Friday, October 11, 2013

John Mulholland's COOPER & HEMINGWAY: THE TRUE GEN is a first-class, dual celebrity bio-doc

Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway were best of friends? Who knew? I sure didn't. And prior to viewing this remarkably rich, detailed and moving documentary, I might have also added, Who cares? Not any more. Even if you were not the greatest fan of "Coop," one of, if not the most popular male American actors from the 1930s through the dawn of the 1960s, nor one of those who bow down to Hemingway as the be-all-and-end-all of American fiction, this movie will surprise you, and, I suspect, quickly win you over. If you are already big fans of these men, get ready for some prime catnip.

COOPER & HEMINGWAY: THE TRUE GEN begins like one of those old westerns many of us loved -- with the camera gliding gracefully over hills and canyons, and the opening credits rolling by in a lovely, old-time typeface. "The true gen," by the way refers to a phrase Hemingway coined to explain that something was real, as opposed to a phony. He undoubtedly used it about his friend Cooper, and I think you'll use it about this movie, too -- written and directed by John Mulholland. So full is the film of interesting anecdotes about the two men, along with interviews with friends, family, movie people, popular authors influenced by Hemingway and academics who appear to have spent their lives studying him -- all this accompanied by a treasure trove of visual material that works near-perfectly with the film's narration (well spoken in his reedy tenor voice by Sam Waterston) -- that the movie comes remarkably close to a "you-were-there" experience.

What Cooper & Hemingway does especially well is give us what seems like the "whole" of these men. While the film exhibits great appreciation and love for them and their work, it is not afraid to go into the darker areas. Mr. Mulholland has chosen his anecdotes supremely well to give us a growing sense of who these men were, together with some of the forces that made them this way. We learn a lot of about their marriages: several for Hemingway, only one for Cooper (although it seems he rarely met a leading lady he didn't fuck, but in the most gentlemanly fashion. Everyone evidently fell in love with this guy).

For all this, the movie never seems salacious. Theme-wise, it concentrates most on the idea of American manliness -- which both these icons would seem to represent. In the early 20th Century, along with the coming of industrialization and office work also appeared to arrive a more feminized male. Coop and Hem, in their images at least, kept this at bay, though it became clear that Hemingway's was more of a "front" than that of Cooper's, with his grew-up-on-a-ranch background. Still, the movie insists, both men's public image was a kind of shell game.

We learn something of their politics -- Coop was conservative, Hem more liberal -- and their women, too, especially Mary, Hemingway's last wife, and Cooper's "Rocky," who proved strong enough to withstand his assignations -- though his approaching-a-permanent one with Patricia Neal almost undid their marriage. We hear from some of the children, as well, several of whom have piquant tales to tell -- especially Cooper's daughter Maria and Hemingway's son Patrick.

Hemingway as a prevaricator is given full swing, too, though I wish the filmmaker had spent a little more time on just why, as he tells us, the writer came back from World War II so sick and unhealthy. Hemingway did not really see any action (he was considered by our government too valuable to waste in combat), though he is said to have invented certain of his WWII tales. Throughout, the writer comes off as supremely talented and pretty much an asshole as a person (the anecdote about how Cooper gets his friend to give a very necessary apology is succulent indeed).

We see how the wave of success crests and falls for both men, and how their comebacks -- The Old Man and the Sea, High Noon -- were almost simultaneous. As were their deaths: Hemingway's suicide followed Cooper's death from spreading prostate cancer by only weeks. Mr. Mulholland does not make this claim, but the viewer cannot help but wonder how much the loss of his best friend added to Hemingway's terrible depression.

The filmmaker must have worked on this project for quite a few years, as many of the people he interviewed are now dead -- from Ms Neal, Charlton Heston and Jack Hemingway, all long gone, to Elmore Leonard and Paramount's A.C Lyles, both recently departed. Overall, this movie made me even fonder of the work of Cooper (I'll want to see some of his movies again soon), while finally beginning to understand and better appreciate Hemingway, at least as a complicated personality.

Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen -- from Transmultimedia Entertainment and running 143 minutes, not one of which I would have wanted to miss -- opens today in New York City at the Quad Cinema, but won't hit the L.A. area until Friday, December 6 (at Laemmle's Playhouse 7).

How's this for a batch of personal appearances -- 
all at the same show? Writer/director John Mulholland, 
TMC Host/film historian Robert Osborne, 
film critic Jeffrey Lyons, 
actor Len Cariou (who provides the film's voice of Hemingway) 
and Sean Hemingway (grandson of Ernest Hemingway) 
will be all present for a Q&A following 
the 7:00pm show tonight, Friday, October 11.


Thomas A Hug said...

I found this film very interesting and learned alot about Cooper & Hemmingway. Must see this one, you will diffently enjoy the all the pictures and information about their friendship.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for posting, Thomas. And I do hope you (and lots of others, too) see this film -- which I also hope will makes its way around the country to a lot more theaters.