Saturday, August 25, 2012

Flashback, August 1957: Film of Hemingway’s ‘Sun Also Rises’ Opens

The generally dismal tradition of cinematic adaptations of Ernest Hemingway works continued, as Hollywood’s version of his Lost Generation classic, The Sun Also Rises, opened this week 55 years ago. The gorgeous Cinemascope presentation, on-location shooting in France, Spain, and Mexico, a respected producer and director, and major stars including Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, and Errol Flynn had executives at studio Twentieth-Century Fox dreaming of a “fiesta” (Hemingway’s original title for the book), but over time it turned out to be “siesta” at the box office.

It was one of the most expensive movies ever made up to that time by Fox (which, a mere five years later, would learn the true meaning of "cost overruns" with Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra). It was a “prestige” film, based on one of the most acclaimed works by an American Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Unfortunately, it all proved a vast disappointment. All hands should have taken a deep breath before they plunged into this project.

It wasn’t the first time that Hollywood swooned over Papa Hemingway. It all began back in 1932, with the first version of A Farewell to Arms. Even what was deemed his worst novel to date, To Have and Have Not, became a vehicle for Bogie and Bacall in 1944 (though precious little of the original source showed up in the screenplay by William Faulkner, another eventual Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner.)

What captivated Hollywood in the first place were the novelist’s much-hailed dialogue and deft scene creation. Hemingway’s characters, far more than most, sounded like real people, with distinctive ironies and sarcastic remarks included. There was, for instance, Mike Campbell’s response to a question about how he went bankrupt: “two ways . . . gradually and then suddenly.” Screenwriters need hardly create any lines: they were all there in the original, waiting to be harvested.

As for the scene creation: It is demonstrated quite well below, early in the novel. The passage works on the page, as an example of how Hemingway’s prose, at its best, could not only be athletic and vigorous but almost lyrical. For a screenwriter, it was almost made to order—not only a means of capitalizing on the location shooting in Paris, but of conveying emotion (the mutual despair of expatriate journalist Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, over their inability to consummate their relationship) entirely through cinematography—a director’s dream.

The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then leveled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the sanding bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett’s hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue de Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett’s face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down."

Several problems, however, made the novel more nettlesome to adapt than virtually any other Hemingway work:

*Little or no plot. For all the staggering amounts of drinking, sleeping around, and fighting that occur, the novel’s characters end up more or less where they started. In a medium such as cinema that rests on movement, that emphasis is problematic. (At least A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls had battle scenes, along with love affairs.) Hemingway concealed this well enough on the printed page with laconic prose and a very manageable (200-300) pages that was not the slightest bit padded. The men who eventually adapted the property, however, not only allowed the running time to reach 129 minutes, but left the pace slacken so much that editing out a half hour would only have improved matters.

* Sexual frankness. It was not only Jake’s horrible war injury that made the book run afoul of morals restrictions in the movie industry’s censorship office, the Production Code Administration (PCA). Brett, to use the modern phrase, is a cougar, and several other characters bed with abandon.

*World-weary, even despairing characters. Nobody in the circle of Jake Barnes does anything heroic. More often than not, they are self-pitying or self-destructive (admittedly, precisely Hemingway’s point on how unmanned and lost civilization became after the Great War). Finding a character that the audience could root for would be difficult.

*Anti-semitism. The most serious blemishes on the novel for readers today are the characters’ insults directed at Robert Cohn. There was no way, after the Holocaust, that such rancid attitudes would make it on screen. Instead, the screenplay emphasized a trait that Hemingway also was at pains to convey: that Cohn was a pain in the neck who didn’t know when to go away and leave well enough alone.

Ann Harding had bought this maddeningly elusive property in 1934 as a vehicle for herself to play the nymphomaniacal lush Lady Brett. It might have been a way for the patrician-looking Harding to break out of her stereotype as a suffering, virtuous patrician, but a) she was American, not British, b) she gave up Hollywood to wed in 1937, and c) by the time she returned to acting five years later, she was considered too old for the role. The other projected lead, Leslie Howard as Jake Barnes, would have been equally inappropriate: he was not only old (his early 40s), but was British rather than American.

In any case, Harding and her collaborators had an impossible time getting the film off the ground because of the opposition of  PCA head Joseph Breen. By 1949, however, the best chance for a fine adaptation came when Harding sold the rights to the property to Howard Hawks.

It wasn’t only that Hawks had created a genuinely interesting motion picture out of To Have and Have Not, but also that, in Only Angels Have Wings, he had demonstrated an affinity for the type of themes and characters Hemingway had explored: men of action caught in situations of high risk and drama, with a stray woman who comes between the male friends. Better yet would have been the projected male lead: Montgomery Clift, not yet, at 28, too old for the role, and blessed with an ability to express turbulent emotions beneath his great looks--altogether, a leading man with a character actor's ability to capture every nuance in a role

The PCA, however, remained too high a barrier, and Hawks withdrew several years later, selling his interest in the property to Twentieth-Century Fox. Darryl Zanuck, the longtime head of the studio, now on his own as an independent producer, had already made two films from Hemingway short stories, The Macomber Affair (1947) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952).

For this new project, Zanuck enlisted two people he was associated with most closely at Fox: director Henry King and Tyrone Power. The trio were, perhaps, too comfortable with each other, for otherwise they would have asked the essential question: Were they the ones best suited for this particular project?

