AFI Docs Review: “Running From Crazy”

Barbara Kopple explores the legacy of mental illness through the heritage of actress Mariel Hemingway.

By: Sherri Dalphonse

Her grandfather—the larger-than-life writer Ernest Hemingway—committed suicide. Her great-grandfather—Ernest’s father—committed suicide. Her uncle, her great uncle, and her sister all took their own lives.

Is it any wonder that Mariel Hemingway says—in Barbara Kopple’s compelling documentary—that her whole life she’s felt like she’s “running from crazy”?

The film by two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County, USA and American Dream) explores the subject of mental illness through the life of actress Mariel Hemingway, known for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Woody Allen’s 17-year-old girlfriend in the 1979 movie Manhattan—and for being part of a family plagued by depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

“It was kind of like the Kennedy family,” she says. “We were sort of the other American family that had this horrible curse.”

The fact that the family was so famous turns out to be a blessing, at least as far as the documentary is concerned. Kopple and her team had access not only to archival video, audio, and photos of Ernest, Mariel, and her sister Margaux, but also to extraordinary footage of the family from a documentary Margaux intended to make. In one heartbreaking scene, the girls’ father, Jack, says to Margaux, once one of the world’s highest-paid models and a frequent partier at Studio 54: “I saw what effect fame had on Papa, both in a positive and negative way. Seems to me I heard you or Mariel say at one point, ‘Don’t worry, daddy, I’ll never change.’ But you do.”

Mariel’s childhood is not a happy one. Her father, Ernest’s oldest son, drinks, and her parents fight constantly—frequently to the point where one will hurl a bottle against a wall. Mariel, the youngest of three daughters, is often the one to clean up the blood and glass. Affection was rare in the Hemingway house. Also strangely absent was any talk of their famous grandfather.

One of the most disturbing moments in the film is a recording of Margaux talking about her younger sister: “I’m six years old, and Mariel comes into the picture and she takes the spotlight away. She takes any kind of love away that I’m going to get from anyone, because she’s the baby. I was angry. I’ll tell you one thing I did: I cut off her eyelashes with a pair of scissors.”

What’s perhaps most amazing is that Mariel emerges as a relatively strong person. It has taken years of hard work to find some measure of happiness and stillness—she jokes, for example, about bouncing from diet to diet (macrobiotic, vegan, raw) and about using exercise as her “high.” She’s become an advocate not only for holistic living but for suicide prevention. Her relationship with her daughters, Langley (an artist) and Dree (a model), is especially touching, given Mariel’s memories of her own childhood.

Running From Crazy may disappoint those looking for broad discussions about mental illness. But by telling the story of one family—a famous one that from the outside may have once seemed to have it all—it reveals how devastating the disease can be. And how a family’s tragic legacy can inspire hope.

Playing June 22, 2:30 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery, and June 23, 8:30 PM, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.