Posted on June 9, 2016 at 5:23 pm

Copyright Lionsgate 2016
Copyright Lionsgate 2016

They are legends of 20th century American letters, so renowned a single name suffices: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Rawlings, Lardner, Wolfe. But there is another name — Maxwell Perkins — who was essential to their work and often advisor and support system for their personal lives as well. A. Scott Berg’s brilliant 1978 biography of Perkins has inspired a film that focuses on the most important relationship of Perkins’ professional life — his work on the first two books by Thomas Wolfe.

Intriguingly, all of the major male roles are taken by British and Australian actors playing Americans, and unsurprisingly they are all superb, never missing an final r or an elongated vowel — or worse — showing off. Colin Firth plays Perkins, a mild-mannered man who loved his family but was most alive as a appreciator of literature — he knew it when he received it as a manuscript and he knew how to trim away the underbrush to make it better. His great skill was seeing the story the writer wanted to tell and doing whatever was necessary to get it into the hands of readers.

After Hemingway’s spare, masculine prose and Fitzgerald’s elegant sentences and impeccable structure, Perkins receives a submission from Wolfe that is vital, poetic, and a veritable avalanche of words. “Please tell me it’s double-spaced,” he says, looking at the pile of paper. “That’s a long paragraph,” Perkins daughter remarks, reading over his shoulder. “It started four pages ago,” her father replies.

Like Michelangelo seeing the statue inside the block of marble, Wolfe sees a novel that preserves Wolfe’s torrential style but prunes away the excess. He reassures Wolfe that he will only “shape it a bit, cut off the top branches.” Wolfe knows it needs pruning. “You don’t know how I struggled to cut the gorgon down.”

And Wolfe (Jude Law), who tells Perkins that not just his books but most of all literature is about the search for a father, responds to Perkins’ utter engagement in service to his story. The relationship between a writer and a great editor is one of the most intimate and fulfilling, something between a gifted psychoanalyst, an inspiring teacher, and a fairy godparent — or, just a parent. Perkins, the father of five daughters (charmingly portrayed), found a spiritual son in the troubled genius, and, as Berg’s book argues, was a genius himself in the way he was able to cull out of him timeless classics.

This sympathetic portrayal acknowledges the devastation that can be wrought by geniuses. We see Wolfe’s troubled relationship and careless dismissal of his supporter and mentor, the set designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who is anguished not because she left her husband and children for the much-younger Wolfe, but because once she was successful at getting him launched, he did not need her anymore. We the devastation that can be felt by them as well, as Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) struggles to write and to care for his wife, Zelda, who is near-catatonic. But the hero of the story is the man waiting patiently backstage, ready to supply a discreet loan or a helpful suggestion: Don’t name the book Trimalchio in West Egg — how about The Great Gatsby? The quiet dignity and integrity of Firth’s performance is a tribute to all whose art is a life of service.

Parents should know that this film includes drinking and drunkenness, smoking, abusive behavior, some sexual references, mental illness, and a sad death.

Family discussion: What did Perkins see in Wolfe that the other publishers did not? Do you agree with Wolfe’s statement that literature is about the search for fathers? How was that reflected in his relationship with Perkins?

If you like this, try: the writing of Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and the biography of Maxwell Perkins by A. Scott Berg. You can also read the unedited manuscript originally submitted to Perkins to see if you think he was right.

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