That’s why I own a Webster’s Dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus. Also, at one point in my career, I got to oversee the publication of American Heritage Dictionary. And I own a two-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary with type so small that the dictionary comes with its own magnifying glass.
That’s why I was eager to see the movie titled “The Professor and the Madman,” a cinematic look at the obscure lexicographer who compiled the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with the help of a patient in a lunatic asylum.
You can find it on such streaming video platforms as Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play.
This 2019 film didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, perhaps because it starred Mel Gibson. Considered a Hollywood pariah due to his racist comments, his movies are still being shunned. A sad heritage for the Australian-raised American actor who gave us such memorable cinematic outings as “Mad Max,” “Braveheart,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” and all those “Lethal Weapon” romps. Also, he’s shown himself an able filmmaker with “Apocalypto” and “The Passion of the Christ.”
Gibson once ranked No. 12 on Empire’s list of “The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time.” And he was even ranked No. 1 on Forbes’s 2004 “Celebrity 100 List.”
Now he can’t catch flies.
Don’t worry, Mel’s not hurting financially. In 2004, he was the world’s highest-paid celebrity with a $475,000,000 takeaway from his “The Passion of the Christ,” earning more that year than Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling or Stephen Spielberg combined.
Yes, he made that celebrated movie about Christ, has a private chapel on his estate where he attends mass every day, and was voted “The Most Powerful Christian in Hollywood.”
Nonetheless, many moviegoers have been unforgiving of his drunken driving, misogyny, anti-Semitism, high-profile divorce, child out of wedlock and allegations of domestic abuse.
But as he says, “I’m not a done deal. I’m a work in progress. I’m still extremely flawed.”
As for “The Professor and the Madman,” back in 1998 Mel Gibson bought the rights to Simon Winchester’s novel “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words,” but it took him 17 years to get it made. But not without a lot of battles with Voltage Pictures, who refused to comply with all of Gibson’s demands, delaying the film’s release by another three years.
However, you should put all that aside. This is a movie for amateur philologists and word nerds, the true story of how the most important dictionary of the English language came into being.
In 1872 Professor James A.H. Murray (portrayed by Gibson in full beard) was tasked with leading a team of Oxford scholars to create a comprehensive English dictionary. Or as he described it to his children, “… a very big book with a lot of words in it. All the words of the English language.”
Although fluent in a long list of ancient and modern languages, Murray lacked the proper academic credentials. Dropping out of school at 14, he didn’t possess a university degree. He was an autodidact (look it up). Murray was given the job anyway. In a clever move, he appealed to the populace for help, placing a letter inside books asking readers to “gather every word, definition, and date they came across, inviting them to send their words by post.”
Turns out, a schizophrenic inmate of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dr. William Minor (brilliantly played by Sean Penn), was given a book as a Christmas present by his guards. Coming across the letter inside, this convicted murderer decided to participate, sending in more than 10,000 entries. His efforts to save the project.
Needless to say, this contribution catches Professor Murray’s eye. And a friendship emerges. Consanguineous, as they say.
Despite Gibson’s legal wrangles with the film company, he and Penn deliver outstanding performances. And director Farhad Safina (hiding behind the pseudonym of P.B. Shemran) gives us a hidden gem that viewers call “brilliant,” “outstanding,” and “one of the best movies you have never seen!”
What can audiences say this about a two-hour, four-minute slow-moving movie about inventing a dictionary?
First, it’s about much more than words. We watch as these two men form a bond, a professor without a degree and an inmate with regrets. As one viewer puts it, the movie “has friendship, courage, kindness and sadness at its heart.” Another calls it, “Shawshank-like.”
And second, the film is rife with Oscar-worthy performances — from Natalie Dormer (the widow) to Jennifer Ehle (the wife) to Eddie Marsan (the guard) to Steve Coogan (the scholar). And particularly Penn (the madman), acting here at his very, very best. Even Gibson (the professor) reminding us of his talent.
But because of all the legal in-fighting over the film, Gibson’s refusal to promote the film and his personal baggage, “The Professor and the Madman” got overlooked by the Academy Awards and panned by critics.
Moviegoers disagreed. Headlines on IMDb viewers’ reviews shout: “Ignore the pompous professional critics,” “Panned by critics … great watch,” “Nice movie, nasty reviews” and “Screw the critics … quality storytelling wins out again.”
Trying to separate myself from those so-called “pompous professional critics,” I’d unhesitatingly recommend this film to my Friday luncheon group, made up of one-time college professors and wordsmiths. And to you.