Imagining Hemingway's Marriage

Director Philip Kaufman talks about how his HBO epic Hemingway & Gellhorn came to be.

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Ernest Hemingway met his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, in 1936 in Key West. Hemingway was already world famous for the novels A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, several volumes of stories, and nonfiction, such as his account of bullfighting in Spain, Death in the Afternoon. Gellhorn, born in St. Louis in 1908, was a professional journalist who had just published The Trouble I've Seen, an account of the transient homeless in the U.S. that earned her national attention and began her lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

When she was covering the Russian invasion of Finland, [Gellhorn] wrote to [Hemingway], "We will never, ever leave each other ever again."

Philip Kaufman's two-and-a-half-hour epic, Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, picks up their story at their fateful meeting at Hemingway's favorite Key West hangout, Sloppy Joe's Bar, and follows them through their mercurial courtship and marriage in 1940 to their 1945 divorce. Together they covered the Spanish Civil War, the Russian invasion of Finland, the Japanese invasion of China, and World War II.

Hemingway & Gellhorn, which premiered on HBO on Monday and will be showing on the network throughout the coming month, marks Kaufman's return to directing after an eight-year absence. Over his 48-year long career he has made 13 feature films, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. With Hemingway & Gellhorn Kaufman finds himself in familiar territory. Like Unbearable Lightness, it's a love story set against the chaotic and turbulent background of a changing world. Like Henry and June, about the prolonged affair between Henry Miller and Anias Nin, it is the true tale of two larger-than-life literary figures. And like most of Kaufman's films, Hemingway & Gellhorn has the feel of a sweeping major production yet preserves a sense of intimacy.

I met with Kaufman at the New York London Hotel in April during a retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art. Kaufman's passion for his subject is felt in nearly every frame of Hemingway & Gellhorn, and in person he communicates that passion just as effectively

How did Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen come to be attached to this film?

Nicole came on board first. She's a terrific actress, she really is. I think she's right up there with Meryl Streep or any of them. Watch her in To Die For or The Hours. And most people have never seen her in The Birthday Girl. Nicole came to San Francisco, for a center they were building for violence against women. Nancy Pelosi and Joan Chen, who was Madame Chiang Kai-shek [in the movie], were there and Joe Torre was there. My daughter-in-law, Christine Pelosi [Peter Kaufman's wife], said "Phil, come with me, I want you to meet Nicole." We shook hands, she knew all my movies and immediately asked "What are you doing now?" There was just this long look between us in this big crowd.

Two days later she called me, and she had just read the script. I don't know how she got it—nobody was supposed to read it, but she has her ways. She said "I want to do this, I'll wait as long as it takes to do this film. I want to work with you, and I want to do this film."

I got Clive through a great lawyer, Barry Hirsch, down in LA, who also represents Sean Penn and Francis Ford Coppola. He read the script and loved it, then asked "Would you be interested in Clive Owen?" Three weeks later I got a call from London, from Clive Owen, and he said "I think this is a stormin' script." I never heard that word, "stormin'" before. He said "I want to do it," same kind of thing. He had some other movies lined up. That's sort of why we had to pushback production, but HBO agreed to wait over a year.

Were you a Hemingway aficionado?

When you're growing up, you have to read him, especially my generation. He had the thing with the perfect sentence, and you can smell the outdoors. He had a way you always felt. Sort of like an acupuncturist, he could hit exactly the spot that freed some of your senses. He was great, there's no question. He changed things, virtually every writer after him was influenced by him. Mailer, Nelson Algren, John O'Hara. J.D. Salinger had a whole fascination, a whole correspondence with him.

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Margaret Barra is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, American Heritage, and True West Magazine.

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