LOS ANGELES — Has-beens in Hollywood usually stay that way. Yet one writer who died there nearly forgotten 73 years ago had one of the most remarkable posthumous revivals in literary history.
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 the silent-movie era, when it was published to scant sales in 1925.
Within 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 an industry town where his supreme art never meshed with the studios’ need for product. It’s also half a block from where the Directors Guild of America headquarters now stands.
“God is a great stage manager. God is the greatest director of all time for images of pathos,” Luhrmann said. “Fitzgerald, just think for all that he gave to us, he had a very rough trot. It is very sad. 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 fabulously rich mystery man who’s really a hopeless, doomed romantic, befriending impressionable 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, when he was under contract with MGM, 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.”
“I don’t think that anyone would argue that Fitzgerald wasn’t the architect of his own failure in Hollywood,” said Robert S. Birchard, an editor at the American Film Institute who wrote a cover story on “Gatsby” screen adaptations for the May issue of the group’s American Film journal.
A disastrous collaboration with admirer Budd Schulberg on the screenplay for a film called “Winter Carnival” was Fitzgerald’s final downfall in Hollywood, Birchard said.
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.
“As Schulberg wasn’t able to keep him on the wagon, and in fact got dragged into the drunken spree, that maybe suggested to other producers that Fitzgerald not only was unreliable but a bad influence on those he worked with,” Birchard said. “Even with the best of intentions, it was not a wise thing to hire him.”
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.
“Part of the answer is, he truly was an artist. He was in it at that point of time for the money, but he had visions of truly being a literary writer rather than grinding out a script that had this many lines,” said Donelle Dadigan, president of the Hollywood Museum. “He couldn’t turn his art into a craft.”
Fitzgerald wrote about what he knew, so his hard partying and slacker ways were reflected in his fiction, including his Pat Hobby stories featuring a screenwriting alter ego, a scheming scribbler always angling for paying gigs that required no work.
That contributed to his reputation as an undependable scribe. He even chronicled his decline from literary wonder boy to despondent failure in a series of essays published as “The Crack-Up.”
“He was his own worst publicist,” said F.X. Feeney, a film critic and screenwriter (Roger Corman’s “Frankenstein Unbound”) who is trying to interest the makers of “Boardwalk Empire” in a set of episodes featuring Fitzgerald as a character during a trip to Atlantic City to open a play in the 1920s. “Catholic boys have the confessional urge of confessing their sins, so any time he screwed up, he put it in a story.”
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.”
“He generally was fighting for sobriety,” Feeney said. “He had a few lapses, but he was three-fourths sober the way the earth is three-fourths water.”
Adapted into a film itself, 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 Fitzgerald adaptation “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” based on one of his short stories.
“In some ways, it’s the kind of ending, a reclamation that he probably would have appreciated,” said 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.”
“He certainly would have rather died famous and at the top of his craft, but there was something very self-defeating about Fitzgerald. He tended to perpetuate his failures in some ways. So story-wise, his revitalization of the past 60 years, it’s a fitting sort of Gatsby-esque ending.”