Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

There’s nothing very remarkable in the fact that some habitually pretentious Television Artists—Herbert Brodkin, James Costigan, Anthony Page—have gone and made a bad, turgid, opportunistic, narratively trite and historically slipshod TV-movie about Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood experiences. What is rather remarkable is that they made such a stupid movie, and made it at this particular moment in cultural history. The film is couched in the sort of self-congratulatory antagonism toward Hollywood that long ago died of shame (or so I had naïvely assumed) everywhere save the most icebound corners of certain backwoods English departments and the cocktail party circuit where people are still foolish enough to talk to and get quoted by Pauline Kael.

Within the past year Tom Dardis came out with a book about litterateurs in Hollywood, Some Time in the Sun, which is rife with errors about actual onscreen movies and not terribly reliable in matters of taste and judgment, but which still persuasively documents, among other things, that life in the Film Capital was not precisely hell on earth for F. Scott Fitzgerald, that he didn’t spend the bulk of his private or public life feeling anguished and abused about writing for the screen. Also, the Kazan–Pinter adaptation of The Last Tycoon has sent plenty of people scurrying to, or back to, Fitzgerald’s tantalizing novel-fragment, in which both sides of the author’s powerful ambivalence about film work, film art, and film life find evocative, if inconclusive, expression. How, then, can Costigan & Co. presume to take that oft-quoted scene wherein Monroe Stahr / Irving Thalberg instructs a condescending literary man in the art of screenwriting (a scene that operates as a putdown of neither literary men nor screenwriting) and recast it with Fitzgerald himself in the writer’s place and a ranting baboon of an executive producer (John Randolph) in Stahr’s, and let on that it is typically anti-art of Hollywood not to want to play a putative movie scene entirely in terms of two people sitting and talking reams of dialogue, however beautifully written? Fitzgerald had to learn that lesson, and appreciated learning it, coming to recognize early on (regardless of how well- or ill-equipped he was to profit from the lesson) that writing for the movies quite properly involved dynamics and imperatives markedly different from those involved in story or novel writing—and not just commercial imperatives predicated on the limitations of a booboisie audience.

There is not one scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, not one interaction, that doesn’t take for granted that Hollywood and the movies equal corruption, the subversion of taste and standards, and a calculated assault on artistic integrity. Fitzgerald’s only sympathetic contacts in the film are with other (mostly failed-serious) literary figures who have struck bad bargains with the film biz and showbiz in general: Edwin Knopf (Tom Rosqui), Dorothy Parker (a tediously cute performance by Dolores Sutton), and “special consultant” Sheilah Graham (Julia Foster). Absent from the film are any by-name references to such producer-director types as Frank Borzage and Joe Mankiewicz who, much as they may have frustrated some of Fitzgerald’s own purest/purist intentions for his screen creations, were instrumental in wresting superior film art from—among other ingredients—Fitzgerald’s script work. Indeed, Costigan’s script avoids following through on any of Fitzgerald’s projects. For instance, the writer waves a copy of Remarque’s Three Comrades at Zelda (Tuesday Weld) and says that this is the opportunity he’s been looking for, the one to show what he can do, but we never hear of Three Comrades again—next thing we know, Fitzgerald is alluding to working on The Women, or Infidelity, or Winter Carnival, all simply alluded to and then forgotten. To do otherwise might have meant interfering with the film’s single-note, single-track reading of Fitzgerald’s career, which begins with a corpselike shot of his face as he’s being made up for a half-serious screen test, and ends (somebody told you?) with the same face peering up out of a coffin. The casting of playwright-turned-actor Jason Miller, whose film career at least for the moment seems to have short-circuited since his debut in The Exorcist (these clowns surely never heard of The Nickel Ride), is doubtlessly intended to provide some kind of Pirandellian confirmation of this particular brand of Truth About Hollywood. But it’s a species of truth foregone, like the trivially clever match cuts and answer cuts that dominate the editing and wishfully present themselves as narrative metaphor for how “the poor son of a bitch” never had a chance. In this film, he hasn’t. And neither have the movies.

RTJ

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD IN HOLLYWOOD
Direction: Anthony Page. Screenplay/Teleplay: James Costigan. Cinematography: James Crabe. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Editing: Sidney Katz. Music: Morton Gould. Special consultant: Sheilah Graham. Executive producer: Herbert Brodkin.
The players: Jason Miller, Tuesday Weld, Julia Foster, Dolores Sutton, Tom Rosqui, James Woods, John Randolph.

© 1977 Richard T. Jameson

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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