Joe Gould (Ian Holm) is what they used to call a “character.” You see him early in Stanley Tucci’s film, scuttling into a diner where New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (Tucci) is having coffee. Joe makes an elaborate entrance, complaining and cajoling: “Please don’t think I’m stupid,” he bellows, “just because I’m unclean.” Visibly irritated by what seems a routine performance, the diner’s owner feeds Joe his (usual) bowl of soup to shut him up. Joe picks at his meal for a minute, wipes his mouth with a flourish, then flounces out the door. Mitchell’s intrigued.
And so begins The Secret of Joe Gould, essentially a two-character study or perhaps more accurately, a study of character-making, as a process that equally involves performers and audiences. Mitchell and Gould play off each other, to conjure up their best and worst selves. Howard A. Rodman’s screenplay is based on Mitchell’s actual New Yorker articles and book about Joe Gould, 1942’s “Professor Sea Gull” and 1964’s “Joe Gould’s Secret,” both republished later (1992), with several other essays, as a book entitled Up in the Old Hotel. The movie offers an often fascinating consideration of the ways that people create themselves and one another. As Joe Gould points out with glee, the two men share a first name, which is only one of the several ways that their story takes on a weird aura of destiny. More than that, they share an appreciation for poetry, philosophy, and general deep thinking. As their paths cross again and again, they reveal more about one another, their dreams and fears, than either would have intended.
Upon inquiring after the stranger, Mitchell discovers that he’s well-known about town. Homeless, proud, and not a little crotchety, Joe Gould rambles around 1940s New York City with a combined imperiousness and recklessness, asking moneyed folks for donations to the “Joe Gould Fund.” For the more prosperous of his repeat patrons, handing Joe a dollar or so appears to mean nothing much: they do it in the spirit of a feigned camaraderie, as if they admire his gutsy nonconformity, and then they move on to their luncheons or poetry readings. For the less well-to-do, say, the aspiring Village artists and folks he meets at bars, Joe represents a kind of tough survivalism they’re afraid they couldn’t manage, and so, they’re happy enough to chip in, perhaps hoping that someone would do the same for them if they ever went a bit off their rockers.
Mitchell tracks him down, asking acquaintances who and where he is. But the North Carolina-born Mitchell who has, in effect, recreated himself as a New Yorker already has an unarticulated notion of who and what he’s looking for, a vehicle for his own slowly lapsing dreams of greatness, or at least, notoriety. When Mitchell speaks with Gould’s acquaintances, they all have their own ideas of Gould’s meaning, ideas which Mitchell is inclined to edit for his own purposes. When Mike the cop says, “He’s a freak!”, Mitchell patiently (and just a little condescendingly) replies, “We’re all freaks, Mike.” Gallery owner Vivian Marquie (Patricia Clarkson), one of Gould’s fund contributors, allows that he’s eccentric, but also appreciates his difference. When artist Alice Neel (Susan Sarandon) shows Mitchell her wild and affectionate portrait of Gould (naked, with multiple penises) and exalts his ability to channel the “unconscious” of New York’s streets, Mitchell agrees, while taking on his own role, channeller for the channeller.
The real hook for the refined, somewhat timorous Mitchell, though, is Gould’s legend, located at once in his audacious person and his fabled “Oral History of Civilization,” a manuscript he’s been working on for years (and which Gould calls, rather affectionately, the OH). Supposedly a compendium of quotations by and observations of the many people Gould has met around the city, the OH reportedly consists of three times as many words as the Bible. It soon becomes clear that Mitchell wants to believe that such a tome exists, that Gould is channeling the city’s “unconscious,” in part because he can’t quite get his own book project off the ground. Instead, he’s writing the magazine pieces that have made him relatively famous (at least in his own literary circle) and relatively well-off (he and his photographer wife Therese [Hope Davis] have a family and a nice-enough apartment).
Really then, the movie is about ambition, or better, the ways that unrealized ambition makes you sad and yearning. And so, it makes sense that it maintains a decidedly muted visual affect, its colors drab browns and beiges, its settings detailed, small, and unsensational. When Mitchell publishes his first essay on Gould, the latter temporarily becomes a celebrity, feted by wealthy midtowners, tickled under his chin by pretty young women, listened to by people who read magazines like the New Yorker. He also attracts an anonymous patron who provides a monthly allowance and housing at a small hotel. Feeling his oats and happy to be seen for once, Gould parties hard, giggling with breasty women, dancing on tables, holding forth at genteel poetry readings, drinking any liquor offered.
Meanwhile, you see the quiet Mitchell spending time with his family, and on occasion, see his wife at work in her dark room, perhaps a suggestion that she has her own stuff to do and so, when she offers advice to her increasingly troubled husband, she seems reasonable and wise. At first, Mitchell is happy enough to collect money for Gould, sent in by New Yorker readers, and hand it over to his subject when the old man shows up at his office. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Gould is not going to let go of his celebrity and more importantly, the sense of validation conveyed by such celebrity and that he sees this validation embodied by Mitchell. Gould’s occasional visits to the New Yorker offices start to come more frequently, and Mitchell starts to dread them, his shoulders hunching and his eyes darting whenever he sees Gould approach. In one beautiful set up, Mitchell waits just inside his door, to the left of the screen, as Gould on the right, framed by and made small in the doorway is informed by Mitchell’s secretary that he’s suddenly gone on a two week vacation to “the South.” And indeed, Mitchell’s sense of himself is on its way down.
While Mitchell continues toiling at his job, Gould persists in his visits and efforts to engage in conversation, until Mitchell confronts him with what he suspects as the truth, that there is no manuscript, that Gould is scamming him. Feeling hurt and betrayed, Gould pulls back: their relationship is forever altered. When they see one another again, by chance on the street, neither is able to share himself in quite the way they were able before. Their breakdown in communication is filmed in a way that underlines their disparate worlds: Gould is searching the ground for trash and cigarette butts, Mitchell is across the street walking and chatting with his young daughters: the men’s gazes intersect for an instant, and then they pretend they haven’t seen one another. The image is acute, the pain is subtle but awful, as their mutual sense of propriety won’t allow them to talk.
For the most part, Joe Gould’s Secret captures the ways that such indirection shapes both Joes’ lives and condemns them, eventually, to limited self-understandings: they’re at their “best” when they appreciate and even, to an extent, become each other’s illusions. Moving slowly and carefully through this difficult and unlikely long-term relationship, the film is sometimes draggy, sometimes too precious. But it is also quite effective when it attends to typically overlooked details of behavior and desire, the ways that people perform for one another and so, turn themselves into characters.