Barbara Kopple’s engrossing documentary “Running From Crazy,” co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and airing Sunday night on OWN, is ostensibly a film about occurrences of mental illness and suicide within the same family.
But because the family is that of Ernest Hemingway’s descendants, “Running From Crazy” can’t help but be drawn to the ways life is lived in the darkest shadows of celebrity, even in the middle of what appears to be a glorious, sun-drenched Idaho summer circa 2011.
The burdens of fame are as important to this film as the burdens of shame — the shame associated with mental illness, suicide, alcoholism, unhappy marriages and memories of sexual abuse, as viewed through the thoughts and recollections of Mariel Hemingway, the ingenue actress who was only 16 when Woody Allen cast her as his girlfriend in “Manhattan.”
Now 52, Hemingway has, like so many other women of her age and means, found some solace on the yoga mat. Amicably divorced from her husband of 23 years (with whom she raised two daughters), Hemingway spends much of her time seeking balance and remaining alert to any signs of psychological collapse in herself and those she loves. With her boyfriend Bobby Williams, a stuntman and fitness fanatic, she runs a lifestyle/nutrition venture called the WillingWay, and not very far into “Running From Crazy” you begin to fear that you’ve run smack into an infomercial for the actress’s specially concocted macro-nutrient “blisscuit” bars.
But Kopple, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries include “Harlan County USA,” “American Dream” and “Wild Man Blues,” isn’t here for a dose of the woo-woo. Patiently and often elliptically, Kopple’s camera watches as Hemingway scours deep for memories of her parents’ and older sisters’ emotional and mental troubles.
Hemingway gets that her present-day life, to an outsider or even to the viewers of “Running From Crazy” will look somewhat less than afflicted. “I know what [people] think of me. Tall, blond — what does she have to say to me? I would think the same thing,” she says. “Guess what? A bunch of funky s--- happened in my family. I’m scared, too.”
She’s not doing this only for sport or self-promotion; in recent years, Hemingway has spent a fair amount of her time speaking out about mental illness and suicide issues and lending her name to related causes. It’s her thing. On just about every level, “Running From Crazy” is about the ways all celebrities have a thing, whether they want that thing or not. Hemingway can name several relatives, including her grandfather and sister, who committed suicide.
Born four months after Ernest (“Papa”) Hemingway shot himself in 1961, Mariel grew up with two older sisters, Joan (who was called “Muffet”) and Margot.
The girls’ father, Jack, was Ernest’s oldest son — an outdoorsman and writer who helped finish his father’s memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” for a posthumous publication, but largely shunned publishing ambitions for the fishing stream and the quiet of Ketchum, Idaho, rarely speaking of Papa.
Mariel’s chief memory of her father and mother, Byra (who went by the nickname “Puck”), is that of a seethingly and verbally abusive marriage, brought about each evening by “wine time,” when her parents would uncork the booze.
When Mariel was still young, the adventuresome yet manic Muffet ran off to travel the world and party, eventually returning in a deflated mental state that left her dependent on their parents.
The middle sister, Margot, as anyone who was pop-culture literate in the 1970s will recall, left Idaho for New York, changed the spelling of her name to Margaux, and became a supermodel of the Studio 54 era, thanks in no small part to her famous surname and a plucky, girlish allure that seemed to presage ’80s preppy-punk fashion. (Time magazine put Margaux on its cover in 1975 under the headline “The New Beauties.”)
In a peculiar twist of fate that she soon regretted, Margaux invited her kid sister Mariel to take a supporting role in her 1976 film “Lipstick,” a grisly rape/revenge drama starring Margaux as a fashion model. Critics panned Margaux’s performance while praising Mariel’s. As Margaux’s career meandered, Mariel got the Woody Allen movie and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, which led to more roles. The sisters never got over the envy and ill will it caused.
Whittled down somewhat, “Running From Crazy” might have been an even better film solely about the fraught subject of siblings. Kopple’s work here is indebted to reels of footage from a documentary Margaux attempted to make in the mid-1980s about her family and her grandfather’s literary fame. (Pieced together, that film was eventually released in 1998.) Margaux made a show of jetting home to Ketchum with a camera crew, fixed on the concept of rediscovering Papa’s legacy. She also filmed a pilgrimage to Spain to watch her grandfather’s beloved bullfights; one gets the sense that the film was just a desperate bid to cash in once more.
But Margaux also captured moments that have an awkward, uncomfortable air of familial hurt and personal desperation. These form essential (and frankly fascinating) evidence for Kopple’s film about Mariel’s attempt to let in some light several decades later. It all makes for a harrowing glimpse within a family that is unable to address its demons. Margaux continued to struggle and died of a drug overdose in 1996, when she was 42. It was years before the family accepted that death as a suicide, exercising the same denial that followed Papa’s “shooting accident.”
Mariel is both alert and oblivious to the recurring themes from one generation to the next. “Running From Crazy” opens with Mariel and her daughter, Langley, posing for a lavishly styled cover shoot for Town & Country magazine. Her other daughter, Dree, in a curious replay of the family’s other affliction, celebrityhood, went off to New York to become a model and actress, opting to use her great-grandfather’s famous surname. Hemingway seems convinced that her daughters won’t be haunted by the family’s so-called curse, while the daughters appear only nominally interested in the past she’s trying to share with them.
What “Running From Crazy” ultimately discovers is a beautiful, middle-aged woman — Mariel — who talks frequently about personal courage and yet is still understandably intimidated by the contradictory elephants in so many rooms. A visit to Papa’s enshrined Ketchum home includes a tentative walk to the rear hallway where he shot himself, a space his granddaughter always equated with haunted basements and other dangerous places. “It’s like something kept me away,” she says.
Hemingway’s mother died in 1988; her father died in 2000; Margaux’s death occurred in between — all of it freeing Hemingway to dig as deeply as she needs to. She is convinced, from incidents she witnessed as a little girl, that her father sexually abused both Muffet and Margaux when he was drunk and that her mother protected her from the same abuse by insisting that little Mariel sleep with her most nights, away from Jack.
Hemingway also tries to talk through her feelings about Margaux. In “Running From Crazy’s” most raw moment, Mariel reveals that she thought Margaux was stupid. “I couldn’t see her as beautiful,” she recalls with real regret.
Late in the film comes the almost surprising news that Mariel’s older sister Muffet — who seems to always be referred to in the past-tense — is, in fact, alive, managing her illness and making abstract paintings of Papa and Jack, while residing in a group home close enough for Hemingway to visit.
But Mariel admits that she rarely goes to see Muffet. “It makes me so uncomfortable,” she says. “I always say I’m going to come by and I don’t.” When she goes this time, proffering kombucha tea and coconut water, it’s a friendly afternoon of small talk, seemingly to benefit the documentary.
“Running From Crazy,” with its Oprah imprimatur, wants very much to be a story of a woman who has triumphed. Hemingway may deservedly feel that she’s reached a mountaintop of healing and inner truths and all that; but, as the film subtly reveals, she is still often staring at the summit from a valley far below.
(two hours) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on OWN.