To make life worth living a man or woman has to have a great love or a great cause…I have neither…the road I walk, I walk alone.
The Whole Wide World is the true story of Novalyne Price and her tumultuous, ultimately tragic friendship with Robert E. Howard, the greatest pulp fiction writer in the whole wide world. Although Price knew Howard for only a brief time in his all-too-short life, she was clearly touched by this energetic, erratic, passionate young man in ways that it took her years to express. As the 1970s and 1980s saw a posthumous resurgence in interest in Howard's work and the Schwarzenegger films about his famous Conan character hit the silver screen, literary types generally disparaged the scribe of Cross Plains, Texas as a lunatic misfit. As a rebuttal to their derision, and to preserve the memory of the friend who had made such an impact on her life, Novalyne wrote a memoir of her relationship with Howard. One Who Walked Alone, published when Novalyne Price Ellis was well into her 70s and retired from teaching, is one of the most sympathetic portraits of Robert E. Howard available, and provided the raw material for this film.
Facts of the Case
Novalyne Price (Renée Zellweger, Jerry Maguire, Chicago) is a young schoolteacher in Cross Plains. Spurred by daydreams of becoming a writer, she convinces a boyfriend to introduce her to Bob Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket, The Cell). Bob has a successful career writing lurid tales for the pulp magazines of the day, but is eccentric enough that most people in the small town look at him with a mixture of scorn and fear. Her friends tell her to stay clear of him, that his writing is trashy and she should not be seen in the company of "purveyors of pornography." Still, he has an undeniable charm that draws her to him.
She realizes from the outset that getting to know Bob won't be easy. When not writing, he is preoccupied with caring for his declining mother. Mrs. Howard is fiercely possessive of her son, and Novalyne's first attempts to contact him are stymied when she refuses to pass along phone messages. When they finally do go out, Howard is ill-dressed, loud, and uncouth, and would prefer to spend their time "drivin' and blabbin'" than just about anything else. She tells him of the stories she has submitted to various magazines, and he laughs uproariously at her. Then he tells her of his wild tales of the savage barbarian Conan, and she sees the fire in his eyes. As a proper Texan young lady of the 1930s, she knows she is supposed to be appalled at his bloodthirsty, carnal tales but can't help but be enthralled. She senses that the characters and the stories are more real to Howard than anyone realizes; after all, this is a man who will shadow box his way down the street, working out details and dialogue for his next yarn. He is a man who yells out his prose at the top of his voice as he types, as though summoning the very presence of Conan to his typewriter.
Novalyne endures Howard's eccentric behavior and erratic temperament as long as she can, and is deeply touched by him in the process. However, there's not much future for her with a man who declares that he must walk his road alone. The road that Howard ultimately walks is the loneliest one of all.
What does it mean to be the greatest pulp fiction author that ever lived? Robert E. Howard was not a great writer, but he was a first-rate storyteller. His tales are bold, lusty adventures that appeal to something primal in human nature. His yarns of heroic fantasy grab us by the guts, not the intellect, and create a world that feels every bit as real as our mundane workaday lives. Novalyne Price understood that; she felt it, and was every bit as swept up by Howard's intensity and brash personality as his readers were by his stories in the pulps. She became one of the few people who ever came close to understanding Bob Howard. The challenge before the makers of The Whole Wide World was to make us understand him, or failing that, make us understand what she might have seen in this misfit, socially stunted oddball who wrote stories that decent people would never admit to reading.
Director Dan Ireland (The Velocity of Gary, Passionada) and screenwriter Michael Scott Meyers present a very effective portrait of the artist as seen through young Novalyne's eyes. Working on an infinitesimal budget, on location in the middle of nowhere in rural Texas, they managed to create a moving, hypnotic film. This is a bigger accomplishment than it seems at first; after all, this is the story of two people who meet each other, become friends, become kinda-sorta romantically entangled, and then go their separate ways. This happens a million times every day, and is not usually the stuff of which great films are made. One of the chief reasons the film works is that one of the people in question just happened to be Robert E. Howard, but that alone would not be enough to make it the fascinating film that it is. Ireland and Meyers were faced with a huge challenge: how to make an interesting movie that is basically about two people driving around and talking. Perhaps the best compliment one can pay them is simply to say that they pulled it off.
With the film so heavily dependent on the persona of Howard, Ireland managed to land exactly the right actor in star/producer Vincent D'Onofrio. For starters, D'Onofrio bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Howard. More important than that, however, is D'Onofrio's experience playing characters that are just a bit off. Playing a character as big and expressive as Howard without going over the top is a tenuous balance, and D'Onofrio's acting instincts are right on the money. I can think of few other actors who could play Howard, sitting at a typewriter while shouting lurid prose about nubile slave girls and barbarians with arms like tree trunks, without it seeming ridiculous. D'Onofrio gives us a portrait of Howard that is as big and bold as the man himself without ever descending into caricature. When the camera looks deep into D'Onofrio's eyes as he tells stories of the mythic Conan, we as viewers are just as mesmerized as Novalyne must have been all those years ago. These scenes are aided by subtle, distant sounds of battle and clanging swords on the soundtrack, but without D'Onofrio's outstanding performance, these touches would have been merely absurd conceits.
