Joseph Mitchell is famous for inventing, to a large degree, the tone and style of the New Yorker long profile, of which he is perhaps the unrivaled master (Calvin Trillin has said as much). He is equally (and perhaps a bit more) famous for enduring one of the most grueling and peculiar writer’s blocks on record–it lasted from 1964 until his death in 1996, at the age of eighty-seven–during which he continued to show up for work everyday at the New Yorker, where he would offer a few cursory nods of greeting–he was from North Carolina, and extremely courtly in manner–before disappearing into his office until the end of the day to do who knows what.
Stanley Tucci’s Joe Gould’s Secret, concerns itself with the relationship between Mitchell and a man named Joe Gould, who was one of his subjects. Gould was, at first glance, a bum, a tramp, and a troublemaker, but he was a tramp with a past and, even more interesting, a present. He had graduated from Harvard and came from a family that was prominent in Boston. “The Goulds were the Goulds when the Cabbots and the Lowells were clam diggers,” he liked to say. He lived in the flop houses of the Bowery, but he was well known among the bohemian community–which included such figures as e.e. cummings and Alice Neal (played by Susan Sarandon in the movie)–and was reputed to be working on something called “The Oral History”, which was a huge compendium of overheard conversation and his interpretation of it. Gould had no doubt it was a masterpiece, of course, and “The Oral History” was the stuff of local legend. The idea that such an eccentric and marginal character was working on such a grand historical project captured Mitchell’s imagination, and he filed an article on Gould (titled “Professor Seagull”) for the New Yorker in 1942.
Joe Gould’s Secret, concerns itself with the relationship between the easy going, demure southerner Mitchell (played by Stanley Tucci), and the irascible, flea-bitten, outrageous Bum from Boston, Gould (played by Ian Holm).
It is Holm’s movie. He is an absolute firecracker, and does as good an impression as I’ve ever seen of one of those borderline “characters” whose eccentricity veers from the charming to the frightening at the drop of the hat. His blue eyes alight with the passion of the mad and brilliant and alcoholic. When he scratches his flea bitten legs you can feel them itch. It’s a fine display of acting whose only shortcoming is that one is aware, at all times, that it is acting.
The movie follows the relationship between the journalist and the tramp, beginning when Mitchell first encounters the irascible Gould emptying a bottle of ketchup into his soup at the local diner, through a strange kind of journalistic courtship that turns into a friendship. After “Professor Seagull” is published, Gould becomes a minor celebrity, of sorts, and for a moment all seems well. We see Gould carousing at parties, and in one scene Nell Cambpell (who plays, in a truly imaginative bit of casting, a tart and entertaining hostess of wild parties) is recorded in what might be the world’s longest sustained expression of incredulity.
The one problem is “The Oral History.” Where is it? After a lot of evasion on Gould’s part, it slowly becomes clear that it doesn’t exist. The New Yorker, then as now, was very scrupulous about its facts, and the idea that he had been duped on this point would not have sat well with Mitchell’s reportorial conscience. But there was something else gnawing at Mitchell’s conscience–as Gould himself puts it to Mitchell: “When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”
This is the animating drama of the movie–once the respectable family man Mitchell comes across this eccentric and writes him up, the eccentric will not go away, and some of the movie’s more powerful scenes depict Gould merrily harassing Mitchell at his New Yorker office.
Can you drop into the life of an eccentric and possibly troubled man, write him up in an entertaining fashion, and then drop back out?
Tucci’s movie-making style–quiet and subdued–is well-suited to animating this moral dilemma, and one of the movie’s most powerful moments comes not when Holm is making one of his bravura set pieces of wild behavior, but when Mitchell’s wife asks him why he has taken a shower before dinner. The answer is in Tucci’s body language more than the words: he’s laid down with a dog and is worried he’s caught some fleas.
Like Tucci and Holm’s last collaboration, Big Night, Joe Gould’s Secret is a period piece (spanning the fifties more or less), and like Big Night, the movie makes a certain visual poetry of the edible. In Big Night, it was food; here it is drink. Never have mugs of beer and gin martinis looked so appealing nor, for that matter, have the consolations of dark bars, where losers and drunks (and the odd genius) lurk been made so palpable.
Joe Gould’s Secret, isn’t an earth shaking-movie but, like it’s title character, it gets under you skin.
On a more personal note: Joe Mitchell and I made friends at the end of his life, when he and I overlapped at the New Yorker. One November afternoon I sat in his office and he inscribed his book of collected writings, Up in the Old Hotel, (a surprise best seller when it was published in 1992) “To my friend and colleague, Tom Beller.” This book is now missing. I can only assume someone “borrowed” it during a party or something. If you happen have a hardcover version of Up in the Old Hotel please take a look and see if it is signed with this inscription and if it is–never mind how it happened to end up on your shelf–give it back!