Friday, April 16, 2010
Reeling Backward: "The Whole Wide World"
I've always admired people who try something new late in life. One of personal favorite stories I've written for newspapers was a piece I did on people who became artists in their 30s, 40s and even beyond.
Frank McCourt wrote his first book, "Angela's Ashes," in his mid-60s. Norman MacLean published "A River Runs Through it" at age 75. Perhaps it's not happenstance that they were both autobiographical works, written by people with long teaching careers. And both were made into movies.
"The Whole Wide World" is another in that vein. The 1996 film is based on a memoir, "One Who Walked Alone," written by Novalyne Price Ellis in the 1980s about her friendship and brief romance with Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.
If Howard's name doesn't ring a bell, I'm not surprised. He's one of the most famous authors whom nobody knows.
Howard was a pulp fiction writer whose work mostly appeared in magazines and cheap paperback compilations. During his short life he wrote most every type of fiction -- dramas, Westerns, sports stories, you name it. But he's best known for his work in the nascent sword-and-sorcery genre. He created Conan the Barbarian, whose mighty legs strode the literary and cinematic worlds.
Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger were mostly unknown youngsters back in 1996, although D'Onofrio had a few more high-profile roles ("Full Metal Jacket," "Ed Wood") under his belt than she did, pre-"Jerry Maguire."
D'Onofrio is known to be a scenery-chewing performer, but it fits for this outsized role as a man who lived (and died) by his own rules. Howard rejected conformity and eschewed middle-American values -- and yet he lived with his parents his entire life, and doted on his mother (Ann Wedgeworth).
There's a great scene where Novalyne sees Bob Howard in town with his mother, and you can see the envy in her eyes as she witnesses how considerate and gentlemanly he is around his mother -- exactly unlike the brooding, boasting figure he strikes during their on-again, off-again dating.
One of the most interesting things about the portrayal of Howard is that he wrote his lusty, blood-spattered Conan stories banging away at his typewriter while yelling his prose out loud, like a mad shaman spinning tales of yore. In another scene, Novalyne asks Bob to describe Conan, and he pulls the car over, jumps out in front of a cornfield and proceeds to deliver a thunderous, passionate rendering of an anti-hero who "takes it from no one."
Having read all of Howard's Conan books and knowing a little about him, it's clear that the author saw himself in these stories -- or at least how would like to have been. Of course, it's easier to be an iconoclast when you're swinging a sword against monsters, instead of a chubby outcast in Depression-era Texas.
Directed by Dan Ireland from a script by Michael Scott Myers, "The Whole Wide World" starts out as a mesmerizing portrait of Robert E. Howard that slowly loses steam as the movie's focus shifts over to Novalyne. Part of that reflects the historical record -- Howard and Price never could keep any kind of momentum going in their romance, and they grew farther apart the nearer his death grew.
(I should point out his suicide at age 30 had nothing to do with losing her. Upon hearing that his mother, who had long been in decline with tuberculosis, would never wake again, he walked out to his car and shot himself. He lived a few more hours, and his mother died the next day.)
But the bigger challenge is that making a movie about an amazing, bigger-than-life personality is much easier to do than one about the person who was inspired by them. The half-crazy artist is always going to be more interesting than the ordinary friend or relative who had to put up with them. They don't make movies centering on Vincent Van Gogh's brother or Shakespeare's wife.