Hemingway's Fiery Rival
Alex, Fuller, Ra, Newsweek
Byline: Alexandra Fuller
War reporter Martha Gellhorn finally gets her due.
Ernest Hemingway endures: his inimitable writing; his dramatic death by self-inflicted gunshot at the relatively young age of 61; his big-game hunting, hard-drinking, macho persona; his four wives. But like many oft-married celebrities--think Henry VIII or Elizabeth Taylor (we all remember Richard Burton, but who knows much about Mike Todd?)--many of those spouses have tended to become footnotes in the lives of their charismatic spouses. In the case of Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third of four wives, that oversight seems particularly egregious.
It seems possible however that Gellhorn is about to walk out of Hemingway's penumbra into her own well-deserved spotlight thanks to a new HBO movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, directed by Philip Kaufman (whose credits include The Right Stuff). As Kaufman demonstrates, Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) was likely Hemingway's (Clive Owen) most challenging and interesting partner, and the only of his wives to stand up to his unpleasant sadism. Next to her gritty self-reliance, Hemingway's frequent tantrums and fatally fragile ego are brilliantly exposed as the tiresome qualities of an overindulged man-child.
"Love? Must we?" asks the older Gellhorn of an interviewer at the start of the film. Disdainfully punctuated by the exhale of cigarette smoke, the question is obviously rhetorical. Addictively interested "to what's happening on the outside," Gellhorn is almost pathologically unromantic. "I was probably the worst bed partner on five continents," she declares matter-of-factly. "All my life, idiotically, I thought sex mattered so desperately to the man who wanted it that to withhold it was like withholding bread, an act of selfishness." This grand dame is the Gellhorn we know from her own writing: impatient, prolific, and ever watchful of her own posterity.
But Kidman manages quietly to evoke something else of this ferocious, aging journalist--an underlying and unsettling degree of disappointment and hurt. Gellhorn may have been one of the most respected war correspondents of her generation, from her coverage of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s until the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, but we are left in no doubt that her groundbreaking life came at a steep personal price. Gellhorn is a woman who has seen too much horror, and while she may have retained the legendary capacity to feel compassion for a complete stranger in one of her dispatches from the world's battlefields, she has foresworn personal intimacy to do so. "We were good in war," Gellhorn says of her relationship with Hemingway, "and when there was no war, we made our own." What the two shared was not tenderness but a competitive passion that gave their relationship a self-destructing fuse.
Having cemented their adulterous relationship while both were covering the Spanish Civil War (at the time, Hemingway was still married to Pauline Pfeiffer, a devout Catholic), the two were married in 1940. Gellhorn was 32, Hemingway was 41. Although he wanted it more than she did--Gellhorn warns Hemingway from the start that she has sworn off the institution--and the relationship was volatile from the start, they were for a few years, the literary A-list couple of their time. She was blonde, ambitious, and fearless. …