I know I shouldn't have but I've now seen the film version of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
It starts with the voiceover from sophisticated 1957, that hearkens back to that “bohemian time” in the 1920’s. The staid-to-the-point-of-parody narrating voice uses the terms "Left Bank" and “artists and poets” the way you might use "Mars" and “attacking space aliens.” There could almost be an biting comment on Ernest Hemingway as a conservative icon by 1957, but surely the director, Henry King (who, as far as I can tell, never made an interesting film in 117 tries), isn’t capable of that.
Any critique of TSAR has to start with Tyrone Power, who, somehow, some way, stars as Jake Barnes (despite my fascination with the subject, I will not be enjoying Power starring in King's Jesse James). I struggle but cannot come up with a worse example of miscasting (though I'm pretty sure Richard Gere would be involved...Breathless? Chicago?). While the rest of the actors are about ten years too old for their roles, Power looks like he's about 52, even though he was dead at 44 a year after he made a fool of himself here. From the first shot of his double-breasted suit we know he's all wrong. He spends most of his time looking like a stressed out businessman on a shitty vacation. Perhaps this is why Power, despite his matinée idol status, made zero movies that are well-regarded and watched today.
His Lady Brett is Ava Gardner in raspberry beret. I have to confess, I've never been a Gardner man, despite my usual preference to side with Frank Sinatra in all matters personal and artistic. She certainly doesn't have Brett Ashley's novel curves "like the hulls of a racing yacht." Watching her striking lack of chemistry with Tyrone Power, it occurred to me that the contemporary actors they most resemble are Catherine Keener and Dan Hedaya, who are definitely not the to people I pictured in my mind while reading TSAR in 10th grade. You can also picture them as the precise counterpoint to Bogart and Bacall's fireworks in Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.
I have to give it to Errol Flynn then--he at least looks the part as the badly dissipated alcoholic, Mike Campbell. He generates most of the scant humor in the film (the running shoeshine gag, his insistence on wearing a red tartan vest everywhere). He does more by doing less than Mel Ferrer (strident as Robert Cohn) and Eddie Albert (unnoticed as Bill Gorton).
King backgrounds his players with a mishmash of flat sets and documentary Fiesta footage shot from a distracting variety of angles. A central scene at the book, Jake and Brett visiting the church, is glossed over. A redundant flashback is added just so we can hear an anonymous doctor pronounce Jake impotent. Convinced that one of the most famous ending lines in western literature is insufficient, King has Jake mutter, "isn't it pretty to think so," in the Madrid hotel before getting into a cab, where he and Brett exchange some dialog so forgettable I can't remember a word they said. And I watched the movie yesterday.
If you've seen the film, you know I've saved the only redeeming factor for last: Robert Evans as the tall, dark and Spanish bullfighter, Pedro Romero! His performance is so bizarre, so gratingly brutal that it comes all the way back around to brilliant. He's unavoidable. His harsh accent makes you titter, his tiniest of tiny ponytails makes you laugh, his retarded, googly-eyed matador stare makes you roar all 4,000 times you see it in this film. The kid stays in the picture alright. He's the only reason to ever watch it.
And, of course, the moral is, see the documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, because it only gets better the more familiar you get with Evans' inimitable, transcendent purr. His story is all self-aggrandizing bullshit and I love him for sharing it with me.