Martha Gellhorn was the woman who may have out-Hemingway-ed Hemingway. And for a passionate five-year period, she was the author’s great love.
In the HBO film “Hemingway & Gelhorn,” Nicole Kidman breathes life into the one of the most significant – and, as a woman, pioneering – war correspondents of the early 20th Century . She also became the distaff portion of one of the literary world’s most intriguing couplings when she embarked on a hard-living, hard-loving, hard-drinking life of adventure with her era’s most romanticized, machismo writer, Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen). She is credited with inspiring him to write his defining work For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Their love story, which premieres tonight at 9 pm ET on HBO, sheds fresh light on the lives of both a legendary literary giant and a journalist whose historical significance deserves re-exploring, as stars Kidman, Owen and director Philp Kaufman reveal.
Nicole Kidman: I think Martha found her voice when she was with Hemingway. And he was a big part of helping her to, as he says in a line in the film: "Get in the ring and start throwing some punches for what you believe in." The great thing about Gellhorn was that she was the first female war correspondent, really, and she wrote about people's lives, and she wrote with such direct truth. And that's hard to do. When you see, during their relationship, is her sort of formulating who she is as a writer -- she's not Hemingway. She didn't want to write novels. She wants to be a correspondent. And I love that she was the first woman to really do that. You see her on the frontline in the film. You see her hands bloody. She's a sponge, and then she's able to sort of feed that back to America and the world. And she was a trailblazer.
Clive Owen: I think she left a huge mark. She was probably the serious love of his life. The relationship lasted about seven years, and it was incredibly intense, incredibly passionate. He met his match, really. And I think that when they came together, they were fiercely intelligent and fiercely passionate. And they did, for that time, an enormous amount of travelling together. He was at the height of his powers. They were seeing the world. It was an incredible relationship. And there's something very special in the fact that it only lasted a certain amount of time. But the story of the film, really, is more about how she does find her voice, and becomes more passionate about what's going on in the outside world.
Philip Kaufman: It was based, in part, on Martha Gellhorn's memoirs, stories that she wrote. They go to China together, she wrote a book called "Travels with Myself and Another." We went into all the Hemingway material, biographers, and so forth. And the idea was when they first meet in Sloppy Joe's in Key West, it's almost as if when she walks in the room it's a character – Lady Brett Ashley –coming out of his own novel, walking into his life, and then he becomes infatuated with her. And he is, as Clive says, at the height of his powers, and we all know about the Hemingway code of behavior. Probably and possibly the most influential of all American writers. Every writer –Salinger, Norman Mailer, you know – was stamped by Hemingway's style and so forth. And Martha Gellhorn came to learn that code of behavior, and in a sense, transcended – she out-Hemingways Hemingway.
Kidman: He thought he wanted a woman who was an adventurer, and then when he finally gets her and she won't settle down, and she won't be domesticated, he doesn't know what to do with that. It's not the crux of it, but it certainly is something that feeds through the whole story.
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Kaufman: Of course, at the beginning he's married to Pauline and he set up a life in Key West, and at the end he's married to Mary Welsh – both of which are more secure relationships. With Martha, it's the life of adventure, it really is. And that's what was great about Hemingway in a way: was that he wasn't just a writer. There was nobody more diligent than Hemingway at writing, but he also was a man of action. He went into places, and he lived the life of the writer. The idea of grace under pressure, that was the Hemingway code – how you behave was something that, long after Hemingway was gone, Martha Gellhorn carried on. She was an extraordinary woman whose place in history was sort of eclipsed by the passage of time.
Owen: When I took this on, it was a huge challenge and I took a lot of time off before, to get ready for it. And I did a lot of research. I read everything. I immersed myself as much as I could. And there's certainly an element of playing Hemingway that you've got to be on the front with the situations he got into, and the way he was, so he was very much a part you have to attack. There's a danger in playing any part that you go over the top, but we had such a brilliantly written script. It was so smart and intelligent, and sensitive and nuanced, that it was a case of just trusting the material and committing to that, really.
Kidman: I'm attracted to many different roles, but there's times when I feel the need to play something that inspires me. And I think Martha inspires me. And in the same way even playing, say, Virginia Woolf. I learned from playing her. It was kind of a necessity, in the journey of my career, to find these women at times, and tell their stories. And it's a blessing because they're very hard stories to get made a lot of times, and that's why I'm so grateful to HBO for being willing to do this. And, yeah, I love these women that defy the odds, and that burn bright. And I think Martha's story, how it's depicted here, and in the truth of her – she has a line in the film where she says, "All that objectivity sh**t – right?" Sorry to swear, But it's true. She didn't believe in being objective as a journalist. She believed in having an opinion. And I think that's important in this day and age, having an opinion, and being willing to stand up for that no matter who throws sticks and stones.
Kaufman: We had interviews with the real Martha Gellhorn, and those were her lines…They are the real Martha Gellhorn’s words, and as much as possible, we have the words of Hemingway and Gellhorn throughout the movie: famous lines that you can read that you would think couldn't be played in that way. And when you work with genius actors, they have a way of making things real and finding the heart of the matter. At some point, working with these two and the rest of the great actors, my role was to be an audience, just to sit there. And I enjoyed so much watching them work, sometimes I forgot to say "Cut."
Kidman: It really emphasizes that they came together through war. They fed off that drama and that energy, in a way. Two people that would make love through a building collapsing – that says something about who they are! And that's why I think that was important, that scene, because you really see that this is where they're their most comfortable, their most passionate, and that's where their love thrives.