PAPA: Hemingway in Cuba

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Papa-Hemingway-in-Cuba-PosterDenne Petitclerc’s parents abandoned him at age 4, in the depths of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, he grew up to be a newspaper reporter, starting in sports and moving on to cover the Korean War. He learned his craft by retyping Ernest Hemingway’s stories. From this, he learned not just how to type, but spelling, punctuation, and Hemingway’s pithy writing style.

Denne wrote to Hemingway in 1959 to express his admiration for the author. Hemingway called back, and invited Denne to his home outside Havana. They struck up a friendship, which included the author’s second wife, Mary. It lasted for the rest of Ernest’s short and Mary’s long lives. Denne went on to become a script writer, with numerous movie and television credits. He lived in Ketcham, Idaho, to be near the Hemingways, for the last 35 years of his life.

Denne wrote a screenplay about that eventful year with the Hemingways. Batista’s corrupt regime tottered and fell. Castro took over. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had a vendetta against Hemingway, who knew of Hoover’s homosexual peccadillos. Hemingway fell deeper into depression and alcoholism, while Denne grew as a man and as a writer.

In the screenplay, Denne renamed his character Ed Myers, after his father and his mother’s maiden name. The screenplay had not been produced at Denne’s death in 2006. Eventually, producer Bob Yari obtained the rights from Denne’s widow.

Yari was determined to make the film on location. In Cuba. At Hemingway’s house – which is a national museum. In the actual Floridora club. No Hollywood movie had been shot in Cuba since the Castros took over in 1959.

It took Yari two years to get the United States Departments of State and Treasury to okay the project. By contrast, the Cuban authorities were only too glad to be helpful. After all, they consider Hemingway as much their hero as we do.

Yari cast the less known but just right British/American actor Adrian Sparks as Hemingway. Sparks won awards for his one-man show as Papa. So he knew the character intimately, and just had to tone down his performance from the stage to the camera. Sparks gives us a full throated Hemingway: brilliant and flawed, heroic and hurt, bigger than life and pathetically petty. With the real locations, the audience quickly forgets that we are seeing an actor play Hemingway. We believe that we are seeing Hemingway.

Giovanni Ribisi gives a sensitive and winning performance as Ed Myers (Denne). Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, plays tender, fiery, and complicated Mary Hemingway, despite being a good foot taller than the real-life Mary. And grand-daughter Mariel Hemingway makes a cameo appearance.

A key character in the movie is Cuba itself. Where else can you shoot a flick in 2014 that is set in 1959 and not need to alter one thing about your set?

The film opens on April 29.

Phil Neches

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