Sunday, February 24, 2013

Scott Fitzgerald's Man In Hollywood

My Sunday Guardian column.

For better or for worse, it’s a golden time for “adapted screenplays”, with more and more novels being turned into scripts. In this year's Oscar nominations -- the results of which we'll know today -- five of the films nominated for such screenplays are also among those in the running for best picture.

One of those that missed being in contention this year is Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, as the release date was pushed to May 2013. Unfortunately, given the trailer, and on the evidence of Moulin Rouge and Australia, it's not hard to imagine the film floating free of Fitzgerald to become another bloated Luhrmann fantasy. As Pat Hobby once said, “This is no art – this is an industry”.

The person who uttered those words was a character created by Fitzgerald, born out of the writer's disillusionment with Hollywood. He worked with the studios on three occasions, between 1927 and 1937, and though the experience wasn’t a happy one he did gain material for his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, as well as for 17 short stories featuring the cynical scriptwriter Pat Hobby. All of the stories were first published in Esquire magazine, the last few appearing after his death in 1940.

Once seen as “a good man for structure”, Pat Hobby is now a 49-year-old hack unable to ride the transition from the silent era to the talkies. He spends his days drinking, scrounging and working on occasional “polish jobs”. When he isn't contemplating blackmail, he tries to steal others’ ideas (both unsuccessfully) and firmly believes that “what people you sat with at lunch was more important in getting along than what you dictated in your office”.

A typical story starts with Pat on the edge of solvency when, through his own desperate attempts or through the whims of others, he’s given a break which then comes to naught following an ironic twist. There are moments of broad farce, such as when Pat grumbles about and is then mistaken for Orson Welles; some others are flippant, such as when Pat encounters his son’s stepfather, Rajah Dak Raj Indore, “the third richest man in India”. The best of the stories, though, such as ‘Pat Hobby's Preview’, ‘No Harm Trying’ and ‘A Patriotic Short’ do reach a level of keen poignancy.

Fitzgerald aims for a wry, comic tone throughout but essentially, these are stories of failure, of refusing to admit that life hasn’t panned out the way one would have liked, when dreams of glory are supplanted by schemes to stay afloat. (This, of course, is akin to Fitzgerald’s own tragic situation at the time he was writing them.) When Pat is offered a writing job, “it anesthetised the crumbled, struggling remnants of his manhood, and inoculated him instead with a bland, easy-going confidence”. Such confidence is always short lived; recourse is to be found in gin, to conceal the look of “whipped misery” in his eyes.

For the author, this jaded character was “the scenario hack to whom I am getting rather attached” and it’s tempting to scan the stories for Fitzgerald’s own views on Hollywood. In one of them, we read: “Distress in Hollywood is endemic and often acute. Scarcely an executive but is being gnawed at by some insoluble problem and in a democratic way he will let you in on it, with no charge.” Elsewhere, Pat says, “Authors get a tough break out here. They never ought to come...They don’t want authors. They want writers – like me”.

Pat isn’t among Fitzgerald’s finest creations; most of the stories were written quickly for money when he was in straitened circumstances, even though he worked hard on them. But one can't help but agree with the words of Arnold Gingrich, former Esquire editor with whom Fitzgerald corresponded, that he deserves “his rightful place, if not alongside Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver, then at least between Monroe Stahr and Amory Blaine”.

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