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The “terrible curse” that suicide has been to the Hemingway family is addressed in illuminatingly subjective terms by Running From Crazy. Actress Mariel Hemingway provides what feels like an unflinchingly honest account of her famous clan’s propensity for calamitous tragedy, which she proposes is second only to that of the Kennedys among American families, with special attention to the mental issues afflicting her two older sisters. Barbara Kopple‘s involving documentary was initiated by Oprah Winfrey‘s network, which will broadcast the film later this year and likely accounts for the heavy emphasis on suicide awareness, mental health evaluation and therapy issues that would normally not be expected in a Kopple film or in what bills itself as a study of suicide among the Hemingways. Still, there is much here of interest to aficionados of the great author as well as to those curious about the complicated relationship between sisters Mariel and the late Margaux.
Early on, Mariel mentions that there have been seven suicides in her immediate family history. Most famous, of course, was that of her grandfather Ernest in 1961, four months before Mariel was born. Then, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of his death, Margaux took her own life at age 41. It goes unmentioned that Ernest’s father also committed suicide and, while Mariel claims that Ernest suffered from “terrible mental illness,” she neither elaborates on that analysis nor investigates the specific circumstances of the other such cases in her family; for a long time, she denied that her sister deliberately took an overdose of a sedative.
For anyone, then, hoping for an analysis of family history that might help explain this tendency or provide revealing links between the various instances of it, Mariel’s commentary and the film as a whole might prove disappointing. However, this shortcoming is compensated for by the almost immediately absorbing presentation of the rich and strange dynamics between the three sisters and their parents.
Their father, seen in abundant footage and interviews, was Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s oldest child (known as a kid as “Bumby”). Entirely ignoring his fascinating upbringing, exemplary World War II record, role in finishing and publishing A Moveable Feast and writing his own memoirs, Jack, who when older looked not unlike the director Sam Peckinpah, is seen entirely from Mariel’s perspective as a quiet and genial fisherman who was generally drunk and, she claims, molested her two sisters, although not her. This is a big accusation to put on the table without offering any evidence.
Evocative home movies taken at and near the family home in Ketchum, Idaho, reflect an active outdoors life involving parents who spiraled into alcohol-fueled arguments every night and three stunning daughters with very distinctive personalities. The oldest, “Muffet,” was the embodiment of a troubled Waspy society girl, gorgeous, very smart and a great tennis player but, increasingly, a druggie and an imbalanced case forever in and out of treatment. Then there was Margot, who changed the spelling of her name to match that of the French wine her parents supposedly drank the night they conceived her, became a supermodel in the early 1970s and, in 1976, was groomed to be a movie star in Lipstick.
Which is where Mariel came in. Seven years younger than Margaux (a “mistake” on her parents’ part, she bluntly states), Mariel was proposed by her sister for a smart part in Lipstick and got excellent reviews, while Margaux got scorched, which complicated their relationship. As Mariel’s star rose further over the next few years and good-time girl Margaux circled the drain with the help of much drink, drugs and partying, the separation grew more pronounced. In a tearful admission, Mariel confesses that, “I thought Margaux was stupid.”
Still, in the 1980s, Margaux started making a documentary about her grandfather eventually called Hemingway: Winner Take Nothing, revealing excerpts from which show Margaux retracing the writer’s footsteps in Pamplona and elsewhere. But she became heavy, went through two divorces and had few friends at the end.
Whereas Margaux couldn’t control herself, Mariel admits that, “For me, control is everything.” As far as her sister went into excess, Mariel presents herself as going to equal extremes in terms of holistic living, self-discipline, self-awareness, analysis and improvement. Toward the end, Mariel reluctantly visits a modest care facility to see surviving sister Muffet, who paints but clearly isn’t all there. Mariel’s ex-husband, Steve Crisman, turns up to add his two cents about “the slippery slope” of the Hemingway legacy, while an extended sequence devoted to Mariel and her current partner Billy Williams on a rock climbing expedition feels like an indulgent waste of time.
For devotees of the author, there is macabre interest in being shown the back breezeway of his home where he shot himself, as well as the disturbing spectacle of bottles of booze that people leave on his grave, apparently a regular occurrence.
Returning to the upbeat awareness-promoting theme that frames the film, the finale focuses on an “Out of the Darkness” rally and suicide prevention walk in New York City, where Mariel addresses the crowd.
More than Mariel’s grandfather or anyone else, however, the spectre of Margaux dominates Running From Crazy; she was a “really wild child” who lived very high for a while without regard to the future and then tragically found she had none. Mariel, by contrast, is careful, thoughtful and vividly aware of her place in the world. So is there a “suicide gene” that runs through this family and others? Unfortunately, the film can’t answer this question, but this famous family continues to intrigue.
Production: Cabin Creek Films for OWN
Cast: Mariel Hemingway, Bobby Williams, Joan “Muffet” Hemingway, Dree Hemingway, Langley Hemingway, Stephen Crisman
Director: Barbara Kopple
Producers: Barbara Kopple, David Cassidy
Executive producers: Barbara Kopple, Erica Forstadt, Lisa Erspamer, Oprah Winfrey
Directors of photography: Andrew Young, Boone Speed, Michael Call
Editors: Michael Culyba, Mona Davis
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