‘Such Friends’: Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe

Visiting my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, this summer, I made a point of seeing the new film Genius, starring Colin Firth as Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, and Jude Law as one of his most unruly writers, Thomas Wolfe. The Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe. Not the other one.

I have been waiting about 30 years for this movie—ever since I did my MBA thesis on Perkins and his work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Wolfe. My major source was the excellent biography that the film is based on, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. Who has also been waiting 30 years for this movie.

As a big fan of all involved, I wasn’t disappointed. When an alert reader first informed me that this movie was being planned a few years ago, Sean Penn was to play Perkins. Good choice.

But Englishman Colin Firth was an even better choice to play this quintessential American. Firth’s accent is not bad, but it is his understatement and even resignation which captures the Perkins I have come to know through my research.

Firth’s fellow Englishman Jude Law exudes the breadth of Wolfe, larger than life and ‘all over the shop,’ as the Irish would say. The best description I’ve read of the North Carolina-born writer was that he was the size of a door. I met the photographer who took a famous photo of Wolfe changing a light bulb without using a step ladder. Law might not be that physically imposing in real life, but he manages to look it here—Acting!

Wolfe with ms crate

Wolfe with the crates of his manuscripts

Genius also captures the time period, although the browns and greys and khakis are a bit underwhelming after a while. My friend who accompanied me also liked the film, but said that it was ‘depressing.’ Of course, all of it takes place during the Depression, so, not surprising.

The women in this ‘literary bromance,’ as it has been described, include Laura Linney [the only American in a major role] who does a good job as the long-suffering Louise Perkins, the editor’s wife. Australian Nicole Kidman plays Wolfe’s mistress, the short, stout, Jewish Mrs. Aline Bernstein. As few people except Wolfe addicts know much about her, Kidman’s portrayal fits well with the film, providing contrast and conflict.

And, in typical Hollywood fashion, most of the story takes place in Manhattan and suburban Connecticut. So it was filmed in London and Manchester, England.

Genius is not going to be in theatres for long, although I hope it comes to the UK—especially the Electric Cinema in Birmingham. The cast may pick up some acting nominations, but without any car chases or explosions, it’s won’t be the breakout hit of the summer.

There is one particular scene, where Perkins is reading the first draft of Wolfe’s book on his commuter train home, as the editor often did, and a very small, sweet, barely noticeable smile forms across Firth’s lips. He recognizes talent.

So if your superheroes are editors and writers—which is probably why you read my blog—I would recommend Genius.

And if you want to know more about Max, Tom, Scott and Ernie, order my book, Manager as Muse from Amazon, and/or have me come speak to your book club.

­­Here is a preview of the film: Genius trailer

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap. Look for our upcoming walking tour about the Paris ‘such friends.’

Next month, more about my work on the biography of John Quinn.

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