Taking a walk down Ocean Drive or Lincoln Road, it's hard to imagine that those stretches of high-priced real estate were once lined with dilapidated buildings and storefronts full of people as old as the structures themselves. You don't have to be from Miami to recall its reputation as retiree heaven -- a place where the silver-haired went to live out the remainder of their lives in sunshine and warmth.
The city is very different today, with an influx of European and Latin America residents making a once sleepy beach town a nonstop party and thus less appealing to the AARP crowd who have sinced moved further north. But there was indeed a golden era for the golden-aged in Miami, and Randa Haines' quiet, unassuming film Wrestling Ernest Hemingway captures the tail end of it beautifully.
Shot in 1993, the film centers on two very different old men. Walter is a mild-mannered former barber from Cuba who is always impeccably dressed and extremely polite and leads a no-surprises kind of life. Each morning he stops by his favorite diner for his usual -- two bacon sandwiches -- and to shyly flirt with waitress Elaine, several decades his junior. Afternoons are spent sitting in the park and weekends going to the dance halls full of fellow retirees cutting a rug.
Frank, on the other hand, is the polar opposite, an Irishman who embodies every stereotype of a scruffy, scraggly former seaman. He drinks too much, swears too much, and spins tales so far-fetched that he himself can hardly believe them. Though he fancies himself a ladies' man, the truth is his bravado is off-putting to the opposite sex, as is evident by the contentious relationship he has with both his landlady Helen and Georgia, a woman he pursues at the matinee film screenings where he spends his days.
Yet for all their differences, the two old men become friends after a a chance meeting in a park. The only shared commonality amongst them is the gripping loneliness which quietly rules their days.
On the heels of her success with Children of a Lesser God, which made a star of Marlee Matlin and garnered her an Oscar and Golden Globe, Randa Haines had access to a slew of stars, and she couldn't have picked a better slate to helm this charming film. Walter is delicately played by Robert Duvall, whose mannerisms and accent are so spot-on that many viewers will undoubtedly do a double-take to make sure that isn't their abuelo on the screen. Frank was impeccably played by Richard Harris, a real life Irishman with an enviable acting pedigree, but whose turn as the scrappy septuagenarian is one of the finest performances in his illustrious career. Today's audiences will probably best know Harris as the original Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
The role of Helen, Frank's hard-nosed landlady, was played by Shirley MacLaine, who can do no wrong (particularly when playing headstrong women). The film also starred a young, relatively unknown actress named Sandra Bullock, a year before her breakout role in Speed. Keen observers would also notice a brief cameo from actress Jody Wilson, best known to Miamians as Mrs. Allen, the gringa neighbor from ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?
The film is set in Sweetwater, Florida. But it only takes a few frames for viewers to realize that the sedate and picturesque setting in this film is no part of Sweetwater or la saguesera you've ever been to. (It was shot in Miami, with some scenes done in Lake Worth and Los Angeles.) Still, in this case I'd rather see fake Sweetwater with its pastel colored buildings than real Sweetwater and its potholes and flooding.
What makes Wrestling Ernest Hemingway truly special and worth a revisit, however, is not merely its setting in Miami but the simplicity and honesty of its story -- one that resonates clearly for many Miamians. While many people lead an active life right till they die, there are some, like Walter and Frank, who by death or desertion now find themselves alone and trying to navigate the years they have left with surroundings that have changed -- sometimes by the influx of new people, and sometimes by the exodus of those they knew. While we all like to think of Scarface as the quintessential look at 1980's Miami, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway offers a satisfying, albeit somewhat somber look at what happened to los viejitos for whom the city was also once a playground but eventually became God's waiting room.
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