The Whole Wide World was Renée Zellweger's first truly demanding film role, and she shows here why she has gone on to become one of Hollywood's top female stars. Novalyne is a complex character, combining the aw-shucks propriety of her times with an adventurous, feisty streak and more than a spoonful of stubbornness. Over the course of the film, she evolves from slightly shy, awkward schoolmarm to a spitfire who can dish it right back to Howard even when he is at his loudest and most obnoxious, and Zellweger hits every note. She also has some tremendously moving scenes later in the film, where she manages to wring tears from even the most hardened barbarians in the audience. Watching The Whole Wide World, it is easy to see why Cameron Crowe was so impressed with Zellweger's performance that he cast her in Jerry Maguire.
The Whole Wide World DVD is a Columbia TriStar release, appearing on their indie-oriented Sony Pictures Classics label. Picture quality is good but not great; while this can be said of most of Columbia's discs, in this case it appears to be more the fault of the source material and the low-budget nature of the production than anything related to the DVD transfer process. Scratches and flecks of dirt are common throughout the film, and there are several scenes that are overly grainy and look like they were underlit during filming. This is particularly noticeable in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, a romantic picnic on a high bluff overlooking a river. As can be expected, interior scenes (where the lighting is easiest to control) look the best, with deep, rich colors. Exterior scenes vary, with some so washed-out that they take on an almost sepia-toned look. Not all the problems with the picture can be attributed to the source material, however. There are some definite halos to be seen, evidence of edge enhancement. There is some occasional shimmer or moiré noise in places like the white siding of the Howard family home. There are also some sharp edges in the film that seem to display some mosquito noise. Complex textures like the leaves of a tree are pretty rough. None of the problems with the picture are going to make the film unwatchable, but viewers should bear in mind that this will not look like a big-budget flick. I guess we'll have to wait for the Superbit edition for that.
Audio is presented in a serviceable but unremarkable Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. It is effective and clean, but won't exactly curl your hair or rattle your windows. Of course, if that is what you are looking for, you should be watching a movie based on one of Howard's creations, rather than the author himself.
For a relatively obscure film like this one, supplemental features can be an essential part of understanding what the film is about. The extras on this disc represent an attempt to give broader context to the film, but are only occasionally successful. The commentary track featuring Ireland, Meyers, D'Onofrio, composer Harry Gregson Williams, and actor/co-producer Benjamin Mouton is a lively listen, full of the technical details and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that one might expect, but it somehow left me cold. There was a bit too much play-by-play discussion of what was going on in any given scene, rather than deeper discussion or illumination of key points. I did find it interesting that the filmmakers did meet extensively with the real Novalyne Price Ellis in making this film, and that by all accounts she is quite pleased with it. Even better, both Meyers and Mouton actually had Mrs. Ellis as a teacher when they were high school students in Lafayette, Louisiana. Still, beyond these admittedly important tidbits, there seemed to be a lot of fairly generic commentary track talk.
Apparently making up for being unavailable to participate in the commentary, Renée Zellweger appears in a separate interview segment where she discusses the film with Ireland. This is a fun segment, although many of the movie-making anecdotes are repeats of events discussed in the commentary track. Perhaps the most interesting revelation here is that the part of Novalyne was originally to be played by Conan the Destroyer alumna Olivia D'Abo, who became pregnant and was unable to continue with the project.
Rounding out the disc are a few theatrical trailers, none of which is actually for The Whole Wide World.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a few moments where the film is not as sure of its footing as it might be. The early scenes where Novalyne first meets Bob are intended to feel awkward and shy. However, they feel just a bit more awkward than intended. D'Onofrio and Zellweger deliver their dialogue in a manner that is too choppy, too halting, with just a beat too much dead air between each line. Given the excellent performances from both actors through the rest of the film, I think this has to be chalked up to Ireland's direction.
All fled, all done
This story would almost certainly not be as compelling as it is if we did not know the ending. If Howard had lived a long, happy life full of literary output this film would probably never have been made, no matter how eccentrically he may have behaved in his younger years. Part of the allure of this film is our desire to know the unknowable, to try to understand why such a gifted and beloved author came to the end he did. For those of us who are familiar with his work and love his stories and characters, this film is as much about our sense of loss, our sense of what might have been, as it is about Novalyne's. We are all fortunate that Mrs. Ellis, and later the makers of this film, at least attempted to provide a glimpse of the imperfect, erratic, fascinating character of Robert E. Howard. For the most part, the film is quite successful.
Not guilty. An excellent and moving film, The Whole Wide World provides wonderful performances from D'Onofrio and Zellweger as well as haunting insights into the life of a man I have admired for a long time. Columbia TriStar, whatever their other faults, has done Howard fans and film fans everywhere a great service in bringing this fine film to DVD.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Dan Ireland, Producer/Actor Vincent D'Onofrio, Producer/Actor Benjamin Mouton, Screenwriter Michael Scott Meyers, and Composer Harry Gregson Williams
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