Culture

'Hemingway & Gellhorn': Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman Play the Literary Lion and Lioness of American Letters

Clive Owen/©Universal Pictures, Nicole Kidman/©Twentieth Century Fox
Clive Owen/©Universal Pictures, Nicole Kidman/©Twentieth Century Fox

If there were a food pyramid representing the essential food groups of highbrow culture enthusiasts -- that urban-dwelling, Volvo-driving, whole grain-eating, fluorescent light bulb-using, Franzen-reading, art-house-frequenting sub-species often neglected by mainstream media (sound familiar, Signature readers?) -- HBO would hold up the foundation right alongside NPR. Let's take a moment here to list just a few more recent reasons we're grateful for HBO's uniquely uncompromising approach to programming:

1. Todd Haynes' adaptation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, starring Kate Winslet in the title role of the stalwart single mom.

2. Tommy Lee Jones' recent rendering of "The Sunset Limited," Cormac McCarthy's two-handed drama about life's value, or lack thereof.

3. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords:" Because laughter should not always be forced.

4. Today's news of the growing cast of stellar thespians committed to "Hemingway & Gellhorn," the James Gandolfini-produced chronicle of Papa Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn's literary love affair, which recently began shooting in Northern California. Philip Kaufman ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") is directing from a script by Barbara Turner (Jennifer Jason Leigh's mother who wrote one of her daughter's best films, "Georgia") and Jerry Stahl ("Permanent Midnight"). Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen have long been committed to the principal roles. Other recent additions to the cast include David Strathairn as populist novelist John Dos Passos; Peter Coyote as the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins; Parker Posey as Mary Welsh Hemingway, the wife who followed Gellhorn; and Molly Parker as Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway's outgoing wife, prior to Gellhorn.

HBO deserves special props for this last project, which has taken over six years to bring to fruition. Gandolfini, who was originally attached to star in the title role, bulldozed past all the usual roadblocks and rejections at big studios, and found a home for the pricey period piece at HBO. The film traces the pair's stormy five-year marriage, which culminates with their tandem coverage of the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn, a novelist and highly respected war correspondent, met Hemingway in a bar in Key West and, legend has it, her flinty and fearless nature provided the inspiration for Hemingway's Pulitzer-nominated novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Gellhorn ultimately ended the marriage after Hemingway attempted to stop her from covering the D-Day Invasion, forcing her to improvise a dangerous trip to London via boat. Post-divorce, Gellhorn continued to distinguish herself as one of the most resourceful and committed war correspondents working in journalism. She impersonated a nurse carrying a stretcher in order to put herself in the middle of the action during WWII, and she was one of the first journalists to cover the liberation of Hitler's death camps. In later years she made her way to Vietnam, the Middle East, and Central America to cover conflicts.

Hopefully Kidman and Owen will ignite a similar ferocity and spirited one-upmanship in each other on screen. Kidman seems like a perfect fit to play a death-dodging journalist. It's admittedly still hard to imagine the refined and lean Owen embody the brash, big-bellied Papa Hemingway. But we're not worried they'll botch this too badly. After all, in HBO we trust.

Photos: Clive Owen in "Children of Men"/©Universal Pictures; Nicole Kidman in "Australia"/©Twentieth Century Fox