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Beautiful and Touchingly Realized Drama
on April 16, 2001
After retiring from teaching, lifelong aspiring writer Novalyne Price wrote her first book at age 76, "One Who Walked Alone," a memoir dedicated to the memory of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard, and upon which this film, "The Whole Wide World," directed by Dan Ireland, is based. The film paints a soul wrenching portrait of a man who was larger than life in the world of his own creation, but who was a socially inept, self-proclaimed "lummox" in the real world, who had an unhealthy devotion to his sickly mother and had trouble expressing his true feelings to the woman he obviously loved. To Novalyne Price-- as well as his legions of devoted readers-- Howard was the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world. But to him, living in a small town in Texas in the `30s, that world was populated by "maggots of corruption," and was a dangerous place filled with outlaws, thieves and robbers. He masked his true poetic nature with an outwardly gregarious manner and bravura, which, along with his self-imposed exile from society made his on-again-off-again relationship with Price nearly insurmountable. To the world, he gave Conan the Barbarian and some of the greatest action adventures ever written; to Novalyne he gave the sunrise, the sunset and the moon, but was incapable of giving himself, telling her, "The road I walk, I walk alone." Not that it was what he wanted, but it was all he knew how to do in the "real" world, which he sadly never learned to negotiate.
Working from a sensitive, extremely well written screenplay by Michael Scott Myers, Ireland compassionately explores Howard's world through the eyes of Novalyne Price. What we see is an enigmatic, lonely man struggling with the demons of his soul, who escapes to the worlds of his fantasies in order to cope with life. He is most comfortable talking about his work, and the lands of his imagination. When relating one of his "yarns, as he called his stories, he is on his feet, swelling his chest and becoming Conan, sword in hand, battling beasts and enemies and rescuing scantily clad women from harm. He is transported by his own characters, and watching, the audience is taken along with him, swept away by the passion in his eyes and the sounds of clanking swords. When he writes, he speaks his words aloud, passionately losing himself in the story even as he is creating it. And these scenes, backed by the captivating score by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams, are especially powerful and emotionally riveting, which underscores the action and heightens the emotional level and the viewers involvement with the characters and the story. Ireland juxtaposes the intimacy of the story with some stunning visuals and superb cinematography that will keep Howard and Price in your memory long after the film has ended. It's terrific work by Ireland, and deserving of the highest acclaim.
In a criminally unacclaimed and overlooked performance, Vincent D'Onofrio is absolutely astounding in the role of Bob Howard. The work he does here can stand alongside the best performances of the greatest actors. In this film, he IS Howard, physically and emotionally, from the inside out. He captures every emotion, vividly, with nuance and to perfection; the repressed feelings, the constant, inner turmoil of the man who had confidence in the one thing he knew how to do-- write-- but who also recognized that he was a misfit who lacked even the basic, everyday skills of survival. It's a painful portrait of a tortured individual to whom one can relate and empathize because of D'Onofrio's consummate skill as an actor. It's simply a staggeringly powerful and memorable performance.
Renee Zellweger gives an excellent performance, as well, as Novalyne Price, this somewhat progressive, though rather straight-laced young woman frustrated time and again in her attempts to break through the complexities of this man to whom she is ready to devote her life. It's an endearing portrait of a strong, yet vulnerable woman willing to forego many of the conventions of the times for the man she loves, if only he would meet her halfway. She creates a character with whom you can readily sympathize and identify, making Novalyne very real and her relationship with Howard believable. It's a beautiful piece of work, for which-- like D'Onofrio-- she did not receive the attention she deserved.
The supporting cast includes Ann Wedgeworth (Mrs. Howard), Harve Presnell (Dr. Howard), Benjamin Mouton (Clyde), Michael Corbett (Booth), Helen Cates (Enid), Leslie Berger (Ethel) and Chris Shearer (Truett). There's life as we'd like it to be, and life as it really is, and "The Whole Wide World" is a masterfully presented character study that succinctly examines that situation. It's an insightful and emotionally gripping film that explores human nature and the often incomprehensible workings of the mind that compel individuals to do what they must do. In the end, it's a film that will touch you in many ways, and will linger in your thoughts for more than just a little while.