It’s one thing to feel a little blue; it’s another to have a family history of depression that makes every mild funk a cause for major concern. From a young age, Mariel Hemingway made a name for herself as an actress, distancing herself from her grandfather Ernest Hemingway and her older sister Margaux, at one time the highest-paid model in the world. But Mariel is still a Hemingway, which means she’s spent most of her life hearing stories about—or witnessing firsthand—family members destroyed by alcoholism, drug abuse, and bipolar disorder. And suicide. An inordinate number of Hemingways have ended their own lives, including Ernest and Margaux.
Barbara Kopple’s documentary Running From Crazy follows two parallel tracks in telling the story of Mariel Hemingway’s upbringing and her attempts to overcome it. About a third of the movie is devoted to showing Mariel today, raising two daughters (one a model) and speaking to groups about leading a healthy lifestyle and preventing suicide. She says she wants to change the meaning of the Hemingway name, making it stand for “a total embrace of joy” rather than a tragedy waiting to happen. These modern-day scenes are sweet, but blandly touchy-feely, like a video package from a self-help seminar.
But Mariel has also provided Kopple with several brutally frank interviews about her childhood, in which she talks about typical days at the Hemingway compound in Idaho when she was young: fishing with her father Jack during the day, watching her parents get drunk and argumentative in the late afternoon, cleaning up the blood and wreckage after dinner, then bracing herself to see whether Jack would stumble into one of her sisters’ beds. “The house was insanity,” she says. “And nobody recognized it.” The reason no one recognized it is because the Hemingways carried themselves so well in public, as evidenced by Running From Crazy’s footage of Margaux’s unfinished documentary about the places her grandfather lived. The family comes off well in these clips, with Jack tying flies while telling Margaux why she should read Death In The Afternoon, and Margaux—who struggled with dyslexia, and was often self-conscious about being perceived as “dumb”—waxing poetic about her literary legacy and her self-destructive impulses.
Much of Running From Crazy has to do with Mariel’s troubled relationship with Margaux, from whom she remained distant in her adult years, in part because she didn’t want to get sucked into her sister’s vortex of drugs and paranoia. Mariel’s honesty about her survivor’s guilt makes Running From Crazy affecting even when it roams too far into the realm of vague spiritual affirmations. Mariel understands that there are people who romanticize what they imagine to be the Hemingway spirit—exemplified by the bottles of Jack Daniels they leave at Ernest’s grave. And she knows she and her daughters have had their own issues with body image, fad dieting, and depression. At its best, Running From Crazy is a powerful portrait of a woman who’s wrested control of her life by understanding the patterns her relatives fell into, and consciously breaking them.