J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Genius: Maxwell Perkins Edits Thomas Wolfe

Maxwell Perkins fostered the development of Twentieth Century American literature like no other, as the editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Dawn Powell, and James Jones. He always made his p&l’s editing Taylor Caldwell, but the “Perkin’s touch” also guided his literary luminaries to bestseller status. Perhaps none of Perkins’ bestsellers were as unlikely as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and of Time and the River, nor were any of his other professional dealings as tempestuous as those with the Southern Modernist. Their storied editor-author, surrogate father-and-son relationship is dramatized in Michael Grandage’s Genius (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Great Depression is in its early days, but Perkins’ world remains untouched. He lines edits during the day at the prestigious publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons, returning to his quiet home outside the City in the evenings. Thomas Wolfe hardly seems to have noticed the current state of affairs either. The garrulous writer seems to live in his own little world, financially maintained by his formerly married lover, Aline Bernstein. Thanks to her support, he has completed an intimidatingly long manuscript that has been rejected by nearly every house in New York—but not Scribner’s.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Perkins agrees to buy what was then known as O Lost, but he insists Wolfe trim some of its girth. The novelist is amenable in principle, but he will fight for every phrase and passage. It will be a difficult editorial process, but it yields Look Homeward, Angel—and the rest is history. While still enjoying the success of his first novel, Wolfe delivers his second, the even more ambitious and unruly Of Time and the River, which will make the editorial give-and-take for his first book look like child’s play.

It looks somewhat odd to see the definitive American book editor and three of the greatest American novelists of the Modern era played by three Brits and an Australian, but at least that spares us the spectacle of little Leo DiCaprio trying to fill Hemingway’s shoes or Ryan Gosling moping about as Fitzgerald. First and foremost, Colin Firth has the perfect urbane sophistication and Ivy League reserve for the patrician Perkins. Jude Law can get a bit theatrical as Wolfe, but the novelist’s Walt Whitman expansiveness is hard resist unleashing. Regardless, he develops some nice master-apprentice chemistry with Firth.

Dominic West clearly has a blast chewing the scenery in his brief appearance as Papa Hemingway, but it is Guy Pearce who really gives the film some tragic heft as the Zelda and alcoholism afflicted Fitzgerald. Similarly, Nicole Kidman’s complex portrayal of the difficult, desperately possessive, but not unsympathetic Rubenstein will probably be overlooked or unfairly discounted. However, Laura Linney is grossly under-employed as Louise Perkins.

Screenwriter John Logan’s adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius actually shows an understanding of how the book business worked in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike The Girl in the Book, there are no misuses of publishing jargon to make industry professionals wince. It is also a classy period production that even includes an era appropriate jazz club sequence, featuring appropriately swinging Jools Holland Big Band sidemen (Kenji Fenton, Winston Rollins, and Chris Storr).

Frankly, it is just refreshing to see a film that believes Wolfe’s prose is worthy of feature treatment. It is a highly literate film that respects American culture and the circumstances that shaped it. Recommended with affection for those who admire and re-read Perkins’ stable of authors, Genius opens this Friday (6/10) in New York.

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