The Secret Screen Life Of Scott Fitzgerald

Image for The Secret Screen Life Of Scott Fitzgerald

“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald - a man who’d clearly never seen From Dusk Till Dawn – and his screen life bears witness to that fact. A giant of American literature, his work hasn’t adorned the big screen with either the frequency or quality of peers like Ernest Hemingway or Henry James. But there’s more to the story. With Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby out this winter and Empire’s August issue debuting some dazzling pictures from the set, we’ve dug up a trove of Fitzgerald treasure to prime you for his latest moment in the Hollywood sun.

The first adaption of Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby arrived only a year after publication – sadly Herbert Brenon’s silent 1926 version no longer exists – but the late ‘40s take is well worth tracking down (or watching on YouTube). The story’s gangster elements are more explicit here than in Fitzgerald’s novel, with Fitzgerald’s enigmatic Gatsby (Alan Ladd) a little less enigmatic but a lot more dangerous than the book’s shady millionaire. Still, Ladd is an inspired bit of casting, bringing Shane’s mystery and tonnes of charisma to the part.

Gregory Peck plays Fitzgerald in this biopic of the man’s booze-soaked later years. It’s directed by Henry King, who, with Tender Is The Night (1962) also on his CV, is probably the closest Hollywood has come to a Fitzgerald specialist. That said, neither film quite captures the panache of the writer’s work. Peck struggles with the drunk scenes as Fitz tries to revive his career as a Hollywood writer, but does muster up some flirty chemistry with Deborah Kerr’s gossip columnist. Ultimately though, this is a Fitzgerald biopic that makes you want to watch another Fitzgerald biopic.

There’s a paperback cameo for Fitzgerald in Antonioni’s trippy masterpiece, with Lea Massari’s mysterious blonde packing a copy of Tender Is The Night in her baggage. It’s no coincidence that this is the book she’s reading just before her disappearance sparks two hours of existential ennui – and not just because it’s a ripping holiday read for those languid trips to Sicily. The film mirrors many of the novel’s themes: a search for meaning, lust and the boredom of wealth.

We'd like to be bored of wealth. Just for a change.

The fact that Hollywood adaptations of Fitzgerald’s work are rare-as-unicorns might be down to the fact that the novelist’s world offers no happy ending. There’s no audience-friendly knight in shining armour to barrel down its neon boulevards and make everything alright, and while the glass is a champagne coupe, it’s still half empty.

That elegant sadness is only hinted at in Carousel director Henry King’s take on the author’s most autobiographical work, bearing out the reluctance of Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie to sell her dad’s rights to Hollywood. David O. Selznick was one producer not put off by whispers of incest in the storyline of the damaged Nicole Driver (Jennifer Jones), a cipher for Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. He was rewarded with an Oscar-winning song and some stunning Riviere locations but not much else.

Jack Clayton’s Gatsby opens with an empty West Egg mansion echoing with the ghosts of parties past, a spooky motif that’s apt from the man who made haunted-house classic The Innocents. Unfortunately, the Brit couldn’t do for Fitzgerald what he did for Henry James. After a troubled genesis, his Great Gatsby turned out to be everything Fitzgerald’s classic isn’t: a listless, billowy mess that fizzled with critics and audiences alike, despite a script by Francis Ford Coppola and the bazillion-megawatt glamour of Robert Redford.

Despite successful literally adaptions of The Go-Between and The Servant, Harold Pinter probably isn’t the first name you’d associate with F. Scott Fitzgerald onscreen. Still, the Brit dramatist was hired to pen The Last Tycoon screenplay for On The Waterfront pair Sam Spiegel and Elia Kazan, and did a largely solid job, despite working from Fitzgerald’s unfinished 1941 novel. He stuck closely to the novelist’s mantra that “Action is character” to bring movie mogul Monroe Stahr to life, a task that was made a little easier by having Robert De Niro delivering the dialogue and the likes of Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum offering strong support.

The real Fitzgerald pops up in Woody Allen’s masterly comic doc, albeit in archive form, as the first famous face to rumple quizzically at the sight of 20th century "human chameleon" Zelig. The Jazz Age chronicler is recorded passing canny judgment on Allen’s loveable enigma. “He seemed clearly to be an aristocrat and extolled the very rich as he chatted with socialites,” the scribe is quoted recalling of Zelig’s party appearance, “and an hour later I was stunned to see the same man chatting with the kitchen help. Now his accent seemed to be coarse, as if one of the crowd.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Alan Rudolph’s tangy Dorothy Parker biopic. Malcolm Gets plays the writer on one of his frequent visits to a Algonquin Round Table that’s presided over regally by Dorothy Parker. Inevitably, the film belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of the great wit, but it’s interesting to see the wiseacre, socialite side of Fitzgerald as he mingles with his fellow thinkers. It’s basically The Bon Mot Avengers.

This 1922 Fitzgerald short story was transformed into a bells-and-whistles Hollywood blockbuster by David Fincher, with mixed results. The quality of prosthetics and CGI linger longer in the mind that the sentimental storyline. If Fincher has a yearning to adapt another Fitzgerald short story, here’s hoping it’s the masterpiece of megalomania that is The Diamond As Big As The Ritz. We’d love to see what the man who made The Game would do with its Citizen-Kane-meets-Smaug loopiness.

Tom Hiddleston is so good as a jaunty Paris-era Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s hit comedy that we’d like to see him play the great man in a fresh biopic. Until that happens, there’s plenty of good stuff here to keep us going, not least in the fizzy interplay between Fitz and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill). Hiddleston prepped for the role by downing the audiobook of The Great Gatsby on his iPod: “On the days when I wasn't filming I wandered around Paris listening to it,” he recalls, “just to get his voice in my bones”. The sheer larger-than-lifeness of Hiddleston and Pill steals their scenes in the same way that the writer and his wife must have dominated ’20s society.

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, which arrives with us this Christmas, looks like being the firecracker in a fairly tame collection of Scott Fitzgerald adaptations to date. Or put another way: an over-the-top Baztravangza of swinging parties, eye-popping 3D and old-school, golden age glamour with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the mysterious Jay Gatsby. It's a high-risk pick from Luhrmann - the queue of stuffy traditionalist ready to shoot the adaptation down is already forming - but it could just sing on the screen.