Henry King was the kind of no-nonsense, versatile veteran of the studio system who had worked steadily all the way back to the silent era. He was highly competent, with a real feel for innovative camera work. What he was not, however, was inspired.

Unbeknownst to all, Tyrone Power was only one year away from a fatal heart attack at age 44. He had been known as “The King of Twentieth-Century Fox” for being that studio’s primary box-office star. He placed great trust and loyalty in King, who had championed him over a reluctant Zanuck for his star-making role in Lloyds of London. By this time, two decades later, Zanuck believed the actor’s human qualities placed him far above virtually all other Tinseltown matinee idols, just as Hemingway’s hero Barnes was fundamentally better than his irresponsible friends.

Power’s looks—considered extraordinary even by Hollywood’s standards—had long interfered with appreciation for his not-inconsiderable talent. That factor would not come into play this time, for his face was heavier and his hairline thinner.

The casting of Power placed at the heart of the film an issue that perhaps no other Hollywood film since the Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer-John Barrymore (actors in their 40s and 50s, playing teenagers) Romeo and Juliet had addressed so starkly: At what point does an actor’s skill compensate for the loss of dramatic realism?

I became interested in watching the film again, over three decades after first seeing it, when I saw a short clip of Power facing off against Mel Ferrer as Barnes’ friend, Robert Cohn. I had forgotten how good Power was in conveying Barnes’ surface hard-boiled nature. After seeing the film in its entirety again, I found that he had also evoked the character’s innate decency, creating deep audience sympathy.  To an extent, even the actor’s aging, exposed so pitilessly on the big screen, had its advantages in this regard: Power’s Barnes looks as if life has beaten the hell out of him.

Yet he is in no way what Hemingway intended: a twentysomething man who should be enjoying the prime of life, but cannot because of a war wound that has left him impotent. At the same time, it would be difficult to find an actor of the right age with the technical skill to suggest this agony. It would require a Clift, a Brando, a Dean.

The young actors that were cast in The Sun Also Rises could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be placed in such exalted company. Chanteuse Juliette Greco owed  her role as a prostitute, in a small but crucial scene with Power, to a simple fact: she was Zanuck’s girlfriend at the time.

As for Robert Evans, the lucky streak that began earlier in the year--when Norma Shearer had liked the good-looking youth at the poolside of a hotel enough to suggest him to play her husband, Irving Thalberg, in Man of a Thousand Faces—continued, as Zanuck, observing him in the lobby of a New York hotel, thought he would be great as Hemingway’s brave bullfighter, Pedro Romero. Yet Evans' daily rushes were so bad that other cast members joined with the novelist in insisting he needed to go. Zanuck’s abrupt dismissal of the idea—“The kid stays in the picture”—might have furnished the title of the memoir of the future Paramount production head. But the resulting scenes were so embarrassing that they also confirmed Evans’ later, refreshingly candid evaluation of his thespian ability: By the end of the fifties, he was "sure of one thing: I was a half-assed actor."

Ava Gardner was only slightly older than Brett in the novel (34); drinking hadn't yet eroded the beauty that drove Frank Sinatra clear around the bend; like Brett, she had been known to cavort with bullfighters; and Hemingway's description of the friend he fondly called "Daughter"--"the most exciting woman of her generation"--could easily apply to Brett. She might not, technically, be the most accomplished actress, and her Southern accent made it a bit hard to accept her as the titled Lady Brett, but she brought an identification with the hard-drinking, desperate glamor girl  to the role.

The most glaringly age-inappropriate actor might, paradoxically, also have been the one who worked out best. Intense drinking had put Errol Flynn a very, very long way from his swashbuckling roles as Robin Hood and Captain Blood at Warner Brothers, but nobody questioned his authenticity as the irresponsible, wisecracking, seriously alcoholic Campbell. In fact, Flynn brought such brio to the part at points (e.g., in a glorious bit of improvising, letting loose a dollar bill in the "running of the bulls" scene) that he was even mentioned as a possible Oscar nominee as Best Supporting Actor. (His remaining roles in the year he had left before his untimely death--The Roots of Heaven and Too Much, Too Soon--also capitalized on his reputation as a lush.)

As with his other work adapted to film, Hemingway had taken the money for the rights to his novel without retaining creative control. That, combined with Gardner's reports of difficulties during filming, led him to dismiss the movie as a "travelogue." Indeed, it had lost a good deal of the spare toughness of the novel. (To create the possibility of a happy ending, screenwriter Peter Viertel inexcusably eliminated one of the most bitingly ironic lines in all of literature, Jake's response to Brett's claim that the two of them could have had a "fabulous time together": "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?")

Yet much of Hemingway's dialogue did make it to the screen, and the basic outlines of his novel could still be seen. Such was not the case 27 years later, when NBC ran a mini-series. This time, the principals were age-appropriate, and, in at least one case--Jane Seymour as Brett--superior to the original actors. But, in an attempt to add plot, whole scenes never even contemplated by Hemingway were created (e.g., Romero kills an admirer of Brett's who takes to stalking her).

Oh, a film or TV version of the book that is perfectly cast, well-written, and reasonably faithful to one of the pioneering works of modern literature: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

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