'Genius' Is, As The Saying Has It, 10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration

Jun 10, 2016
Originally published on June 13, 2016 9:58 pm

The Roaring '20s are in full roar when we meet fabled editor Maxwell Perkins in Genius, but to look at him, his nose perpetually buried in a manuscript, you'd never guess he is walking through a New York that's populated by flappers and swells swilling bathtub gin.

On the street, on a train, in his office awaiting a new writer, this chaperone to Scribners scribes (who included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) is not at all a demonstrative man. As played by Colin Firth, in fact, you'd be likely to call him "unreadable."

That's as opposed to then-unpublished novelist Thomas Wolfe, who at the age of 28 is demonstrative to a fault as played by Jude Law. Storming into Perkins' office to say — in a torrent of verbiage that mimics his prose style — that he quite prefers to be rejected by mail, he is momentarily silenced by the editor's quiet, "We intend to publish your book."

Only momentarily, though.

The manuscript he has submitted — then called O, Lost, but eventually titled Look Homeward, Angel — is many thousands of words too long. And Wolfe, not being what you might call, disciplined (he scribbles in longhand on scraps of paper piled atop his refrigerator), is not inclined to part with many of them.

Coddled by his married mistress (Nicole Kidman, stern and forbidding), and barely tolerated by Perkins' somewhat neglected wife (Laura Linney, fuming quietly), Wolfe is used to battling the world solo and doesn't quite know what to do with an ally, let alone a cajolingly friendly father figure. He'll learn.

Filmmakers have a notoriously difficult time capturing a writer's creative process because there's nothing cinematic about an author hunched over a typewriter. An editor's process? Oy. But Genius takes a serious stab at making it kinetic. Perkins at one point reads a passage about love at first sight, his voice caressing every word. Firth makes it sound like Shakespeare, words cascading from him in a rush. Gorgeous ... just gorgeous, you think to yourself.

And then he takes out his red pencil.

Director Michael Grandage hails from the stage. So does screenwriter John Logan, so where films about writers are often filled with raised eyebrows rather than raised voices, these guys actively encourage grand gestures. Like the characters, they are intoxicated — not just by jazz or bootleg liquor, but by words.

By the time they're finished with that particular passage about love, editing in offices, and speakeasies and train terminals, they've eliminated hundreds of the pesky things, but the remaining 25 are worth shouting above the din of a train pulling out of the station: "Eugene saw a woman. Her eyes were blue. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound."

"End of Chapter 4," bellows Wolfe as the train recedes.

"Only 98 more to go," Perkins yells back.

Is it too much? Well, sure. Genius is more Thomas Wolfe than Max Perkins, you might say. The film has not fared well with critics, possibly because critics are used to being edited and thus are not inclined to think of editors as heroic.

Obviously they've not met my editor. (Wonder if she'll cut this part. Guess we'll see.)

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Maxwell Perkins is possibly the most famous editor in American history. His stable of writers included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But those literary giants only play bit parts in the new movie "Genius." NPR critic Bob Mondello says the titular genius was Perkins' biggest professional challenge - novelist Thomas Wolfe.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The Roaring '20s are in full roar when we meet editor Max Perkins, but to look at him, you'd never guess. His nose is perpetually buried in a manuscript - on the street, on a train, in his office, awaiting a new writer. As played by Colin Firth, Perkins is not a demonstrative man - unreadable, you might say - as opposed to Jude Law as unpublished novelist Thomas Wolfe, who at the age of 28 is demonstrative to a fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

COLIN FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Please sit down.

JUDE LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) I wasn't even going to come. I prefer to get my rejections in the mail. There's something surgically antiseptic about those familiar words; we regret to inform you. You can't kill the deep roots by cutting off a few top branches. And the roots go deep, Mr. Perkins, and they are unassailable.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe, laughter).

MONDELLO: Surprise, but if the guy talks like that, just imagine how he writes. The manuscript he has submitted, which will end up as "Look Homeward, Angel," is nearly a hundred thousand words too long. And Wolfe, not being what you might call disciplined, is not inclined to part with many of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Every word matters.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) No, it doesn't.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) They're vital, vital.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) You're losing the plot.

MONDELLO: Filmmakers have a notoriously difficult time capturing a writer's creative process because there's nothing cinematic about an author hunched over a typewriter. An editor's process - oy. But "Genius" takes a serious stab at making it kinetic. Perkins, at one point, reads a passage written by Wolfe, his voice caressing every word. It's about love at first sight, and Firth makes it sound like Shakespeare - a torrent of words cascading, gorgeous, just gorgeous. And then he takes out his red pencil.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) He's falling in love. What was it like the first time you fell in love, Tom? Was it cornstalk yellow and pompous chesterfield?

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) It was a lightning bolt.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) And that's what it should be - a lightning bolt. Save all the thunder.

MONDELLO: You can see the light dawn for Wolfe.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) I've got you. Cut that. Cut that. All right, we cut the text out. He saw a woman. Cut...

MONDELLO: He's giving it a real go.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) But it was her eyes that stopped his breath in his throat, that made his heart leap up.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Now cut the words, Wolfe.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) It stopped his breath. Blue, they were...

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Now cut the marine line.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) ...A blue beyond blue like the ocean.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Cliche.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) A blue beyond blue like...

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Like nothing but blue.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) ...A blue he could swim into forever and never - cut this.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) And pick up with...

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Had there ever been such blue? Had there ever been such eyes?

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Don't need the rhetorical.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Why?

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) It's not a lightning bolt. It's a digression.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) A blue beyond blue - no. Her eyes were blue.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Better.

MONDELLO: Director Michael Grandage hails from the stage. So does screenwriter John Logan. So where films about writers are often filled with raised eyebrows rather than raised voices, these guys actively encourage grand gestures. Like the characters, they are intoxicated not just by jazz or bootleg liquor but by words. By the time they're finished with that particular passage, editing in offices and speakeasies and train terminals, they've eliminated hundreds of words. But the remaining 25 are worth shouting above the din of a train pulling out of the station.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GENIUS")

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Eugene saw a woman. Her eyes were blue. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound - period - end of chapter four.

FIRTH: (As Max Perkins) Only 98 more to go!

MONDELLO: Is it too much - well, sure. Overdone and showy, "Genius" is more Tom Wolfe than Max Perkins, you might say. The film has not fared well with critics, possibly because critics are used to being edited and thus are not inclined to think of editors as heroic. Obviously they've not met my editor - wonder if she'll cut this part - guess we'll see. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.