When Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) first drums up the courage to go to the doorstep of his home, she hears the sounds of him feverishly writing out his next piece of pulp fiction. The sounds include the aggrandized narration of his imagination as he pounds away at his typewriter. That may be confirming his boorish quality that her friends already warned her about but she remains intrigued and goes ahead to knock on his door.
The writer is Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), the pulp writer who became most famous for the creation of Conan the Barbarian among others and proclaimed to be “the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world.” Price, a schoolteacher aspiring to be a writer, comes to discover that for herself and The Whole Wide World from 1996 is based on her real-life memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” about her brief courtship with Howard in the 1930s. She is first drawn to her larger than life imagination, even if the racy content of his writings flew in the face of the conservatism of their small-town churchgoing community.
Before his life was cut short at the age of 30 by his own hands, Howard wrote stories for pulp magazines, most often about manly men going on larger than life battles and adventures, perhaps rescuing a beautiful woman in the process (he says, “When women felt those tree-trunks around their waists, they melted like butter”). Some of the best scenes in the film show the process of his writer’s imagination when Robert narrates to Novalyne about his next writing. In one scene, as he narrates about his hero’s swashbuckling, the sounds of swords and shields whooshing and clanging play in the background with a rising musical score. In another, as he is shadow boxing in the street imagining his next character, sounds of the boxing ring and crowds cheering play in the background. It is hard to make the imagination of a writer cinematic, but this clever use of the soundtrack is a skillful touch to get us into the writer’s mind.
The first half shows their tentative, affectionate courtship. He makes compromises to make himself more presentable (she is at first disappointed about not wear a tie to a formal date and so he does to the next one, making her blush). They discuss about writing, although he laughs at her when she describes one of the stories she is working on. Part of that may be because he only cares for excitement and grandeur in his writings, but she cares for him anyway as her writer’s mind is attracted to that excitement.
However, there are small harbingers to the problems that will hinder their relationship and they become clearer in the second half. One is his ailing mother (Anne Edgeworth), who has had tuberculosis all her life, and, as his father (Harve Presnell) observes, he may dote on her in a possibly dysfunctional way. Later, when she suggests the idea of marriage to him, he replies that he cannot be tied down and needs his freedom (as he wrote once, “The road I walk, I walk alone”). This cripples the relationship from developing above the level of dating into a serious one and she starts seeing one of Robert’s friends, even as Robert has second thoughts about the need for his freedom.
A movie like this depends above all on the performances of the actors and the ways that Zellweger and D’Onofrio play their characters feel like they could have been real versions of the people they portray. Zellweger was already becoming a star in 1996 for Jerry Maguire, which probably eclipsed this film, but this film shows, in a quieter way, the same charming spunk and pluck that will match up to a man’s struggle to prove his masculinity or the worthiness of his own values. As for D’Onofrio, who is one of my favorite character actors for the versatility he displays, this movie makes an interesting companion piece to 2000’s Happy Accidents, where he fell for Marisa Tomei while trying to convince her that he was from 400 years in the future. He can play crazy as in his most famous role, Full Metal Jacket, and when he plays a romantic character (as he also did in the Netflix show, Daredevil), he is able to convey an unusual sense of sincerity amidst the emotional baggage he portrays.
In his first film, the director, Dan Ireland uses his actors well, and I wish that he trusted them more and restrained the use of the musical score by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. Zimmer and Gregson-Williams are accomplished composers in Hollywood but their scores sometimes have a way of standing out too much in a movie. Their scoring during the aforementioned writer’s imagination scenes is very effective and another scene, showing an anguished Howard plowing through a field of grass, nicely uses similar musical notes to suggest that his pain may be a fuel to his sword-wielding imagination. However, other scenes that show the couple’s courtship (whether it is their first kiss or their increasingly bitter arguments) get distracted by a swelling score that tries to underscore the emotions we already feel from the characters.
Thankfully, that is not enough to undermine the effect of the film though, especially in a subtle scene towards the end when Howard brings Price to a log cabin. He asks her to imagine characters and a story with him, but we see that she cannot move beyond the characters that he has already described. This perhaps suggests that, aside from his emotional problems, her inability to follow his imagination is also a cause for their relationship not to be. Later, she would be able to write about her story with Howard, which is about how two people thought there was a “whole wide world” they could share but recognized that it really stood between them.
USA. 1996. Directed by Dan Ireland. Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers. Based on the memoir, “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis. Starring: Renee Zellweger, Vincent D’Onofrio, Anne Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, Benjamin Mouton, Helen Cates, Leslie Buesing, and Chris Shearer.