HBO’s ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ couples passion and war
Not too many people could stand up to macho Ernest Hemingway. Martha Gellhorn did.
The two lived a great and ultimately sad love story that would have been a worthy subject of their writing, he the great American novelist, she a fearless war correspondent and one of the best journalists of her day.
Hemingway is known to nearly everyone, at least by name and image, while Gellhorn, his third wife, is not. That may change with HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn (Monday, 9 ET/PT), a 2½-hour film that chronicles their deep, tumultuous relationship during a time when they witnessed war, chaos and some of the 20th century’s most significant moments.
For Nicole Kidman, who plays Gellhorn, the character was a revelation. “I had no idea about this woman, who was so courageous and brave in her exploration of humanity,” the actress says.
Clive Owen, Hemingway to Kidman’s Gellhorn, marvels at their relationship. “It was a very explosive coming together. They got together in the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, were both in a very extreme situation, and were hugely attracted to each other,” he says. “They were adventurers living this epic romance.”
Hemingway & Gellhorn tracks a turbulent time in their lives and in the world, following them to Spain, China and Europe during World War II. “It’s a world at war. If they had lived in another time, their life might have been different,” director Philip Kaufman says. “But the world was in upheaval, fascism was on the rise, and she had to fight fascism, too, in all its incarnations. He did, too.”
Fireworks and play
The actors, sitting for an interview in a hotel suite earlier this year, seem to share a relaxation with each other that contrasts with the intensity of their on-screen pairing — which features figurative and literal fireworks, including a steamy love scene as bombs drop in Madrid. Such a comfort level is likely beneficial for actors thrown into the maelstrom of an intense personal and physical relationship. “There were some very passionate, serious scenes in the movie, but always a sense of play, I found,” Owen says. “I had a great time working with Nicole.”
“I had the best time,” Kidman says. “I think you find someone who is kindred in spirit, and there was a trust there. I felt very at ease. There’s Clive, me and Phil, so it’s really sort of a threesome. Phil would love that, by the way,” she says with a throaty laugh.
“Together, (they have) amazing chemistry. You really believe in the relationship,” says HBO Films president Len Amato, who gave the green light to the film. And “they’re just absolutely convincing in terms of their own individual ambition in each of these characters and the psychological makeup.”
Kidman says she takes special care when portraying real people. “You don’t want to be trying to capture the physicality of the character without finding the core,” she says. “That, for me, is not to be trapped by what she looked like or sounded like, but more to find out what made her think, feel, love, cry. That’s the hardest thing.”
Owen, who had the additionally tough task of playing a larger-than-life figure whom many people believe they know, immersed himself in Hemingway’s works and traveled to some of his favorite spots, including Cuba.
A top-notch supporting cast, including Robert Duvall, David Strathairn, Rodrigo Santoro, Molly Parker, Parker Posey and Tony Shalhoub, plays other historical figures. Kaufman merged the actors with archival footage, a technique he used to great effect in such films as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Right Stuff. San Francisco and its environs serve as a stand-in for all domestic and international locations, including Cuba, Spain and China.
Passion fueled the Hemingway-Gellhorn relationship, internally and externally, personally and professionally. As the film relates, they meet in 1936 at Sloppy Joe’s, a Hemingway haunt in Key West, but their real bonding comes later in Madrid, where both had traveled for the Spanish Civil War.
Gellhorn, a newcomer to war correspondence, learned from Hemingway, a literary giant. Part of it “is learning grace under pressure, to accept the pressure and then tell the world about the things that you’re seeing,” Kidman says. Hemingway, in turn, dedicated his novel about the war, For Whom the Bell Tolls, to Gellhorn.
They later settled in Cuba, living a life of hard work and high style, partying the nights away as they are treated like today’s A-list Hollywood celebrities. “They had fun together. Sexually, they were very compatible, and on top of that, they could go out and party. She was a woman who could absolutely keep up with him,” Kidman says.
“The notion of celebrity was very different then. When you were famous, it was a different kind of thing than it is now,” Owen says. “It’s such a wide-open bonfire these days. It was a little selective in those days.”
“Imagine if someone attacked a critic,” the way Hemingway does in the film, Kidman says. “That would be on YouTube, wouldn’t it?”
“He wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Owen responds. “With all the drinking, all the hanging in his favorite bar, if he was around today, it would be impossible to do that. He’d be hounded everywhere he went.”
In the film, Hemingway wants to stay in Cuba and write, with Gellhorn at his side. Gellhorn has a hunger to see and cover the world. She returns from reporting on Russia’s invasion of Finland to find a dissolute Hemingway partying with his cronies. He tries to prevent her from covering WWII, but she finds a way, even as Hemingway finds the woman who would become his fourth wife.
“I think the very thing that probably attracted him in the first place was the thing that broke them, as well. She was fiercely intelligent and independent. They had this passionate coming together, but over time, she became more and more serious and, in some ways, he slightly less. I think that’s what sort of destroyed it,” Owen says.
Gellhorn’s truest love, in the end, may have been serving as a witness to the world.
“Her main thrust as a woman was not as a mother or a wife. It was as a career woman, a journalist and a war correspondent, and I think that was important for her, that she was recognized as that. We need women like that in the world,” says Kidman, who says her recent main focus has been “wifing and mothering.” She is married to musician Keith Urban and has four children.
Kidman has seen the effects of war on people as a Goodwill Ambassador of U.N. Women, whose goal is to support women’s human rights around the world and end violence against women.
“I think you act as a conduit for a lot of things you see. I’ve seen things that are just travesties. I’ve seen the ramifications of war and war crime and violence against women. That’s certainly something that drew me to Martha, because it’s probably something that runs deep through me,” Kidman says. “As much as this is a film for men and women, I’m very proud that my daughters will see this woman who really stood up for what she believed in.”
As a journalist, Gellhorn had a gift for writing about how the turmoil of war affected ordinary people, while other reporters, mostly men, were focused on the battles themselves.
“She wrote brilliantly about the effects of war and unhappiness and loneliness and poverty on people who had been marginalized, people who had been attacked. That was really her strength,” says Caroline Moorehead, a Gellhorn biographer who served as a consultant on the film. “She had huge sympathy for underdogs and victims.”
Hemingway & Gellhorn is the kind of story made for the movies, except Hollywood isn’t making many of these movies anymore, at least not for theaters. That’s where HBO comes in. “This isn’t a feature film,” says Kidman. “That’s why you can play it out over 2½ hours. You wouldn’t get this made as a film for cinema right now.”
HBO’s Amato says the film is a good fit for the pay-cable network. “It’s a perfect blend of political awakening, for the characters and the world, blended with a really passionate love story that grabs you, that you emotionally connect to.”
After the couple splits, the film follows the characters as they age, with Owen and especially Kidman undergoing dramatic transformations courtesy of the makeup team.
“When I first saw Nicole, it was actually freaking me out. It was so weird,” Owen says.
“I didn’t even recognize him,” Kidman says. “I was like, ‘Who’s that old guy coming out of Clive’s trailer?’ ”
Hemingway, on the decline, eventually killed himself in 1961 at age 61, while Gellhorn continued traveling and reporting into the 1980s, when she was in her 80s. Nearly blind, she also killed herself, in 1998. “There was this amazing love story, and out of it came the tragedy of Ernest Hemingway and the amazing career of Martha Gellhorn, who was sort of lost by history,” Kaufman says. “I’m hoping that this film will bring people back to really reading Martha Gellhorn and really re-evaluating Hemingway.”
"I’d like to be wise. You have to go through a lot to get there, but I’m willing to go through a lot." - Nicole Kidman