The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E. Howard answers to nobody. A successful writer — he invented the character Conan the Barbarian — he’s the highest paid man in Cross Plains Texas. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and with a loud, booming voice, he’s a larger than life individualist who has conjured up out of the stark, central Texas landscape a world where men are men and women are women. He has no use for the New Deal, or for American society in general, a place where “men grow more depraved and demonic every day.” Howard is the literary voice of anarchocapitalism, not only a man’s man but a libertarian’s libertarian.

He’s also a virgin who lives with his mother.

Based on One Who Walked Alone, the memoir of a Louisiana school teacher named Novalyne Price Ellis, The Whole Wide World is a 1996 film starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. It’s a very small scale film. It could just as easily be staged off Broadway, but its strength rests upon D’Onofrio, and Zellweger. D’Onofrio, unlike Ethan Hawke in the Before series is actually believable as a well-known writer. He’s not just another hipster yuppie with a gift of gab. He may only write sword and sorcery stories for pulp magazines, but he’s so dedicated to his craft it’s isolated him from society. Most people in town he’s crazy. Robert E. Howard isn’t a rugged individualist. He’s a misfit.

Yet Howard not only finds his soul mate. His soul mate forces herself upon him. Cross Plains, Texas in the 1930s wasn’t Berkeley in the 60s. It was a dull, narrow-minded place without much more in the way of culture than the local movie theater. Novalyne Price is a budding feminist and New Deal liberal. That Robert E. Howard was most decidedly not doesn’t really matter. He is her opportunity to assert herself as an individual. When some other women express their disgust at how Howard is an eccentric who writes dirty books, she picks up the phone and calls him right in front of them.

Novalyne Price is an aspiring writer. If she doesn’t particularly like the stories Howard writes, she’s eager to defend that fact that he does write them. In addition to her physical attraction to Howard, she wants him as a mentor. But his mother is having none of it. She and her husband have been in a loveless marriage for years, and there’s no way she’s going to let her son go, even if he is in his late 20s. Novalyne calls. Robert isn’t home. She calls again. His mother promises to leave a message. She doesn’t. Novalyne calls yet again. She’s a very determined woman, but Howard’s mother is more determined yet.

Finally, Novalyne just stops at the house on the way to church and knocks on the door. Well, first she goes up to his window and spies on him while he’s writing. Like Glenn Gould at his piano, Robert E. Howard talks, or rather shouts to himself at his typewriter. While, judging by my description, it may almost feel as if Novalyne is stalking Howard, that it’s a bad case of unrequited love, it’s anything but. Novalyne’s attraction is more than reciprocated. They start a relationship. Whether or not they actually slept together is left to the imagination, but they do share one passionate kiss that must go on for thirty seconds. D’Onofrio, a 6’4″ bear of a man, doesn’t so much talk to Zellweger, he rants at her. He points. He swings his arm. He projects his emotional issues onto her blank slate.

But she’s not intimidated by his act. She shouts back. They really are soul mates, but Howard is doomed. As much as he knows he loves Novalyne, his mother has trained him from an early age never to leave her for a woman his own age. Indeed, the scenes between Wedgeworth, who plays Howard’s mother, and D’Onofrio, show a side of Howard the rest of the town never sees. He’s not a blustery bully at all. He’s a caring, nurturing gentleman. Far from being alienated from other people, he is in fact so empathetic with his mother’s sufferings, her declining health affects his health. He knows he can’t abandon her so he intentionally alienates the love of his life, or, rather, the other love of his life, not only ranting at Novalyne but insulting her, accusing her of trying to destroy his individuality, sub-consciously crossing his identity as a writer with his mother’s incestuous death grip.

Robert E. Howard shot himself in 1936. Novalyne Price died in the late 1990s after a long career as a high-school teacher and a long happy marriage to another man. But it was her memoir about Howard that she wrote in the 1980s that finally let her become a successful writer. Perhaps it was a thank you note to Howard for enabling her to escape the horrible fate of being an unsuccessful, or even a successful writer in the United States. The Whole Wide World was not particularly successful at the box office, in spite of Zellweger’s star power. I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival in 1996. I’m not sure if it got much distribution after that, but it would make a great off-Broadway play, as well as a cautionary tale, if someone got around to rewriting the screenplay.

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