Wrestling Ernest Hemingway
was released at the end of 1993, with very little fanfare, despite being
timed for awards season. It stars two undeniably great actors
- Richard Harris and Robert Duvall - in deeply-felt roles requiring
tight control, subtlety, and wit. The film's themes, however,
may have been a contributing factor in Warner Bros.' lack of marketing
- a lack that compounds the film's central idea, which is the way
the elderly are discounted and ignored by society at large. That
concept was affirmed by the studio sidelining the picture, and by the
Academy, which did not award the film a single nomination.
Francis Joyce (Richard Harris)
is a retired sea captain, obsessed with his physical condition, and
living in a low-end apartment complex somewhere in Florida. He
is ignored by his son, who skips out on Frank's birthday. His
landlord, Helen (Shirley MacLaine), views him with alternating disgust
and pity. Frank is a drunken lout, who dresses horrendously, curses
(appropriately) like a sailor, and has both great admiration and contempt
for women. Meanwhile, Walter (Robert Duvall), on the other hand,
is a quiet, reserved Cuban exile who has lived in Florida for over thirty
years. A retired barber and dancing enthusiast, Walter's days
revolve around crossword puzzles in the park, dancing alone in his apartment,
and visits to the Sweetwater Snack Shop, where the love of his life
is the waitress Elaine (a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock). Walter
has never married, and has slowly screwed up the courage to ask Elaine
to a dance at a local men's club. When Frank and Walter meet,
their tentative acquaintance blossoms into friendship upon developing
a mutual understanding of their different but equally lonely lives.
While others - especially
screenwriter Steve Conrad - are to be commended for their contributions
here, the film is owned by Richard Harris and Robert Duvall, whose performances
are beyond reproach. Harris's Frank is a loudmouthed, grotesque
asshole, and at several points you want someone to punch his face.
He's also a troubled old man whose family has abandoned him, or vice-versa.
Either way, he's filled with regret, and he coasts through the days
drinking Jameson's Irish whiskey, telling old stories about life on
the sea - and about the time he wrestled Ernest Hemingway.
Duvall gives a reserved, inward
performance as Walter. As usual, he relies much on his twinkling
eyes, which are partly obscured behind giant but perfectly chosen Lew
Wasserman-style eyeglasses. His Cuban accent comes off quite successfully,
I think, but more important are the small inflections and bits of body
language he invests in this quiet, tidy, well-groomed man. The
moment he learns that Elaine is moving away is incredibly moving, daring
men everywhere not to well up.
The other key actors here deliver
performances that are perfectly tuned for the picture. Shirley
MacLaine's few scenes have great impact - the slow buildup of sympathy
for Frank, ultimately bordering on a kind of love, is achieved without
much dialogue and great skill. Bullock's appearance predates
her star-making work in A Time to Kill and Speed, and
it's easy to see why she rose to such prominence; she's charming
here, playing a young waitress who regards Walter affectionately although
not sharing his romantic interest. Piper Laurie plays Frank's
foil, an aging Southern belle who frequents the movie theater where
he is briefly employed as an usher. Laurie's character tries
to impart some sense of gentlemanly manners upon Frank, to no avail.
While not entirely depressing
- and in fact, laced with genuine good humor - the story here is
nonetheless a downbeat one. Elderly people like Frank and Walter
are indeed often left alone to fend for themselves. The screenplay
grapples with this issue quite realistically, portraying the solitary
loneliness of these men before they become friends; Frank's grubby
environment and filthy habits in particular drive home the kind of rut
that an older person can fall into when not properly looked after.
This is an aspect of life that is overlooked - and actively avoided
- by most of us, and in some ways that's understandable. No
one wants to age. But if we keep that in mind, perhaps we can
obviate the solitary decline that many of our elders experience.
The feature was released as
part of the Warner Archive Collection, which is somewhat regrettable
in the sense that it won't be readily available via regular retail
channels. Also, as part of the Archive Collection, the technical
treatment of the film is bare-bones, without any bonus features.
The transfer is anamorphic, at 1.78:1, and is alternately crystal-clear
and a bit noisy. I don't know what the source of the transfer
is, but sometimes the visuals are so noisy as to suggest a video source,
which seems unlikely. At other moments, this looks like a typically
excellent Warner product. The inconsistency is distracting, and
A 2.0 stereo track is offered,
and it gets the job done. Nothing fancy here, but dialogue is
at the forefront of the mix, and it's perfectly clear. The score
by Michael Convertino is a bit loud at times. It's a good score
even though it occasionally veers toward the saccharine, and the too-high
volume unhelpfully amplifies this.
The extraordinary performances
by Harris and Duvall; a thoughtful screenplay that embraces important,
under-represented themes; and tender, patient direction by Randa Haines
make Wrestling Ernest Hemingway a memorable, if sad, film that
deserves a much wider audience. Despite its technical limitations
and lack of extras, it is highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.