Thursday, June 30, 2016

Genius (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Genius” Examines Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Years ago, in Asheville, North Carolina, I knew Thomas Wolfe’s brother Fred. He liked to hang around the National Historic Landmark that had been the writer’s boyhood home. This Queen Anne style edifice was originally a rooming house run by his mother called “Old Kentucky Home.” In Thomas Wolfe’s celebrated novel “Look Homeward, Angel,” it was renamed “Dixieland.”

Wolfe’s shadow hangs over Asheville, where he was ostracized following his roman à clef, inspiring a subsequent novel titled “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Wolfe chose to stay away from Asheville for eight years following the uproar.

Some of that time he spent in Europe, but much was spent in Brooklyn where he worked on a lengthy novel titled “The October Fair.” He submitted it to Maxwell Perkins, the editor at Scribner’s who had been instrumental in the writing careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Perkins cut the novel considerably and retitled it “Of Time and the River.”

This time the citizens of Asheville were upset because they hadn’t been included.

Perkins’s severe editing of Wolfe’s work prompted him to leave Scribner’s for Harper’s & Brothers.

This turbulent relationship between author and editor is the essence of a new film called “Genius.” It takes this title from a book, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg.

“Genius” is currently showing at Tropic Cinema.

Directed by film novice Michael Grandage, its stagey dialogue is mindful of his background as a theatrical producer. Set in New York City in the ‘30s, the film is awash with the monochromatic colors of a faded photograph.

Jude Law (“Road to Perdition,” “Spy”) develops a hillbilly accent to portray the Southern writer that The New York Times called “one of the most confident young voices in contemporary American literature.” Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech,” “A Single Man”) looks all buttoned-up as Max Perkins. Despite their squabbles over Perkins’s red pencil and Wolfe’s verbosity, at his death Wolfe acknowledged Perkins as his closest friend. This biopic is sort of a literary romance.

As for lustful romance, Wolfe was enamored with a married woman named Aline Bernstein, 18 years his senior. In the film, Nicole Kidman takes on that role.

Also, Dominic West pops up as Ernest Hemingway; Guy Pierce as F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Vanessa Kirby as Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda.

Zelda died in a sanatorium fire in Asheville, Wolfe’s hometown. On visiting the Asheville library, Fitzgerald discovered that it didn’t contain any of Thomas Wolfe’s works, a holdover from the flap about “Look Homeward, Angel,” so he donated a volume. At least that’s the way Fred told me the story.

Now the Thomas Wolfe Collection at Pack Memorial Library honors (as they like to say today) “Asheville’s favorite son.”

When the library was remodeling in the early ‘70s, they sold off some of the fixtures. I bought a sturdy oak reading desk. It sits in my home as a reminder of Thomas Wolfe.

The title of the movie -- “Genius” -- refers to Max Perkins. But for my two cents, it was that 6-foot-6 wild man from Asheville who was the real genius.

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