Friday, July 1, 2016

Who is the Genius?

Genius is the rather ambiguous title of a film about Maxwell Perkins, who was the editor to the works of  several American literary geniuses of the first half of the 20th century.  It’s based on the ambiguously titled biography of Perkins written by A. Scott Berg, “Maxwell Perkins:  Editor of Genius.”  Who is the genius Berg is talking about — this particular editor, or the authors whose work he nurtured to publication, novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, to name the three authors that appear in the film.  Who is the genius of the film’s title?  The writer Thomas Wolfe, or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald calls Max Perkins, the genius at friendship. 

Genius is a sweet little character study of a movie, visually convincing, gentle, welcoming the audience into its beautifully produced world (with the barest acknowledgment of the Depression).  Michael Grandage directed the script by John Logan based on Berg’s biography of the editor to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, to name a few. 

While Genius purports to be based on the biography, it’s only a taste, a dram, an excerpt covering the years between when young Thomas Wolfe walked into Maxwell Perkins’ office at Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishers and Booksellers on Fifth Avenue with an overlong manuscript that would eventually be whittled down to become the very long novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.”  The younger man’s death in 1938, just over a decade after he walked into Perkins’ office, ends the story of the film.  Not even a third, in fact, of Perkins’ 37-year career as an editor of some of the most remarkable American authors of the first half of the 20th century.  But the period it covers provides a beautiful stage for Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe to play together and become men of another time. 

Colin Firth is astute, smart, and heartfelt casting for Maxwell Perkins.  Repressed yet passionate, loving and compassionate but oh so quiet that his gentle smile is always a delightful surprise.  Maxwell Perkins was a nurturer, and Firth embraces us all.

Jude Law did deep and detailed character work in bringing the volatile Thomas Wolfe to life, apparently barely recognizable to some members of the audience when I saw the film, with his dark curly hair and southern accent contributing to his bold portrayal of the volatile young writer from Asheville.
Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
How much like Thomas Wolfe was fellow southerner F. Scott Fitzgerald in his youth and health.  Here we see Fitzgerald as a middle-aged man weighed down by responsibility and reality.  Ernest Hemingway seems a mature sportsman, subdued yet warm and friendly, and prescient of young Wolfe’s eventual betrayal of his father figure Perkins.

Each famous writer is nicely played as a human being, not a famous author whose books we all read in high school.  Dominic West excels in his brief appearance as Ernest Hemingway.  Guy Pearce is a heartbreaking F. Scott Fitzgerald whose glory days are past, and whose wild and vivacious wife Zelda has sunken into mental illness.  In his exquisite sadness, it occurred to me Fitzgerald might have been glad the television series Endeavour did an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in a recent episode.

This shot appears several times in the film with the more modern buildings edited out!
Nicole Kidman did fine work as Wolfe’s paramour and sponsor, Mrs. Bernstein. She looked the part of the “older woman,” without vanity, which contributed to her believability. Some of the audience didn’t recognize her, either, until they saw her name in the credits, always a compliment to an actor.

Laura Linney was superb as Perkins’ wife Louise, aghast and downtrodden when Wolfe denigrated playwriting, her passion.  She was not merely someone’s wife or mother, she is a fully developed character, loving to her husband and children, angry when he chooses his work over a family vacation, rather judgmental of the married Mrs. Bernstein while still sympathetic.  Ms. Linney has grown into a remarkably sensitive actor whose every feeling is subtly offered to us. 

There are many pieces creating the whole of a film, and each element of Genius was of its time, the late 1920s through 1930s in New York City.  Music by Adam Cork was emotive without intruding, at one with fine cinematography by Ben Davis of a timely production design by Mark Digby.  In my mind’s eye the film is almost in black and white, although I know that it wasn’t.  Art direction by Alex Baily, Gareth Cousins, and Patrick Rolfe was complemented by costume design by Jane Petrie.
Firth as Perkins and Law as Wolfe commuting to Connecticut
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
John Logan, on the advice of biographer Berg, sensibly put the oft-read book aside to write the movie.  I read an article by a fellow who had read the excellent book and was very upset with all that was left out.  The biography of Max Perkins was about his life and his 37-year career.  Such things are difficult to cover in their entirety in a theatrical film.  Logan chose an dramatic segment with a volatile writer, and did a good job of it.

Much as I was captivated by the film, when I walked away from the theatre I felt something missing, only realizing what I missed as I wrote this.  I missed that whole story, which can only be apprehended by reading A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins and the works of Perkins’ authors.  If you want more, read the books.  If you want to stop in for a visit to 1930’s New York City and the fascinating people who lived and worked there, see the film, Genius.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read….so many choices….

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