"In New York, especially Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats ... I have always felt at home."
These are the words of Joe Gould, a Boston-born, Harvard-educated son of physicians who moved to New York in 1916 and went on to become a well-known character in Greenwich Village. Gould was the subject of two legendary New Yorker articles written by Joseph Mitchell in the 1940s and 1960s. And he is the confounding, elusive center of "Joe Gould's Secret," Stanley Tucci's filmed adaptation of those pieces.
One of the most vexing challenges to face a filmmaker is how to transfer -- with good faith, a sound ear and visual energy -- a piece of transporting writing to the screen. When the writing happens to be non-fiction, the problem becomes how to preserve the poetry along with the facts. Tucci has done an admirable job with the conundrum in "Joe Gould's Secret," which may not do full justice to two of history's greatest pieces of literary journalism but doesn't blaspheme them, either.
Rather, "Joe Gould's Secret" provides the invaluable service of preserving an ephemeral moment of New York life, exploring the complex drives and neuroses that animate genius and, with luck, inspiring filmgoers to discover for themselves the sublime gifts of Mitchell's writing.
By the time Mitchell met him, in the 1940s, Gould was a fixture on the Village's street corners, in its coffee shops (where he would douse free lunches with gobs of ketchup), its bars and its flop-houses. One of Gould's claims to fame was his fluency in sea gull, and he would flap, croak and squawk his way through monologues in the avian language. "Professor Seagull" was the name of Mitchell's first article about Gould, a piece that catapulted the latter into fame as one of New York's most colorful bohemians.
The film might have focused just on Gould; certainly Ian Holm's growling, biting and ultimately vulnerable performance would have justified the cinematic equivalent of a New Yorker profile. But instead, Tucci, who also plays Mitchell in the film, has chosen to focus on the troubled relationship between the two men, which brought to the fore Mitchell's own neuroses as a writer.
Raised in North Carolina, his soft drawl rarely rising above a whisper, Mitchell emerges here almost as the passive-aggressive side of Gould's exhibitionist personality. They were two sides of the same coin and, in the end, both prone to self-destructive writers' blocks. Gould would die alone in 1952 of arteriosclerosis and senility, his "Oral History of Our Time" never having been written, let alone published; Mitchell died in 1996, having written not a word since his final article on Gould in 1964.
The role of Mitchell is too wispy to make full use of Tucci's prodigious gifts as a physical actor, but as a director he's the author's ideal cinematic alter ego, bringing the same observant humor, tenderness and discretion to film as Mitchell did to writing.
"Joe Gould's Secret" abounds with thoughtful, alert moments. Sequences in which Mitchell nervously encounters his editor, Harold Ross, will ring true to any journalist who's been stuck in the elevator with the boss. And Tucci uses Mitchell's wife, Therese, a photographer, to bring in lonely, loving images of city dwellers that lend "Joe Gould's Secret" a sweetly elegiac tone.
Never being one to buy into the fetish of the close-up, Tucci instead pulls his camera back to observe his characters, letting their full bodies express what their words cannot. A particularly eloquent sequence has Tucci and Holm leaning in and out of the shot as Gould regales Mitchell with a typical shaggy-dog story over equally typical martinis.
While "Joe Gould's Secret" may not be as vivid a portrait of Gould as Mitchell's original stories were, the film does limn a sharp social history of New York in the 1940s, when so many artists, writers and poets were enjoying each other's company -- and booze -- in the city's rathskellers. Alice Neel makes a cameo appearance in the form of Susan Sarandon (the painter was so taken with Gould's animal energy that she depicted him with three penises), as do the poets e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams, at least as conversational references.
The closing image of "Joe Gould's Secret" will be familiar to anyone who has read "Up in the Old Hotel," an anthology of Mitchell's writing. And it's the perfect image with which to sum up what Tucci has done here, which is to preserve and pay homage to two remarkable men and their equally remarkable relationship, and to a city and way of life that has long since disappeared.
'Joe Gould's Secret'
Starring Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Released by USA Films
Rated R (some language and brief nudity)
Running time 108 minutes
Sun score ***
From the book 'Joe Gould's Secret'
We took a booth, and the waitress brought Gould's coffee. It was in a thick white mug, diner style, and it was so hot it was steaming. Even so, tipping the mug slightly toward him without taking it off the table, he bent down and immediately began drinking it with little, cautious, quick, birdlike sips and gulps interspersed with little whimpering sounds indicating pleasure and relief, and almost at once color returned to his face and his eyes became brighter and his twitch disappeared. I had never before seen anyone react so quickly and so noticeably to coffee; brandy probably wouldn't have done any more for him, or cocaine, or an oxygen tent, or a blood transfusion. He drank the whole mug in this fashion, and then sat back and held his head on one side and looked me over. "I suppose you're puzzled about me," he said. His tone of voice was condescending; he had got some of his confidence back. "If so," he continued, "the feeling is mutual, for I'm puzzled about myself, and have been since childhood. I seem to be a changeling or a throwback or a mutation of some sort in a highly respectable old New England family. Let me give you a few biographical facts. My full name is Joseph Ferdinand Gould, and I was named for my grandfather, who was a doctor. During the Civil War, he was surgeon of the Fourth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, and later on he was a prominent obstetrician in Boston and taught in the Harvard Medical School. The Goulds, or my branch of them, have been in New England since the sixteen-thirties and have fought in every war in the history of the country, including King Philip's War and the Pequot War. We're related to many of the other early New England families, such as the Lawrences and the Clarkes and the Storers. My grandmother on my father's side was a direct descendant of John Lawrence, who arrived from England on the Arbella in 1630 and was the first Lawrence in this country, and she could trace her ancestry back to a knight named Robert Lawrence who lived in the twelfth century. She used to say that the Lawrence line, or this particular Lawrence line, was not only one of the oldest clearly traceable lines in New England but also one of the oldest clearly traceable lines in England itself, and that we should never forget it."
From "Joe Gould's Secret," by Joseph Mitchell, excerpted from his collected works "Up in the Old Hotel."