Fitzgerald’s New World

For him,Hollywood was the club to which he was denied entry

Written by Nick Pinkerton | Published: May 18, 2013 12:35 am

For him,Hollywood was the club to which he was denied entry

At the end of the 1925 novel,The Great Gatsby,F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway casts his mind back to imagine an undiscovered New York,the “island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh,green breast of the New World”. This bit has been excised from the coda of Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant new $100 million Gatsby,which recreates the ecstatic,shrilly booming Manhattan of the Flapper Age,and the country estates where those who could afford it passed lavish summer Saturdays.

This was the world that Fitzgerald had,at one time,conquered himself,for he had great early success as a popular novelist,and he and his wife Zelda were a beautiful couple,much in demand at the best parties. But after they’d taken Manhattan,another,still newer New World beckoned: Hollywood. The Fitzgeralds first visited in 1927; Scott,dashing at 30,even went for a screen test for the United Artists. Hopelessly of-the-moment and as commercial-minded as one with his artistic conscience could afford to be,Fitzgerald fully believed that the talkies were to be the art of the future,and he intended to be part of that future.

And in a way,he has been. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby,featuring a superb Leo DiCaprio in the title role and Toby Maguire as Carraway,is not the first screen version of Fitzgerald’s slim memory-novel. There is a 1926 Paramount silent,of which nothing exists but a one-minute teaser trailer; a 1949 film with Alan Ladd,little seen; and,most famously,Jack Clayton’s lugubrious film of 1974,with Robert Redford in the title role,as stately as Luhrmann’s film is hyperventilatingly over-the-top.

By the time of the Clayton film’s release,Hollywood had long reclaimed Fitzgerald for itself. Fitzgerald,though,had every reason to consider that he’d been a failure in his last home. He had come west to stay in 1937,with the express purpose of making money for his daughter and Zelda,then confined in an asylum. He died there in 1940,in the home of his lover,the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. The previous evening they’d attended a premiere together,for Fitzgerald was going through the motions,scratching at the gates of the industry to the very end,even as he was filing a series of satirical Hollywood stories to Esquire magazine,his last published work. The star of these stories was Pat Hobby,a broke,washed-up,middle-aged alcoholic screenwriter subsisting on piecemeal work,a holdover from the silent era still trying to hustle work around Tinseltown.

Fitzgerald caricatured his own failure in Pat Hobby’s. But shortly after Fitzgerald’s death,he’d become a hot property once again. You can see his fatal heart attack re-enacted at the end of Henry King’s 1958 prestige pic Beloved Infidel,based on Graham’s memoir,in which Gregory Peck stars as Fitzgerald,a self-destructive drinker who invariably follows every career setback with a debilitating spree. The image of Fitzgerald the dissipated,unruly,undisciplined wastrel had been gaining traction ever since the 1950 publication of The Disenchanted,in which author Budd Schulberg — son of producer B.P. Schulberg and author of the ultimate poison pen letter to Hollywood,What Makes Sammy Run? — recounted Fitzgerald’s binge during a research mission to Dartmouth University in preparation to collaborate on the script for 1939’s Winter Carnival.

It has become accepted wisdom to say that Scott Fitzgerald hated Hollywood,that it drove him to drink. Fitzgerald may have periodically hated Hollywood,but he hated it as the club to which he was barred entry,a New World which was never able to plant his flag on. Fitzgerald’s deeply conflicted view of the movie colony is visible in his unfinished final novel,The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western,a work whose protagonist,the visionary producer Monroe Stahr,is by almost universal agreement a portrait of the wunderkind producer Irving G. Thalberg —and a portrait as tinged with awe as are Nick Carraway’s descriptions of self-invented Jay Gatsby.

Fitzgerald’s friend and fellow transplanted eastern litterateur,Nathaniel West,took a far darker view of Los Angeles in his 1939 The Day of the Locust. It is a neat irony,then,that West apparently suffered none of Fitzgerald’s tortured compunctions about working below his talents,managing to make a perfectly respectable living as a screenwriter grinding out fare like Ticket to Paradise and Rhythm in the Clouds before he died in an auto accident — en route to Fitzgerald’s funeral.

Hollywood as Fitzgerald and West understood it has perhaps ceased to exist,but the Fitzgerald brand is thriving. David Fincher’s 2006 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,taking its premise from a Fitzgerald story,is too loose to be counted an adaptation,but Luhrmann’s fairly faithful Gatsby has opened big. Too late to benefit Scott,whose last paychecks came from poor Pat Hobby,the scenario hack who bemoaned “I’ve had a hell of a time. I’ve waited so long.”

Pinkerton is a New York-based writer

express@expressindia.com

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