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One reason I never married is that I never found any man with the intellect, sense of sporting good fun, dignity and refinement of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh, many a former beau could swill gin with Scott's ferocity, but they did not share his grace, sense of honor, nor anything remotely approaching his talent. Scott Fitzgerald was not only an extraordinary storyteller, although he admittedly drew his material from a limited number of sources; he was also a wordsmith who knew no peer. These were his greatest gifts, and despite his many foibles, they never deserted him.
In April 1939, stenographer Frances Kroll came into his life to find Fitzgerald a nearly broken man. A self-described "pathetic old man," he was a chronic alcoholic barely keeping himself afloat financially, and he was only 42 years old. He hired her as his secretary for the novel he hoped would be his pass to literary redemption. Fitzgerald's brand of fiction was now considered passé, and he spent his good days cranking out rewrites of other people's scripts at MGM. Fitzgerald sporadically sold short stories to magazines back east -- for fees half what they brought when his vogue was at its height -- but the checks kept the wolf from the door. This "hack work," as he termed it, allowed Fitzgerald to keep his beloved but hopelessly mad wife, Zelda, in a mental institution in North Carolina and their daughter, Scottie, enrolled at Vassar.
Whatever one may think about Fitzgerald's drinking, and the crippling effect it had on his literary output, (and his relationships with publishers, friends and lovers), it never interfered with his ability to care for Zelda and Scottie. His dignity would not allow him to move Zelda to a state institution or Scottie to a public school.
Fitzgerald's pride motivated him to play the breadwinner for his small family, and this he did until the end. In "Last Call," Jeremy Irons's extraordinarily nuanced, elegant performance as Fitzgerald elevates the work of everyone around him. Obviously, Irons listened to the rare audio recordings of Fitzgerald's readings of the poetry of John Keats and John Masefield to get a grasp on Fitzgerald's Midwestern vowels and cadence. I was not very familiar with Neve Campbell's work prior to this film, but she won me over. For about 80% of the film's running time, Irons and Campbell occupy the screen alone, and she holds her own beautifully against the far more experienced actor.
In her autobiography, "Against The Current," Frances Kroll Ring does not specifically mention having literary aspirations of her own at the time she knew Scott. But clearly she was inspired by watching his creative processes unfold before her eyes, and she came to see that Scott's novels were not purely mercenary enterprises. "Last Call" covers roughly the last two years of his life, during which he wrote all that we have of "The Last Tycoon." Frances learns from Scott that he is determined to write the definitive, cynical exposé of Hollywood. He has based his protagonist, Monroe Stahr, on the doomed Irving G. Thalberg, the MGM Artistic Director whose story was already the stuff of legend.
Fitzgerald was fascinated by Thalberg, who was gifted at reading public taste, yet able to reconcile his creative genius with an eye towards the bottom line. Plagued with heart problems throughout his short life, Thalberg died in 1937 at age 37 of pneumonia.
Fitzgerald must surely have identified with Thalberg's fall from early grace. In 1932, Thalberg suffered a major heart attack. While undergoing a lengthy recuperation, MGM essentially put Thalberg out to pasture, just as Fitzgerald felt his publishers and the reading public had done to him.
Although Thalberg and the fictional Stahr meet different ends, many elements from Thalberg's life, namely his struggles to combine art and commerce, are expertly woven into the story of Fitzgerald's hero. As Scott struggles to get a handle on his complex character, he increasingly relies on Frances's innate good judgment to help him frame scenes and develop dialogue.
How can this possibly make for good drama? The screenwriter and director must avoid being heavy-handed or pedantic, and Henry Bromell succeeds on both counts. But what lends these seemingly unfilmable scenes an amazingly vitality is, again, the acting of Irons and Campbell. One long montage is wordless: Scott paces the floor, his bathrobe trailing its sash, throwing out ideas to Frances, who patiently puts his words into shorthand.
They nod and smile at each other; we "see" the pages of the novel taking shape. This scene occurs some months into their partnership, and it is now clear to Frances, and to us, that she gets it.
A minor shortcoming I find in "Last Call" is the visions of Zelda (Sissy Spacek) that come to Scott periodically. I do not find them particularly illuminating. Illuminating indeed, in the life of Frances Kroll Ring, were those brief months more than 60 years ago when she sat at the feet of a genius. Scott Fitzgerald was a wrecked genius to be sure, but one who made every effort to be a better man when in her presence. He asked a great deal of her in life: surreptitiously disposing of his gin bottles, patching up his lovers' quarrels with Sheilah Graham, doing his bookkeeping and his shopping. After his death, preparing Scott's funeral arrangements fell to Frances, being neither insane wife, teenage daughter nor illicit lover. It was Frances who insured "The Last Tycoon" would find its audience. And finally, it is Frances Kroll Ring who looks winsomely gratified by a display of Fitzgerald's books in a Borders bookstore window in the final frames of "Last Call."
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