Last Call is an elegiac dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days writing The Last Tycoon, the unfinished Hollywood novel he hoped would restore his reputation. Fitzgerald’s 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 Graham’s 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 Bromell’s script is based on an unpretentious 1985 memoir, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, written by Frances Kroll Ring, who was Fitzgerald’s 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 novelist.
Irons’ lanky frame and chiseled face don’t readily call to mind the doughy lost soul we know from Fitzgerald’s late-career photographs. Nevertheless, he beautifully evokes the “sensual fatigue”—in the apt phrase of biographer Arthur Mizener—that infused the writer’s world on and off the page. Irons flattens out his own British accent in deference to Fitzgerald’s Minnesota upbringing, while retaining a hint of the aristocratic arrogance that seemed parcel of the author’s personality. (Recordings of Fitzgerald’s voice bear an uncanny resemblance to the elocutionary fastidiousness of British-born actor Claude Rains.) Last Call is fully attuned to its central character’s 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 Ring’s brief 150-page memoir is so low-key and self-effacing that it’s not inherently dramatic. Henry Bromell’s script for Last Call consequently resorts to embellishments, some more credible than others. At times, the narrative recalls Akiva Goldsman’s controversial screenplay for last year’s 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 Nash’s schizophrenia, Bromell fashions for Fitzgerald a late-night series of alcohol-fueled hallucinations involving the writer’s 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 Fitzgerald’s 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 Ring’s 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 teleplay—unlike the business-minded amanuensis in her memoir—is 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 it’s easy to forgive Last Call for romanticizing its source material. (It’s less easy to forgive the teleplay’s curious substitution of Pepsi-Cola in place of Fitzgerald’s 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.
– Bob Wake