Genius (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Valerie Kaufman

Produced by Michael Grandage, John Logan, James Bierman, A. Scott Berg, and James J. Bagley; directed by Michael Grandage; screenplay by John Logan, based on A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius; cinematography by Ben Davis; edited by Chris Dickens; production design by Mark Digby; costume design by Jane Petrie; music by Adam Cork; starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, and Dominic West. DVD, color, 104 min. A Roadside Attractions release.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), Genius chronicles the years during the 1920’s and 1930’s when Perkins edited, and befriended, the literary greats Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among other notable authors. Perkins changed the traditional notion of editing books by making it a creative collaboration, often working with authors while they wrote their novels and closely involving them in the final editorial shaping of the works. He welcomed authors who had been rejected by other publishers, especially writers who spoke in new ways about post-WWI values, and whose commercial or critical success was far from a sure thing. He gave authors ideas, even if he couldn’t write them himself, quickly organized their prose, and identified and corrected narrative problems with ease. He gave all his authors the feeling he truly cared about their work. While the Berg bio offers a complete record of Perkins’s dealings with authors, John Logan’s screenplay concentrates on Perkins’s bromance with Thomas Wolfe, their symbiotic, sometimes clashing collaboration, and their shared passion for literature.

When screenwriter Logan first approached biographer Berg about collaborating on a script, Berg insisted Logan first read Wolfe, so Logan spent a summer reading all of Wolfe’s novels. The two then collaborated on the screenplay over a period of fifteen years. They were thrilled to find a director in Michael Grandage—a Tony-winning British theatrical director (Somewhere to Run, The Madness of King George)—who loved the screenplay and its portrayal of a creative relationship, likening Perkins’s role of editor to that of his own role as director. The two featurettes on the DVD, “Genesis of Genius” and “Painting a Portrait of a Lost Generation,” show that screenwriter, director, and biographer brought the same devotion to making the film as Perkins and Wolfe felt for their collaborative effort. Berg and Logan fought over the script’s wording, much like Wolfe and Perkins had fought over the wording in Wolfe’s novels, and Logan, like Wolfe, was aided by the steady and unrelenting support of his collaborator. Both writers saw the film as a love story.

When Perkins (Colin Firth) invites Wolfe (Jude Law) to his New York office to discuss the editing of the 1,114-page manuscript of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Wolfe admits, “I know it’s too long”—Wolfe believed in long novels and one of his sentences could go on forever—but also complains piteously, “My heart bleeds to see any of it go.” What ensues are scenes of Perkins fighting Wolfe over the author’s insistence on adding pages or Wolfe’s tendency to go off on narrative tangents—what Perkins describes as “great rolling mountains of prose.” We see the magnitude of Perkins’s job in a scene in which the two spend what seems to be an interminable stretch of time paring down one passage of Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River (1935), a 5,000-page manuscript that had been delivered to Perkins’s office in several crates. Arguing over one passage, in which a man falls in love, Perkins tells Wolfe the experience should be conveyed as a “lightning bolt,” while Wolfe digresses into a long-winded disquisition about marine life, suggested by the woman’s arms and blue eyes. Perkins would eventually cut 90,000 words from Of Time and the River.

Colin Firth as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Michael Grandage’s Genius.

The synchronous and prodigious efforts of editor and author are conveyed through frenetic montages showing typewriter keys tapping, turning Wolfe’s massive handwritten manuscript into neatly typed pages, which are then editorially red-penciled. We see many shots of an anguished Wolfe, writing—in one scene he is shown standing and writing furiously on the top of his refrigerator, throwing each newly scrawled page to the floor—and a tense Perkins, editing.

The two men are a study in contrasts. In many scenes, Perkins sits, listening calmly, while a disheveled, gesticulating Wolfe stands before him, lecturing him in a grandiose Southern drawl. Jude Law portrays Wolfe as a Shakespearean character, flamboyant and reactive, whose relentless turbulence Perkins generally tolerates, but which some viewers may find exhausting. Firth’s natural British reserve is perfect for playing Perkins, who was emotionally conservative and self-effacing. His one eccentricity was the perpetual wearing, indoors and outdoors, of a fedora. (The Berg bio, but not the film, explains that the hat served several purposes, including giving people the impression of Perkins’s great busyness, as if he was always ready to leave the office and couldn’t be stopped to talk, and also helping him hear by pushing his ears forward.)

On occasion, Wolfe’s friendship is shown to become a license for Perkins to let his hair down, and the film shows the two men having fun together, including drinking martinis and a visit to a Harlem jazz club. For Wolfe, Perkins’s friendship was an anchor to a saner world than his own thoughts, which often swirled tumultuously in a kind of literary madness. Friendship was also rare for Wolfe, who tells Perkins, “In all my heart, ’til I met you, I never had a friend.” In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Wolfe takes Perkins to Brooklyn, where they break into the apartment in which, as Wolfe explains, he first lived when he arrived in New York and where he wrote his first novel. When they go out on the roof and look upon an awe-inspiring Manhattan skyline, Wolfe rests his head on Perkins’s shoulder, a moment memorable for the comforting closeness they presumably feel.

Stylistically, the film successfully immerses the viewer into New York City in the Jazz Age (a term Fitzgerald coined), with pedestrians moving along crowded streets in slow motion, a motif suggesting common people going about everyday life, while a few great ones labor to describe it. The cinematography uses a desaturated color scheme, so that the film often looks as if it had been shot in black and white, with dark office interiors illuminated by shafts of light entering windows.

We get a vivid sense of Perkins’s home life, with several scenes showing the Perkins family, including five daughters, eating dinner and relaxing together. Louise Perkins (Laura Linney), an aspiring playwright, played second fiddle to her husband, who did not take her career as seriously as his own. When she scolds her husband for not making time to join her and their children for a family vacation, he says, “Louise, a writer like Tom, I get once in a lifetime,” to which she replies, “You get your daughters for the same lifetime.” Mrs. Perkins must have been painfully aware that the free-spirited, tempestuous Wolfe had found a father as well as a friend in her strait-laced, mild-mannered spouse and that Wolfe represented the son Perkins never had.

Both men are shown to value their work far more than the women in their lives. Nicole Kidman plays Wolfe’s married, much older mistress, Aline Bernstein, one of the most respected set and costume designers of her time. Kidman’s portrayal of Bernstein’s Sturm und Drang often seems exaggerated, even if Bernstein was known to be tempestuous and her romantic involvement with Wolfe turbulent. Bernstein had left her own husband and children to pursue an obsessive relationship with the young author, and is shown to be jealous of everybody, including Perkins, the characters in Wolfe’s novels, or even his readers, as when a fan who recognizes the author in a restaurant pulls him away to meet with friends.

Wolfe ignores Bernstein’s frequent demands on his time, including even a justifiably impassioned request that he attend the opening night of her new play. After Perkins is witness to Wolfe making light of his lover’s suicide attempt, we see a silent Perkins presumably pondering Wolfe’s enormous insensitivity. But later, when Bernstein—who now feels she’s been abandoned and has lost Wolfe to her rival, his editor—pulls a gun on Perkins in his office, he tells her she’s “overwriting the scene.” Both Wolfe and Perkins—products of their times—often failed to take women seriously.

Wolfe believed everything that could be said about life could be found between the covers of a novel, at least one written by him. In Genius, Wolfe grandiosely reads lines from his novels aloud, while Perkins reads other lines in measured tones. The readings are beautiful to listen to, but unless one has read Wolfe, they can seem somewhat mystifying. In Wolfe’s first two novels, he spoke through his characters about his life and his parents with great lyric power, imbuing his epic-sized novels, romantic in tone, with a strong sense of time and place. Their themes are man’s essential aloneness and unknowability, the passage of time, and a sense of loss, as evidenced in the title of his later novel, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Only his first two novels are covered in the film. Look Homeward, Angel was based on Wolfe’s youth in Asheville, where he lived in his mother’s boardinghouse. Publication of the novel triggered an outpouring of anger and resentment in Asheville, where many people, Wolfe’s family included, recognized themselves in the characters. His second novel, Of Time and the River, continued the story.

Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein in Michael Grandage’s Genius.

Other writers appear in the film primarily as cameos, mainly to show that Perkins extended himself to all his authors. In Perkins’s office, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), at a creatively and emotionally challenging period in his life, pleads for yet another advance on his declining royalties to help pay the costs of institutionalizing his mentally ill wife, Zelda. We meet Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) only once, on a pier, after he has hooked a large swordfish, and the two pose together for a snapshot. Hemingway—who often vanished to remote parts of the world—tells Perkins that he’ll have to wait to review the proofs of his new book because he’s going to Spain, where war seems imminent, and he can feel “the old lucha por la vida, you know?”

In this regard, some viewers might have appreciated seeing something about one of Perkins’s female authors, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling) or Taylor Caldwell, the best-selling author of more than forty novels. The film also omits Perkins’s mainly epistolary twenty-five-year friendship with Elizabeth Lemmon, a Virginia socialite.

Dramatically, the later stages of this literary bromance make it clear that you can love someone but sometimes find him insufferable. In Genius, after Wolfe mocks Zelda in front of Fitzgerald and others at a dinner gathering, Perkins angrily escorts Wolfe out of his home and upbraids him for his cruelty. Wolfe counterattacks, calling Perkins “dead” with responsibility. Perkins then attacks Wolfe for his utter lack of empathy.

One reason for the eventual souring of Wolfe’s relationship with Perkins was the novelist’s unhappiness over Of Time and the River. In the middle of Genius, Perkins himself wonders whether he should have cut any of it, questioning whether his editing made the novel better or just different. But when Wolfe attacks Perkins for taking credit for his success, Perkins is deeply hurt. Bernstein had earlier warned Perkins that Wolfe charms people into loving him, and then deserts them. When Wolfe breaks with Perkins, is it independence Wolfe wants (from a father figure)? Did his insecurity slide into paranoia? Did Wolfe worry that he was nobody without Perkins? In Genius, after Wolfe collapses on a beach and is diagnosed with a “myriad” of brain tumors, he apologizes to Perkins in a letter written from his hospital deathbed, saying he will never forget him.            

The word “genius” was applied to Wolfe after his first novel was wildly successful, then again after his second novel was published, when he was compared to Joyce, Dickens, and Proust. Perkins never made claim to brilliance himself, although the Berg bio and Genius make the claim for him. Clearly, his patience for difficult people was brilliant. In the film, Fitzgerald says of Perkins, “That man has a genius for friendship.”

Valerie Kaufman is a freelance author who also teaches film and writing.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2