Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg has an unusual way of describing the movie “Genius” which is based on his biography “Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius.”
“If you watch the movie with the sound off,” he says, “it could look like a gay romance. It’s the most intense non-sexual romantic story you’ll ever see. All that passion.”
With the sound on, “Genius” is the turbulent story of how editor Maxwell Perkins discovered author Thomas Wolfe and edited his first two novels, “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.” Although he is now largely forgotten, Thomas Wolfe, played by Jude Law, was a literary superstar of his generation. It’s playing now at Landmark E Street Cinema.
“When Wolfe was published in 1929, he was considered the new Walt Whitman,” Berg says. “In the mid-1930s, he was the most important writer of fiction in the United States.”
Berg says Perkins, played by Colin Firth in the film, is the “most important and least known person in American literature,” responsible for changing its course.
Perkins was an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1910-1947. His literary discoveries include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Jones (“From Here to Eternity”), Alan Paton (“Cry, the Beloved Country”), Erskine Caldwell (“Tobacco Road”) and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (“The Yearling”).
Berg is quick to note that “Genius” is not just about editing books. It’s about the intense creative struggle to cut 90,000 words from Wolfe’s sprawling manuscript, which has been rejected by every other publisher in town. It’s about Max’s marriage to Louise Perkins (Laura Linney), an aspiring author and actress who is confined to the Connecticut suburbs raising their five daughters. It’s about Wolfe’s fervent affair with Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a famous author and set designer who leaves her husband and children to live with Wolfe.
“In some ways,” Berg says, “it’s a love triangle between Max and Tom and Aline. Their big love affair breaks up because Max enters the picture and becomes Tom’s muse. It’s about these intense relationships and the price that gets paid just to produce a single book.”
Berg’s interest in Maxwell Perkins hatched when he was an undergraduate at Princeton University and discovered the Scribner archives in the Princeton library. Under the guidance of his mentor, Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, Berg turned his thesis on Perkins into the book which was published in 1978. Since then, Berg has written several biographies, including “Goldwyn: A Biography” about Hollywood tycoon Samuel Goldwyn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lindbergh” about the famous aviator, and “Wilson,” a reexamination of President Woodrow Wilson. In 2003, he also wrote the controversial “Kate Remembered,” a memoir of his long friendship with Katharine Hepburn.
In between his first and second books, Berg also made queer cinematic history by writing the story for the groundbreaking movie “Making Love” (1982), which he calls the first studio movie to feature “a gay man who wasn’t a victim or villain.”
It had real-life ramifications as Berg and partner Kevin McCormick, a film producer, have been together 35 years.
“I used the movie as a way to imagine my own future,” Berg says. “For young gay men at the time, there was no future. The movie opened up that vision for me.”