” A stone, a leaf, an unfound door” haunted me when I first read Thomas Wolfe’s ” Look Homeword, Angel”. The prose, or poetry, was transfixing. Its editor Maxwell Perkins was not in my thoughts at the time.
I will be reading the 1978 National Book Award Winner, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg purely because I loved the film based on it! Contrary to most of the British and American film critics, I was mesmerized by the hazy color pallet, the stark profiles against gauzy light, the rain drenched and smoke filtered cinematography. The way Colin Firth ( Max Perkins) opened the doors to every room in his house was masterful, just like the man himself.
His daughters were lovely and Laura Linney, as his wife Louise, was just as full of wisdom as her husband. They were part of The Great Generation. Self-doubt and self-sacrifice did not keep them from becoming the sounding boards for values and virtues. Screenwriter John Logan makes this clear when he has Max in not- too -prim- fashion tell Tom Wolfe ( Jude Law), his surrogate son , that sleeping with “working girls” counts ( as wrong).
Perkins works from the premise that the work is Wolfe’s and that his job as editor is to bring good books to the readers. We believe this even as we watch Max skillfully manipulate Tom into changing his book’s title. Max nudges , never demands: “Scott changed his title: Give it a think.”
I loved seeing the red copy-editing and marginalia. This was his ( Perkins’) work. As old -fashioned as red pencils are , I know that work and there is joy and drudgery in it. This film showed its importance.
One of my favorite scenes was when editor and writer were on the commuter train out of Grand Central Station. Wolfe is telling Max “until I met you, I never had a friend.” He compares himself to Caliban- “monstrous and deformed, alien, hurt and stunned into poetry.” Max continues Caliban ‘s story by quoting his own memorized Shakespeare. We have soul mates in their love of words.
Jude Law does manic well, and his southern draw is praise worthy. In the first half of the film, we are as enthralled with the Wolfe ‘s genius as Perkins is. Wolfe is a life force of tumbling, expressive feeling. Almost, the polar opposite of the staid, reflective Perkins. Both, however, are work obsessed, and the women in their lives suffer and bemoan the hours spent without them. Unlike, Louise Perkins, whose frustration comes from the fear that Max is missing out on his daughters’ lives;Nicole Kidman’s Mrs. Ailine Bernstein is less sympathetic. Bernstein has left her husband and children to become Wolfe’s mistress and muse. She is manipulative and feels that her sacrifice of dignity must be rewarded by Thomas’ devotion. Kidman has never been a favorite of mine and this portrayal does not change my feelings for her talent.
When she tells Max that Tom ” liberates you, and when he leaves you, you will never feel so,alive again”, she delivers her lines spitefully. When she says , ” I’ve been edited” , she delivers without humor or irony. ” After him there is a great hush”, could have been the best line of the film, but it came across as only pathetic- devoid of any other meaning.
Other than letting Ms. Kidman do her thing, Director Michael Grandage orchestrates this literary drama with verve and discipline. The setting of New York City in 1929 is all black umbrellas, bread lines, fire escapes, cigarette butts and black wing tips. Charles Scribners and Sons’ library-like offices and rows of typists all get the viewer ready for the ” all aboard” call. Once Law enters Max’s office the talk never stops. Wolfe’s exuberance is heady and flamboyant. He whisks us away with his talent. He is emotionally “out there” . Only later, do we see him as self-indulgent and superior, cruelly calling Louise’s playwrighting, an anemic literary form. He is grandiose in his own estimation of himself.
Max reads as he walks, reads as he rides, reads as he derides Tom’s four-page paragraphs. Two years it takes to whittle 5,000 pages. I especially liked the oral give and take as Max and Tom wrestle with compromise as they prepare his second novel. Max tells Tom that he doesn’t need the lightening bolt. He doesn’t need the rhetorical. If a boy falls in love for the first time does he go to sea life to describe it ?Perkins doesn’t think so. Tom should cut the Wordsworth and get to the point. Tom says he hates to see words go. Max says Wolfe loves the images. If Max were Tolstoy’s editor there would only be War and not the Peace, he rejoins. It is a great scene.
Perkins reassures Tom that cavemen told stories so that no one would be scared of the dark. Stories are not frivolous ; they illuminate our lives. Later, he cajoles Tom for not knowing how to ache for others. Maxwell Perkins is the real star of this script. As the editor of Hemingway , played beautifully by Dominic West, and of F.Scott Fitzerald, played rather dourly by Guy Pearce, Max Perkins showed he had a gift for making and keeping friends, but as he told his daughter Nancy, “some people just go away.” Well, Maxwell Perkins and his tears will stay with me.