Monday, June 21, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: The Whole Wide World (1996)

The Whole Wide World, based on the 1986 memoir One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis, is a small gem. Set in the early ‘30s, the picture tells the story of the turbulent relationship between pulp writer Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), who created Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger), a young Texas schoolteacher who had aspirations to be a writer. Director Dan Ireland provides a probing and touching appraisal of the gulf between the genders and how these two innocents attempt to bridge it. Where Price craves experience and is deeply drawn to Howard’s fervid imagination; Howard, who can only live in the world of his imagination, is initially drawn to Novalyne’s passionate desire to take in the whole wide world.

D’Onofrio’s performance, both boisterous and stirring, shows Howard as a blustering country bumpkin whose sensitivities are masked by his macho posturing. Yet Ireland and D’Onofrio also get at a deeper conflict in Howard, which is his oedipal attachment to his sick mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that prevents him from forming any adult relationship with another woman. Zellweger, in one of her first film roles, provides the kind of verve that never turns precious or self-consciously life-affirming. Novalyne is a proper girl, but one with a bold temperament and a thirst for adventure. Howard’s eccentricities, sketched with anguish and humour, stir not only Novalyne’s desire to write but also her yearnings for passionate romance (which Howard can’t reciprocate).

The movie has what many could call a conventional narrative, but the material (about an unconsummated passionate affair) isn’t conventional at all. The Whole Wide World is about how a man desperately tries to outgrow his attachment to his mother so that he can learn to love a woman. Ireland, and the cast, takes the kind of emotional risks that continually pay off. Although forgotten and abandoned in the years following its release, The Whole Wide World is one of the most genuinely affecting pictures of its time.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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