From the 20-year-strong friendship between Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway, helmer John Mulholland has fashioned a dual biography that traces its two protagonists’ timelines, evolving separately and sporadically intersecting. Unfortunately, once Mulholland has established that both men hark back to a bygone, Teddy Roosevelt-fostered image of laconic masculinity, his peculiar vantage point generates little insight into the psychology and accomplishments of either man, as “The True Gen” abandons biographical logic in favor of a catalogue of arbitrary differences and similarities. At almost two-and-a-half hours, Mulholland’s back-and-forth approach proves as exhausting as it is exhaustive. Opened Oct. 10 in New York, the film begins a Los Angeles run Dec. 6.
Mulholland starts by exaggerating the distinctions between his two macho icons, the better to bring them both back together into congruency. Thus, the fact that Cooper was brought up on a ranch and rode and roped at the age of 6, while Hemingway was raised in the suburbs, leads the helmer to propose Cooper as the “true gen” (Hemingway’s term for the genuine article), the quintessential strong, silent type that Hemingway could only write about, but never fully incarnate. Indeed, Mulholland further opines that Cooper’s lead role in the film adaptation of Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” reps a Hemingway hero before the fact, relying on a somewhat tenuous link between the author’s writing and Wister’s.
Cooper and Hemingway, who apparently had admired each other from afar, met in Squaw Valley in 1940 at the peak of their talent and fame, and almost instantly bonded. They had frequent rendezvous in California, Cuba and Paris, with and without their wives, and even collaborated on film projects based on Hemingway’s novels. The detailed behind-the-scenes stories of Hollywood politics and studio interference that transformed or canceled these productions briefly anchor the film’s dual focus (Cooper had already starred in the 1932 film of “A Farewell to Arms,” and would memorably embody Robert Jordan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”).
Further accounts of the two men’s work, hunting expeditions and extramarital affairs follow, monotonously narrated by Sam Waterston, and interspersed with interviews with relatives (the second-generation offspring of Cooper, Hemingway, Carl Forman and Joel McCrea) and Hollywood stars living and dead (Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Charlton Heston); numerous letters between Coop and Papa (Len Cariou essays a particularly gruff Heminway in voiceover); and rare photographs and homemovies.
The downward turn in both men’s careers in the late ’40s were followed by the near-simultaneous publication of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and the release of Cooper’s “High Noon” in 1952, launching the two to even greater acclaim and recognition, and finally their closely timed illnesses and deaths — all serving as further confirmation of Mulholland’s parallel premise.
The docu has obviously undergone extensive cutting (one version was shown at 180 minutes), and editor William Welles has tried for symmetry despite a predominance of Cooper imagery, but further trimming would certainly help. Byron Janis’ schmaltzy score doubles down on the sentimental tendency of Mulholland’s nostalgia-steeped text.