In Ken Burns' latest, you'll like Hemingway the artist more than Hemingway the man
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Ken Burns' latest documentary bolsters the argument that Ernest Hemingway was the greatest writer of the 20th century. Actor Jeff Daniels triggers goose bumps while reading moving passages. Renowned authors, including Minnesota native Tim O'Brien, sing their praises. The late John McCain gushes over "For Whom the Bell Tolls" as if it were the U.S. Constitution.
But the most memorable moment in "Hemingway," a six-hour documentary premiering Monday night on PBS, is less than flattering. It centers on Hemingway rejecting a request to write a favorable blurb for James Jones' "From Here to Eternity."
His response to the publisher was beyond brutal.
"I probably should reread it again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot," Hemingway wrote in a letter that also included a racial epithet. "I hope [Jones] kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales."
After being shown the letter, the writers who spend most of the film celebrating their literary hero are practically speechless. You might be, too.
After the three episodes, airing through Wednesday, you're likely to be more impressed than ever with Hemingway the artist and less so with Hemingway the human.
As Daniels put it earlier this year during a virtual interview with Burns and co-director Lynn Novick: "Lucky for him, he could write."
Hemingway's dismissal of Jones' work, which would go on to win the National Book Award and be made into an Oscar-winning movie, may have stemmed from jealousy. His own World War II novel, "Across the River and Into the Trees," was a flop. But the "Eternity" incident isn't the only exploration of Hemingway's dark side.
"Papa" could be cruel to his children. He verbally abused more than one of his four wives, trading them in like used cars. He tortured close friends, even rehearsing his eventual suicide for them at parties.
Novick was all too aware of Hemingway's shortcomings when she and Burns started discussing the project 20 years ago.
"I felt pretty clearly that I didn't like Hemingway the man and I wasn't sure how I was going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer," said Novick, who previously partnered with Burns on "The Vietnam War" and "Prohibition."
"He was really unkind and hurtful to people and self-centered. And he had a talent for becoming alienated from people who cared about him, a pretty impressive talent, and hurting people in the way he betrayed them in his work."
But in their research, the directors also garnered sympathy for their subject.
In Monday's premiere episode, we learn of Hemingway's traumatic childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, with a manic-depressive father and a domineering mother forced to abandon her dreams of becoming an opera star. Later, viewers learn of devastating heartbreak and a war injury that almost killed him. He also drank. A lot.
It's hard to completely dislike a man when he's being represented by the man who played Atticus Finch on Broadway. Daniels, who earned a Tony nomination for the stage version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and owns two Emmys, never appears on screen. But his voice speaks volumes, delivering Hemingway's words in a baby-soft, unpretentious manner.
"You don't have to worry about anything other than the sound and getting inside of him, telling the truth of him without worrying about whether externally you're doing anything to help that along or not," said Daniels, who heads an all-star cast that includes Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Clarkson and Meryl Streep as Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's most stubborn lover.
"It is very freeing, in a way," Daniels added. "It helps you bear down, do a deep dive into what is he telling us, what is he saying, as if he's just saying it to one other person."
Daniels' performance helped Novick warm to her subject.
"Maybe it was looking at [Hemingway's] face and hearing Jeff read his words and thinking about the mental illness in the family and just the burden of being a hypermasculine man in the world he lived in, what he had to live up to," Novick said. "There's something really sad about that. I felt much more compassion and concern for him, especially toward the end, even though we certainly don't let him off the hook."
And then there's the work. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." "A Farewell to Arms." "The Old Man and the Sea." (The directors gloss over the movie adaptations, although there is footage of Hemingway hunting with Gary Cooper, star of "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls.")
Much of the documentary consists of popular writers, including Edna O'Brien and Abraham Verghese, gushing over their favorite Hemingway stories and acknowledging his influence.
"It's like he changed all the furniture in the room," says "This Boy's Life" author Tobias Wolff near the beginning.
Balancing Hemingway's gifts and shortcomings proved to be one of the greatest challenges in Burns' storied career, in which he's earned the unofficial title of TV's most popular American history professor.
"In some ways this is the most adult film we've ever done," said Burns, who is wrapping up a four-part profile on Muhammad Ali expected to air this fall. "I don't mean that in any ratings way. I mean that in how complicated it is to be able to tolerate contradiction, to be able to tolerate undertow, to understand that he could be one thing and the opposite of that thing at the same time."
"Not to excuse him," he added. "I nevertheless found that, as we often find with great artists, there is this terrible price to pay among those closest to that person and among the outer circle and, of course, most notably to one's self."
This project reminded Burns of 1998's "Frank Lloyd Wright," the first documentary he and Novick co-directed. The architect was also a complicated character. Burns diplomatically called him "disagreeable."
"If you said to me, 'You can get in a car and travel across the country with Wright or Hemingway,' there is no question," he said. "Every single time I am going to go with Hemingway.
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