Monday, February 14, 2022

Neglected Gem: The Whole Wide World (1996)

Vincent D'Onofrio as Bob Howard in The Whole Wide World (1996).

As Bob Howard, the pulp writer who romances a small-town schoolteacher in 1930’s West Texas in The Whole Wide World, Vincent D’Onofrio gives the best performance of his career. D’Onofrio uses his thick, squarish pugilist’s looks; a walrus mustache he tries out, or an outsize Mexican hats, sits on his face with unexpected ease – absurd appendages you suddenly realize complete him. He gives Howard a physicality that’s both lumbering and exploratory: tracking through the cornfields or down a country road, he always seems to be stretching toward something, a world only he can see. That’s the heart of Bob Howard, the man who created Conan the Barbarian: he lies such a fervent life in his head, rehearsing his stories in the fields or chanting them like fearful verse, bent over his typewriter, that he disappears into it. Conan is Bob’s romantic version of himself, part monster, part seducer. When his ailing mother (Ann Wedgeworth) interrupts him to call him to the phone, she has to shout to be heard above the din of his imagination. For this bold, possessed man, who brawls against the world every time he marks out a new tale, and whose braggadocio and non-conformity mask deep-flowing misanthropy and despair, D’Onofrio seems to invent his own style – a kind of homegrown pulp-theatrical machismo. It’s as if he’d crossed the stylized all-American forthrightness of John Wayne with the romantic sweep and tormented soul credited to nineteenth-century actors like Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth.

The Whole Wide World is the work of the screenwriter Michael Scott Myers and the director Dan Ireland, and it’s enchanting. Modest and resolutely offbeat but lovingly crafted (the soft-edged cinematography is by Claudio Rocha), it’s a truly original piece of filmmaking, and it deserved to be the kind of small picture the audiences sometimes fall in love with. But it passed by pretty much unnoticed. Even the usually programmatic composer, Hans Zimmer, seems to have been caught up in the movie’s spell: he wrote an evocative and often witty score that suggests, in its small way, the kind of experimentation Aaron Copland went for in his soundtracks.

RenĂ©e Zellweger plays Novalyne Price, the young teacher and hopeful short-story writer who becomes enamored of Bob and tries to draw him out of his isolation. Their courtship has a comic intensity brought on by her determination and his tendency to back off unexpectedly and then, just as suddenly, come charging at her like an offended bull. Zellweger plays Novalyne with a mixture of curiosity and raucousness that reminded me of Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here, but her fiery Texas style – she never evades a fight – has a soft, silky underlayer. These two are remarkable together. Wedgeworth, as the protective, dying mother who claims Bob’s first loyalty, adds a third superb performance. Wedgeworth’s Mrs. Howard is the kind of fading southern woman Tennessee Williams might have conceived: the sensuous aroma of gardenia drifts off her, mixed in with the odors of decay. And Bob’s connection to her is crypto-Oedipal.

The Whole Wide World is a biopic, but mostly it’s the story of a failed romance. Bob tells Novalyne that West Texas is dangerous; he sees the land as infested with the perils he puts into his stories. In his mind, the civilization he lives in is nothing but a blind: “Man gets more depraved and demonic all the time” and “Maggots and corruption are all around you.” But she’s a believer in civilization, in hospitals and schools. For all her feistiness, her mild cursing, she’s a deeply conventional woman, and their relationship is like the classic one found in many westerns between the cowboy and the schoolmarm. Robert Warshow wrote, in his great essay “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner”:

The Western hero . . . resembles the gangster in being lonely and to some degree melancholy . . . his loneliness is organic, not imposed on him by his situation but belonging to him intimately and testifying to his completeness . . .  The Westerner is not . . . compelled to seek love; he is prepared to accept it, perhaps, but he never asks more of it than it can give; and we see him constantly in situations where love is at best an irrelevance. If there is a woman he loves, she is usually unable to understand his motives; she is against killing and being killed, and he finds it impossible to explain to her that there is no point in being “against” these things: they belong to his world.

The Whole Wide World does something very unusual: it recycles the old tension between the westerner and the eastern woman (who is often a schoolteacher) but in a modern western setting (and with a western heroine), where the land has been thoroughly civilized and only a man like Bob Howard, who is neurotically solitary and somehow profoundly displaced, can continue to believe in the frontier. The film’s idea is that his vision of the world as a still primitive and dangerous place, where adventure lurks around every corner, is what enables him to write the vigorous pulp stories he writes.

Bob’s writing consumes his entire life, and when it doesn’t – when his mother’s condition distracts him – he can’t write at all. Yet it’s Mrs. Howard’s indulgence of her son, their strange intimacy, that allows his imagination to roam free. She has kept him, essentially, a child. And she interposes herself between him and Novalyne, whom she sees as an outsider she has to protect him (and, presumably, his writing) from, or as competition, or both. When Novalyne sees them out together in a store, Mrs. Howard lords it over her silently, throwing her haughty looks from across the floor, one-upping her; in a later scene she waves to Novalyne smugly from her porch swing, as if dismissing her. But his complexity can’t be explained only by her influence. When he and Novalyne quarrel over the phone over his refusal to take her to a Christmas party, he slams down the phone and goes out to take a drive, and he’s so eruptive that he floods the car and cries out, “Mama, the car won’t start!” in a faded, hysterical voice, and takes a sword, of all things, out in the field to vent his anger and hurt. He winds up crying brokenly to his mother. The most uncharitable way to describe this response would be to call it a child’s temper tantrum, but the anguish is very real and goes very deep. And then his world, so fragile to begin with, falls apart when his mother approaches death. He shoots himself after he learns that she won’t recover, leaving behind a poem in his typewriter: “All fled, all done, / So lift me on the pyre / The feast is over / The lamps expire.” It’s really a eulogy for himself.

Harve Presnell plays the underwritten role of Bob’s father; the confidence he shares with Novalyne is one of the two scenes in the movie that doesn’t quite work, though Presnell is very fine in it. (The other is the coda, which feels extraneous.) Otherwise, Ireland and Myers sustain their unconventional period romance; the film is a triumph of sensibility and generosity of imagination. The title derives from the phrase a mutual friend uses when he introduces Bob to Novalyne and calls him “the best pulp writer in the whole wide world.” But as the film goes on, you realize that it mostly refers to the world of his fiction, which encompasses him, and the world that Novalyne is on the brink of entering – the world that graduation from college, a teaching career, graduate school in Louisiana and her love for Bob present to her. Myers adapted his script from One Who Walks Alone, the memoir Novalyne wrote, as Novalyne Price Ellis, at the age of seventy-six; the title is more touching when you consider that she waited her whole life to write down this story, as if she had to approach the end of her world before she could finally understand what had happened to her in her youth, and what it meant to her. This movie has the magical effect of stretching itself around you as you watch. For two hours, the complicated love affair of an adventure story writer and a schoolteacher becomes, for us, the whole wide world.

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 is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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