Film Review: Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen

What could and should have been a definitive dual biography with a particularly alluring premise is chock-a-block with questionable aesthetic choices.

They were the two ultimate male icons of the 20th century in film and literature, respectively. From his beginnings in silent film, Gary Cooper forged the archetype of the strong, matchless, photogenic, largely silent he-man, often of the West, and was the favorite male movie star of generations the world over. Ernest Hemingway's revolutionary, laconic writing style rather matched Cooper's onscreen terseness, and his novels featured the same kind of stoic hero the actor essayed on screen.

The two were lifelong friends, a fascinating relationship which John Mulholland's documentary here explores in depth. These men shared many parallels in their lives as well, which basically spanned the history of the first half of their century: two world wars, and the Victorian era which preceded them and heinous McCarthy era which followed. Cooper & Hemingway was evidently long-aborning, for there are interviews with numerous subjects who have since passed, as well as others who comprise a real trove of celebrity "gets." Charlton Heston, Robert Stack, C.Z. Guest, producer A.C. Lyles, Patricia Neal, Kirk Douglas, Pia Lindstrom, A.E. Hotchner, a passel of film and literature teachers and writers (of varying degrees of enlightenment), as well as Cooper's daughter Maria and Hemingway's son Patrick, offer diverse yet somehow largely corresponding accounts of these men.

With subjects like these, the film cannot help but be of interest, and the Cooper estate collection of home movies is a considerable boon, yet Mulholland's obtrusive direction and questionable taste often drag things down and are off-putting. It starts with Sam Waterston's bland narration, a maladroit choice compounded by having actor Len Cariou needlessly stand in as the voice of Hemingway; his too-crusty, too-irascible tones cartoonishly disrupt and belie the import of whatever is trying to be expressed at crucial given moments. Muholland also wrote the script, which incessantly hammers home its simplistic points which are basically: Coop, with his eternal salt-of-the-earth quality despite being such a superstar: good. Papa (Hemingway), with his uncontrollable drinking and bad behavior: bad.

The movie does, however, hold you, even over its scattershot, excessive three-hour running time. Cooper really was the definitive Hemingway hero, which he proved in the film adaptations of A Farewell to Arms (his greatest, most heartbreaking performance) and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like Hemingway, after World War II his career went into something of an eclipse, compounded by a messy adulterous affair with actress Patricia Neal. There was added controversy about him during the HUAC hearings, at which he appeared as a friendly (if largely evasive) witness, something he rather redeemed later when he came to the defense of blacklisted writer Carl Foreman, who penned his Oscar-winning comeback, High Noon. After his early eminence, Hemingway toiled in the wilderness of critical pans until coming out in 1952 with The Old Man and the Sea, which eventually garnered him a Nobel Prize. There are enough absorbing anecdotes recounted—especially about Cooper, who managed to blend his onscreen and off-screen personas in spite of how different they could be (with his personal interests in fine art and bespoke tailoring)—to maintain your interest. There is no denying, however, the frustration you might feel when you maddeningly see bits and  pieces of important letters actually written by these men used onscreen as mere random camera filler and not shown or read in their entirety, while, once more, Cariou or Waterston blathers on, ineffectually paraphrasing what's in them.

In terms of a real critical appraisal of the men's work, Hemingway's career receives a more in-depth analysis by all those college professors (with his Across the River and Into the Trees coming in for particular disapprobation), while Cooper gets off easy by comparison. When you look at his oeuvre, which began with him being an irresistibly sexy and suggestive screen presence in the early 1930s, and then calcified into a Mount Rushmore edifice of nobility via vehicles like Sergeant York, Pride of the Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls and his work with Frank Capra, there's no denying that his work from the late 1940s to his death in 1961 was often quite boring and hollow (never more so than in his outrageously miscast turn as an aging international playboy in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon). But Mulholland & Co. make strong cases for his dull later work—in which his loss of looks made one realize how much of his charisma was purely physical—while also polishing up a near-saintly image (apart from some serial philandering) of him in real life, which feels rather devoid of true complexity.

After all that celebrity, acclaim and high living, both men met untimely early and painful deaths which were mere months apart: Cooper from cancer and Hemingway from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, brought on by severe depression and alcoholism. Lovers of what these men left behind may feel sorrow, but animal lovers, after seeing and hearing about all the hunting the two did during their lifetimes, gleefully enhancing their macho images while bringing down everything from defenseless elephants to ducks, may just think, "Karma."