Genius ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
Like other geniuses before him, American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) flamed brightly for a time and then burned out. He lived life exuberantly and was bursting with talent and creativity. In New York in 1929 he was just another failed writer. His massive first novel, which he called Oh, Lost!, had been rejected by every publisher in New York. He had a patroness, though, a woman named Aline Bernstein, who, through her connections, arranged to have the novel brought to the attention of Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribners publishing house. Perkins agreed to give the manuscript a “quick look,” even though he was told from the beginning it wasn’t any good.
Max Perkins “discovered” Tom Wolfe, the writer. He would do for Wolfe what he had done for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As soon as he began reading Oh, Lost!, he knew that it was a unique work. He saw in it what other editors had failed to see, or, more likely, hadn’t taken the time to see. The book needed massive editing, but Perkins believed it was a work of genius that needed to be brought to the reading public. He contacted Tom Wolfe and gave him a check in advance of royalties for five hundred dollars. Wolfe wept.
Of course, Wolfe was reluctant to make any cuts to the book. He and Perkins spent months whipping the book into shape, which included a title change to Look Homeward, Angel. When the novel was published, it was a huge success and Wolfe was hailed as a genius. He knew he would never have been able to do it, though, without the help of Max Perkins.
In the new movie, Genius, Thomas Wolfe is played by Jude Law. He is loud, has a prodigious Southern accent (from Asheville, North Carolina), and isn’t interested in social conventions. He says what he thinks, does what he likes, and spends a lot of his time in a drunken state. He also has some domestic problems. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), his patroness, the “older” woman who left her husband, family, and respectability behind for him, is unstable and jealous. She is happy for Wolfe’s success, of course, but resents the many hours he spends on his writing. In one scene, she begins pouring pills into her mouth in the office of Max Perkins (Colin Firth) to get Wolfe to go home with her. She is a very unpleasant, bitter woman.
Wolfe’s next book, Of Time and the River, is even longer than the first. Perkins and Wolfe would spend many hours together, day and night, over two years or more, editing the book and getting it ready for publication. During this time, Perkins and Wolfe become close friends. Perkins comes to think of Wolfe almost as the son he never had (he has five daughters). The writer/publisher association develops into a close—at times volatile—friendship. Aline Bernstein tells Perkins that Wolfe will leave him as soon as he (Perkins) has served his purpose. She also threatens Perkins with a gun.
In 1938, at the age of 37, Tom Wolfe is stricken and taken to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore (the same hospital where his father died). When an operation is performed, doctors discover he has a “myriad” of tumors in his brain. He dies soon after.
Genius is based on a nonfiction book by A. Scott Berg. It is an “art” film for a niche audience that won’t get much attention or make much money. Those of us who have read the great books of Thomas Wolfe and know something of his life will find the story fascinating. There aren’t many of us. At the showing I went to last night, there were three other people besides me in the audience. I walked a mile in the heat (I’d always rather walk than drive) to see it and a mile home. It was worth it.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp