Taking its cue from the critically acclaimed autobiography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, the film (directed by Michael Grandage and written by John Logan) details the celebrated, though relatively unknown, editor’s relationship with nascent author Thomas Wolfe, arguably most famous for the roman a clef Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins also worked with acclaimed authors F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by a soulful Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (a cheeky Dominic West), both of whom make appearances in the film as a sort of Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present finger-wagging Greek chorus.
You see, Wolfe, as deftly portrayed by Jude Law (suffering only for being a good foot shorter than the real Wolfe) had an outsized personality, as deep-feeling, purple, and egomaniacal as his prose. Law offers us a Wolfe as lovable as he is insufferable, a bounding puppy dog infatuated with his own observations and the thousands of scribbled pages he cranks out by hand.
Perkins, depicted by Colin Firth in one of his most nuanced and affecting performances to date, is the only editor willing to take a chance on this wild- haired North Carolinian Id. Working for Scribner and Sons, Perkins’ job is to take self-indulgent clay and cajole it into popular art. Perkins’ track record was without compare, including shepherding The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, among other classic works.
Firth gives us a peek into the kind of temperament willing to work within a mental health spectrum that might drive lesser humans to drink. The quiet, eccentric joy he gleans from coaching authors to find their voices in a way that connects with readers is subtle, gracious, and moving. (I suspect Firth could make a movie about stamp-collecting that would be transporting.) At one point, one of Perkins’ daughters peering over her father’s shoulders at Wolfe’s manuscript queries, “That’s a very long paragraph.” He replies dryly, “It started four pages ago.”
Law and Firth are aided and abetted by a supporting cast that includes Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman as their respective partners in life, both of whom have creative ambitions of their own, chiefly in the theater. What the film gives us in this quartet is a foursome at varying stages of acceptance and frustration that no art exists in a vacuum and that our success in life, reaching the broadest audience possible with our ideas, requires painful compromise and the occasional deal with the devil.
I suppose I am acutely sensitive to this fact because, as I get older, I watch my theater company evolve and grow and encompass new, younger talents, and I am potentially displaced. And, professionally, as I leave one job with a beloved set of colleagues this fall for a new opportunity, I am trying to adjust my own outsized personality to a new culture, seeking acceptance for the work I’ve done before and the work I have yet to accomplish. I believe this film will speak to anyone engaged in creative endeavors or working in corporate America or both. The question is whether you see yourself more as Wolfe, an extroverted sensualist seeking the approval of mankind for the emotions worn so proudly on one’s sleeve? Or are you a Perkins, stifling your own creative ambitions, in servitude to inspiring the best in others, putting life on hold in the off-chance magic will occur through collaboration? I’m still working on that question for myself, but I’m grateful to this film for posing it.
Are you a writer or an editor? I guess that is for each of us to decide.
________________________________________Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.