Real tragedy of 'Gatsby': Fitzgerald never knew fame
F. Scott Fitzgerald is back on the big-screen with Leonardo DiCaprio and director Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," a story adapted for film and television more than half a dozen times since it was published to scant sales in 1925.
A couple of decades after Fitzgerald's death in 1940, "Gatsby" was acknowledged as a masterpiece, and the author was recognized as one of America's greatest for a body of work that includes "Tender Is the Night," "This Side of Paradise" and "The Love of the Last Tycoon," the unfinished Hollywood saga he'd been writing when he died.
A huge irony considering no one was reading Fitzgerald when he was scrambling for screenplay work toward the end of his life.
There's even a small irony in the place he died of a heart attack at 44. It was the home of his companion, gossip columnist Sheila Graham, in the heart of Hollywood.
"God is a great stage manager. God is the greatest director of all time for images of pathos," Luhrmann said. "Fitzgerald ... had a very rough trot. If he could only know how many people went on to read that novel and how universal it has become."
Luhrmann's "Gatsby" stars DiCaprio in the title role as the rich mystery man who's really a hopeless, doomed romantic, befriending neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) to help revive a lost love with Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).
Fitzgerald himself had several unsuccessful stints as a screenwriter in Hollywood, the last beginning in the late 1930s. He was contributing fitfully to scripts to pay off debts and cover medical bills for his wife, Zelda, who was in a mental hospital.
His reputation for boozing and carousing were Fitzgerald's undoing; though he worked on a number of films, including "Gone with the Wind," his only screenwriting credit came for the 1938 war romance "Three Comrades."
Robert S. Birchard, an editor at the American Film Institute, said that a disastrous collaboration with admirer Budd Schulberg on the screenplay for a film called "Winter Carnival" was Fitzgerald's final downfall in Hollywood.
Schulberg used the experience as the basis for his novel "The Disenchanted," chronicling a young writer's disillusionment as his literary idol, now a Hollywood hack, sinks into an alcoholic breakdown.
Like many prose authors, Fitzgerald could not adapt to studio formulas and collaborative projects. His dialogue often was stylized speech that read well on the page but might ring false on screen, while he wrote long descriptive passages that were useless in a screenplay.
Fitzgerald wrote about what he knew, so his hard partying and slacker ways were reflected in his fiction.
The truth was that toward the end, Fitzgerald was struggling to give up the booze, much as depicted in the 2002 TV movie "Last Call," starring Jeremy Irons as the author as he works on "The Last Tycoon."
Adapted into a film starring Robert De Niro, "The Love of the Last Tycoon" was inspired by studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg and could have restored Fitzgerald's reputation had he lived to finish it.
Instead, it took a gradual rediscovery by readers and Hollywood alike to pull Fitzgerald out of oblivion. Since the author's death, Alan Ladd and Robert Redford preceded DiCaprio in the title role of versions of "The Great Gatsby," while Brad Pitt starred in 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," based on one of Fitzgerald's short stories.
Kirk Curnutt, an English professor at Troy University in Montgomery, Ala., and author of "A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald" and "The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald," said there was something very self-defeating about Fitzgerald.
"So story-wise," Curnutt concludes, "his revitalization of the past 60 years, is a fitting sort of Gatsby-esque ending."
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