of Geniuses. (The title, not necessarily intentionally, refers to both of them.) And we see two of Max’s other novelists. Fitzgerald is very convincingly and touchingly played by Guy Pearce as a ravaged, fragilely handsome Scottie, begging money from Max. Hemingway, likeably and lustily played by Dominic West, comes off as a robust, good-humored, arrogant Hem, at one point smiling beneficently while posing on a pier with Max and a huge fish. Both these men come alive — so much so, one wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of them, just as I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of the four main characters in the story‘s fierce central romantic quadrangle. (Obviously, this richness is why you need editors with pencils like Max.)
Genius was a project that took two decades to come together, beginning when Logan read Berg‘s book and then sought him out and commenced his own research into the reader and his writers. To describe this film as a labor of love is an understatement. But Genius has also been damned as over-literary and ridiculed as “Oscar-bait” — an insulting cliche, suggesting dubiously that films which clearly seem to be labors of love (like this one), carefully and caringly produced pictures (like this one), which attract prestigious actors to work in them for a fraction of their usual price, written on meaty historical, dramatic and sometimes literary subjects (like this one), are not undertaken out of love or artistry, but as a form of Oscar-mongering and literary over-reaching, intended to bamboozle gullible critics, would-be aesthetes and the more pretentious Oscar voters.
As for me, I found it entertaining and even inspiring to spend a couple of hours in Genius with one of the great novelists, and maybe the greatest literary editor of 20th century America — even if those characters were the creations and interpretations, of other writers and filmmakers. I hope Genius spurs people into reading something written by Thomas Wolfe, or edited by Maxwell Perkins. I hope more people see Genius, which gets a little rushed toward the end, but was worth the trouble.
We sometimes forget that some of the greatest movies, and a number of the better ones, are often those very same shows that can be dismissed as “Oscar bait” — directed by writer-friendly moviemakers like Orson Welles, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Francois Truffaut, John Ford and Jean Renoir. These so-called “Oscar bait” projects were based, sometimes very faithfully (sometimes not), on major works of literature and first-rate popular fiction. They had good scripts, literate scripts, meaty subjects, roles great actors love to play, stories great directors love to tell. Like this one.