Friday, April 5, 2013

Neglected Gem #40: Joe Gould’s Secret (2000)

Stanley Tucci and Ian Holm star in Joe Gould's Secret

Joe Gould’s Secret (2000) tells the oddball story of how, in 1950, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (played by Stanley Tucci, who also directed) finds his muse, an alcoholic, half-mad Greenwich Village eccentric named Joe Gould (Ian Holm) who lives off the generosity of his friends – and off panhandling in the streets and in restaurants – while he claims to be completing a book, an oral history of the world that he refers to as “the O.H.” It reportedly exists in a series of notebooks that Gould deposits all over town, entrusting them to his supporters – like Max Gordon (David Wohl), the producer who runs the Village Vanguard. Mitchell first encounters Gould at a Village lunch counter. Intrigued, he interviews him and talks to the people who seem to know him best: Gordon, Alice Neel (Susan Sarandon, in a lovely small performance), who painted his portrait during the early days of the Depression (she says she gave him three penises because he seemed to require the excess), the gallery owner Vivian Marquis (Patricia Clarkson), and Freddy (Allan Corduner), who runs a poetry club called The Ravens and wears his coat the affected-theatrical way, hanging off his shoulders. They’re an entertaining crowd, though Tucci depicts them a mite quaintly. (You think, by contrast, of the treatment Mazursky gave this setting in his valentine to the Village in the 1950s, Next Stop, Greenwich Village.) 

Writer Joseph Mitchell in 1959
Joe Gould’s Secret feels a little bare-bones, but as it goes on it gets a deeper hold on you than you bargained for. Tucci and the screenwriter, Howard A. Rodman, play with some interesting ideas. When Mitchell publishes a profile of Gould (the first of two) in The New Yorker, Gould becomes all the rage for a brief period – he’s invited to parties, a mysterious patron shells out for his room and board, and so forth. (The title of Mitchell’s first piece, “Professor Seagull,” derives from a moniker one restauranteur invented for him because he claims to speak seagull.) And he attracts the notice of a publisher, Charlie Duell (Steve Martin), who wants to read his book, but Gould is cagey about the manuscript. He says it’s too bulky, that it’s too hard to get hold of because it’s in pieces all over Manhattan; he says he doesn’t want it excerpted yet he won’t let Duell read it to see if it’s publishable in its entirety; then he insists it should come out posthumously. Mitchell begins to suspect that there is no “O.H.” (The movie is inconsistent in its point of view about the book’s existence.) Meanwhile Gould has become a pain in Mitchell’s ass. He interrupts him at home, calling at all hours, and at the magazine; Mitchell resorts to having the receptionist (Celia Weston) lie for him, telling Gould that he’s on vacation. Gould isn’t just disappointed – he’s devastated. This scene has a Pirandellian potency: Gould is like a character who suddenly finds his creator has deserted him. And what does it mean when that creator finally confronts him with his suspicions that Gould hasn’t put to paper more than a few scribblings? Gould hobbles out of Mitchell’s office; he won’t even accept the customary contribution that Mitchell, like all of Gould’s friends, makes when he drops in on them (little donations reminiscent of the ones William Dorrit gets from visitors to the debtors’ prison in which he’s incarcerated in Dickens’s Little Dorrit). In a way, Mitchell has denied the creation of his own creation. This development is upsetting because the picture has attached itself to us almost in the way Gould has attached himself to Mitchell.

Tucci’s performance is mostly a series of flourishes (like his North Carolina accent), but Holm, with hair like steel wool and a bushy beard to match, his smile renegade, his motions squirrelly and unexpected, is charming. He emits an amusing range of sounds, from grunts and squawks to hoarse bellows. This is the good kind of scenery chewing – along the lines of Alec Guinness’s Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth and Sean Connery’s Samson Shillitoe in A Fine Madness. Holm’s Joe Gould is benignly narcissistic, like a small child; he doesn’t comprehend the idea that other people’s lives follow their own course and they might be put out by his interruptions. Everything that happens to him, everything that crosses his mind, assumes an urgency that demands he present himself at a friend’s door and deliver it up.

The movie doesn’t quite pull off its final transfer, from Gould’s life to Mitchell’s, perhaps because Tucci’s performance doesn’t have enough weight. Still it’s fascinating:  Gould turns out to be an alter ego for Mitchell. After publishing his two pieces on Gould, Mitchell stops writing. He tells people he’s working on something, and his celebrated editor, Harold Ross (Patrick Tovatt), allows him to keep his office (and thus his dignity). So, I believe, did his successor, William Shawn, but Mitchell never published another article. Behind the final credits, the somber piano score by Evan Lurie gives way to Dinah Washington’s great, mournful recording, with Count Basie’s Orchestra, of “Am I Asking Too Much (When I Ask You to Love Me)?,” and the movie leaves you sadder than you’d ever imagined it could.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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