Hemingway & Woody Allen: An Odd Couple
The other night I watched “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s movie about a time traveler who returns to Paris in the Twenties and runs into all the big name ex-pat artists. It’s a nice idea and one that most any writer wishes were possible, for that period with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all the rest was a time of great romance – at least from the vantage point of the 21st century. True, sanitation was poor and money was tight, for all except Scott and Zelda, but everyone was young and enthusiastic about the arts, and many from that period are still regarded, rightly, as significant.
But the great flaw of the movie, in my view, is Woody Allen’s depiction of Hemingway. Here Hemingway is pretty much a loud mouthed drunken lout, spouting Hemingway-isms of the kind that the annual bad writing contests gleefully imitate.
Let it be said first that Hemingway could be, and often was, a loud mouthed drunken lout. That’s public record, and I think it was his youngest son who referred to him as a “gin soaked monster.” Hemingway was not particular lucky with his family. His father committed suicide. His mother, after reading his first novel, said that “every page filled me with sick loathing.” Yes, his mother. And the youngest son who made that remark underwent a sex change operation and died in in a woman’s prison after being arrested for indecent exposure. Further, Hemingway was married four times. Each of his wives had some good qualities. If their individual qualities could have been combined into one woman, they might have made a perfect wife for him. But that, of course, was not to be.
So, if Hemingway felt like taking a drink now and then, perhaps it’s understandable.
He was his own worst enemy and his own best press agent, too. He was good copy, and his antics always made good headlines. But sometimes those headlines got in the way of a fair appreciation of his work.
For he could write beautifully. He was serious about his writing and worked diligently at it, and it was only near the end of his life that he lost his ‘voice’ and started imitating what he used to be and not quite getting it right. But if you are interested in his best work, read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Read his short stories, too. And, perhaps, The Old Man and the Sea. Then you will understand why he is still talked about, not for his personality, but for his art. His journalism is worth a look, too, but you won’t miss much if you skip the rest of his stuff, although here and there he shows flashes of his old brilliance.
Shameless plug – I wrote a book called The Hemingway Patrols. I think it’s a pretty good insight into the man and his writing as well as his service in WW2. Woody Allen should have read it before he wrote the script for “Midnight in Paris.” He might have come up with a more balanced portrait, instead of the cartoon he gave us. Maybe he was just going for laughs. If so, he missed the mark.
What’s more, Allen couldn’t resist setting up and knocking down other straw men, namely the Ugly American family the hero almost marries into. But you expect that from someone with Woody’s political views, and so you essentially ignore it. Otherwise, it’s a fine movie. Marion Cotillard is about perfect as the hero’s idealized Parisienne. Any ex-pat artist in Paris would gladly have exchanged his typewriter for just an hour or so of her company – assuming there was vin rouge, too.