Stacey Keach does a fine job as Ernest Hemingway, much better than Clive Owen in the recent "Hemingway and Gelhorn." Owen looked and sounded like Groucho Marx. Keach, on the other hand, is a believable character. He's a soft spoken braggart but not a feminist stereotype. He doesn't want to keep women down. He just wants to bed them until he's a little bored with them, then he wants to go out and play with the boys and girls outside. The only time he actively resents his wives -- and there were four of them -- is when they try to clean him up. His last wife, Mary, screeches at one point about his drinking, his crummy friends, and the filth. It reminded me of my marriage.
I mention the wives and girl friends because they seem to constitute the core of the writer's and the director's attention. They come at you seriatim. In addition to the courtesans there is even one terribly young Italian girl in whom he takes a paternal interest, but he never gets his hands on her -- as far as we can tell.
Hemingway was an incredible fellow. There were three main parts to his life: (1) the writing, (2) the romances, and (3) the adventures. This series seems to assume the romances were at the heart of it all. Granted, not everyone gets to have four wives, but it's by no means certain he'd have had so many women anxious to marry him if the other two parts of his life didn't glow and explode like the lights on the Las Vegan strip.
The movie paints every wife as sincere, loving, caring, accommodating, while Carlos Baker's biography suggests some were pretty full of guile, particularly the second wife, Pauline, who carefully insinuated herself into Hemingway's activities by first becoming a friend of wife number one, Hadley. But enough of the soap opera.
The adventures and perigrinations of Hemingway are nicely suggested with locations apparently shot in London, Paris, the American West, somewhere in Florida, and Africa. I'm guessing, but the settings were convincing enough for me. And there is a sufficiency of hunting and fishing, so we get to know something about that part of his life style.
What the series is a little weak on is Hemingway's vanity. The character we get to see is confident and dignified -- but Hemingway was more than that. He was introduced to John Steinbeck in a New York bar. Steinbeck showed him an ancient, brittle blackthorn walking stick. Hemingway scoffed at it and broke it over his own head, according to witnesses. Steinbeck was disgusted. That's something a ten-year-old child would do. There's nothing of that in the character as written. What we see is the Hemingway who was charming, even to homosexuals like Tennessee Williams. We see a Hemingway who decks a guy with one blow of his bare fist. We don't get to see the Hemingway who got his ass kicked in a boxing ring while F. Scott Fitzgerald sat frozen at the bell. We don't get to see F. Scott Fitzgerald, for that matter. We do get to see Ezra Pound for about one second.
These guys are important too, because, after all, they are writers who were in one way or another influential in Hemingway's career. But the writing, of which Hemingway was made, hardly shows up. We hear that he dedicated a book "with love" to Mary -- but we don't learn the title of the BOOK. A mention is made in passing of Hemingway's plan to write a story of a very old Cuban fisherman and a big marlin. That's it -- period. We hear two novels mentioned in the dialog: "The Sun Also Rises" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls." Oh, and one short story, "Up In Michigan." We have hardly an inkling of why they were popular and nothing is said of his flops. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes are covered in an offhand remark.
I don't mean to carry on about this neglect of Hemingway's career, and much less do I want to object to any minor license taken with historical fact. But, when you come right down to it, nobody would ever have heard of Ernest Hemingway if, instead of becoming a writer, he was a bank teller or even a doctor in Oak Park, Illinois.
It's not all serious soap opera though. There are one or two amusing scenes -- not as many as Hemingway's sense of humor would have justified -- but I had to laugh when, drunk outside a Paris café, he struggles out of his jacket and, like a matador, challenges a taxi to charge him. And, again, when Stacy Keach is shot from behind while climbing a wall, I'd always thought of Hemingway as beefy but never as being quite so broad of beam but I could believe it.
All in all, it's a worthwhile shot at capturing some part of the life of one of our more popular and talented writers. There is no one like him today.
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