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Call is an elegiac dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgeralds final days writing The Last Tycoon, the unfinished
Hollywood novel he hoped would restore his reputation. Fitzgeralds spectacular Jazz
Age fame and subsequent slide into alcoholism and obscurity are the stuff of well-trod
literary folklore. The end is as familiar as a melancholy bedtime story: On December 21,
1940, the 44-year-old writer suffered a fatal heart attack in the home of his companion
and lover, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. The chronology covered in this Showtime
Original teleplay is roughly similar to that of Grahams autobiography, Beloved
Infidel, which became a soapy 1959 film starring Deborah Kerr as Graham and a laughably miscast Gregory
Peck as Fitzgerald. However, Last Call has found
a surprisingly fresh angle from which to approach its subject. Writer-director Henry
Bromells script is based on an unpretentious 1985 memoir, Against the Current: As
I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, written by Frances Kroll Ring, who was
Fitzgeralds personal secretary during the last twenty months of his life. Best of
all, Last Call boasts a first-rate performance
by Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune, Lolita) as the dissipated
Irons lanky frame and chiseled face dont readily call to mind the doughy lost soul we know from Fitzgeralds late-career photographs. Nevertheless, he beautifully evokes the sensual fatiguein the apt phrase of biographer Arthur Mizenerthat infused the writers world on and off the page. Irons flattens out his own British accent in deference to Fitzgeralds Minnesota upbringing, while retaining a hint of the aristocratic arrogance that seemed parcel of the authors personality. (Recordings of Fitzgeralds voice bear an uncanny resemblance to the elocutionary fastidiousness of British-born actor Claude Rains.) Last Call is fully attuned to its central characters enormous contradictions. Despite ill-health, crippling self-doubts, cycles of binge boozing and drying out, Fitzgerald miraculously succeeded in pulling himself together and writing something that even in its incomplete form is recognized today as a classic American novel. Jeremy Irons brings an almost spiritual luminance to the portrait of a burnt-out writer rediscovering and flexing his creative powers.
Frances Kroll Rings brief 150-page memoir is so low-key and self-effacing that its not inherently dramatic. Henry Bromells script for Last Call consequently resorts to embellishments, some more credible than others. At times, the narrative recalls Akiva Goldsmans controversial screenplay for last years Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, which was inspired by a biography of mathematician John Nash. Where Goldsman invented from whole cloth a delusional parallel universe to represent John Nashs schizophrenia, Bromell fashions for Fitzgerald a late-night series of alcohol-fueled hallucinations involving the writers wife Zelda, played here by Sissy Spacek in the passive-aggressive mode she perfected for In the Bedroom. The scenes never quite jell, in part because Spacek is being asked to portray a symbolic projection of Fitzgeralds inner demons rather than a flesh-and-blood Zelda, who was confined to a mental hospital in North Carolina during the time Fitzgerald was working in Hollywood.
Bromell has better luck transforming Frances Kroll Rings modest secretarial reminiscences into a coming-of-age story of unrequited love. It helps tremendously that twentysomething Frances is played with great charm by Neve Campbell (Three to Tango, Wild Things). The real-life Frances states flatly in her book that she had compassion rather than passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Last Call, by contrast, fabricates a soulful liplock in a parked car and makes the moment all but inevitable. The Frances Kroll of the teleplayunlike the business-minded amanuensis in her memoiris an aspiring fiction writer anxious to glean wisdom from her employer. The memoir records no kiss, soulful or otherwise, merely a spurned out-of-character grab from a playfully drunk Fitzgerald. But its easy to forgive Last Call for romanticizing its source material. (Its less easy to forgive the teleplays curious substitution of Pepsi-Cola in place of Fitzgeralds well-documented on-the-wagon preference for Coca-Cola.) Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell are splendid sparing partners. Their characters convey a multitude of veiled emotions. And like protagonists in an elegant Fitzgerald tale, they nourish one another in unexpected and profound ways.