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New PBS Doc On Ernest Hemingway Explores The Myth Behind The Publicly Macho Man

The celebrated American author Ernest Hemingway is the subject of a new documentary premiering on PBS tomorrow night, April 5.

Hemingway, a six-hour, three-part documentary directed by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, paints an intimate picture of Hemingway the writer—who captured on paper the complexities of the human condition in spare and profound prose, and whose work remains deeply influential around the world—while also penetrating the myth of Hemingway the man’s man to reveal a deeply troubled and ultimately tragic figure.

The documentary weaves a close study of biographical events of Hemingway’s life with excerpts from his fiction, non-fiction and short stories, and with interviews with celebrated writers, scholars and Hemingway’s son, Patrick, his only surviving child, born to the second of his four wives. 

The filmmakers explore the painstaking process through which Hemingway created some of the most important works of American fiction, including the novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea; short stories “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Up in Michigan,” “Indian Camp” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro;” and non-fiction works Death in the Afternoon and A Moveable Feast.

The documentary also features a stellar cast of actors who bring Hemingway (voiced by Jeff Daniels), his friends and family vividly to life. Through letters to and from his four wives — voiced by Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson — the film reveals Hemingway at his most romantic and his most vulnerable, grappling at times with insecurity, anxiety and existential loneliness.

Hemingway tracks the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the author who, in his final years, suffered from chronic alcoholism, serious mental illness, traumatic brain injuries and depression. In 1961, at the age of 61, he died by suicide. 

The filmmakers were granted access to Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Interviews with renowned biographers and scholars, including Mary Dearborn and Marc Dudley, shed new light on the man and his work; and well-known writers from around the world — including Edna O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Karr, Tim O’Brien, Akiko Manabe, Leonardo Padura and Tobias Wolff — deepen the film’s exploration of Hemingway’s oeuvre. The documentary also includes moving commentary from the late Senator John McCain, whose lifelong role model was Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls. 

In the documentary, Patrick Hemingway says he wants to tell the “real” story about his difficult childhood and life with his father. Another interview subject, Irish novelist O’Brien, praises Hemingway for his ability to depict both men and women, to “put himself in the skin of the opposite.” 

The documentary also explores Hemingway’s sexual fluidity, which runs counter to his extremely macho image and reputation. He had a sister close in age to him; their mother dressed them as same-sex twins (as both boys and girls) and had them play this way, activities that apparently affected his later relationships with women. He was attracted to masculine-looking women, role-played with them and dressed up as a woman. 

In a recent interview, Burns said Hemingway had been on his “short list” of documentary subjects since the early 1980’s, adding that he chose to pursue the project to better understand “the notion of what toxic celebrity does.”

Burns said he found the thinness and brittleness of Hemingway’s “toxic masculinity” particularly interesting, suggesting that Hemingway created his “macho pose” largely to “protect vulnerabilities and sensitivity that would be surprising to people,” if they can get beyond the toxic masculinity.

Burns called the Hemingway documentary “the most adult film” he has ever made, ‘because of the depth with which we were able to plumb the psychology,” through interviews with scholars and Patrick Hemingway, and through the author’s letters and other unpublished materials. He said these enabled him and Novick to “bring a measure of complexity as well as compassion with an unblinking, critical eye. The only thing that’s simple is the apparent simpleness of his prose.” 

Novick said in an interview she hoped the documentary would be as “revelatory to viewers as it was for us. There’s a lot more nuance and subtlety and emotional complexity in the work than he allowed in the way that he presented himself to the public.”

She believes Hemingway’s work deals with adult themes, “death, sex, intimacy, love, loss, identity, epic and very complicated adult questions that we all wrestle with. We haven’t tackled a story where we have access to that kind of intimate information about somebody before. (The documentary) also speaks to the moment that we’re in, the questions that we’re interested in asking are those adult questions, which are really, really interesting and on the edge of things people may have avoided talking about a generation ago.”

She also praised Daniels’ voicing of Hemingway, particularly for his ability  to “read famous passages that have to come off as fresh, like he just wrote them,” and for his ability to embody the author both as a young and old man.   

Burns and Novick are also creators of the documentaries The Vietnam War, Prohibition and The War, about World War II.

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