Fitzgerald's last tango

Irons, Campbell play off each other in elegant `Call'

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May 25, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Writer-director Henry Bromell says the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final days in Hollywood as told in his Showtime movie, Last Call, is "a footnote to a footnote."

"It's based on something real in proximity to someone famous, and yet it's seemingly inconsequential and not at all heroic or important. But, if you tell the story right, it becomes both," said Bromell, who has directed feature films, written novels and produced some of the best television drama ever - I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure and Homicide: Life on the Street.

I can't imagine anyone telling this story better than does this Peabody Award winner in his lovely and elegiac film starring Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell. Last Call not only illuminates the heroic and important in the story, but at its best moments, evokes a sense of the lyrical and melancholy longing that marked Fitzgerald's greatest work. That's pretty special for any movie - made-for-television or otherwise.

The story belongs to Frances Kroll, who earned $35 a week as Fitzgerald's secretary. Bromell adapted the screenplay from her 1985 memoir, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Kroll (Campbell) was in her early 20s when Fitzgerald hired her - all ambition, innocence and determination to be a writer. Like Fitzgerald, she had brains and empathy - so much empathy for the pain of her employer that she never thinks twice about going far beyond her secretarial duties to help manage his increasingly difficult personal life. In fact, she tries to save him, but it's too late.

This is Fitzgerald at the end, in the final months before he died in 1940 of a heart attack at age 44. At the center of the film lies his battle with advanced alcoholism as he attempts to remain sober long enough to finish his novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. He dies before completing the book.

Irons is nearly perfect as the melancholy and wounded hero who rises up for one last dignified stand before dying. The show begins with Fitzgerald unable to get out of bed to interview Kroll for the secretarial job. The well-mannered young woman is both appalled and intrigued by the strange, dissipated man speaking to her from his sickbed in a darkened room.

That first meeting is typical of how the writing of Bromell and the chemistry of Irons and Campbell keep an incredibly sad story from being too somber and depressing to watch. The script has Fitzgerald in high paranoia pledging Kroll to absolute secrecy, should she take the job, about his novel-in-progress. The book is about a man running a motion picture studio, but Fitzgerald makes it seem as if he is writing about the atomic bomb with every spy vying for information. Kroll plays along, hiding her mounting incredulity in hopes of landing the job. You can't help but smile.

Sadly, at this point in his career, almost no one cares what Fitzgerald is doing, except his wife, Zelda, in a psychiatric institution in North Carolina, and his daughter, Scottie, at Vassar. Both are financially dependent upon him, and no one is buying his books any more. Such financial pressures are among the factors that contribute to his alcoholism and keep him from writing. But writing is the only way out for him financially and emotionally. If only he can once again find the magic.

The greatness of Irons' performance lies in the way he gives us flashes of the charm, grace and intelligence that typified the younger Fitzgerald both in his writing and his life. Campbell perfectly keys her performance to Irons' until you can feel her character responding to the ebb and flow of Fitzgerald's life force like a dance partner lost in the rhythm of the song.

The film did leave me feeling incredibly sad - almost as sad as when I finished The Great Gatsby as a teen-ager. But like that book, it transported me and stirred some of the same deep admiration for those who keep reaching against all odds and against the gods.

TV tonight

What: Last Call

When: 8 tonight

Where: Showtime

In brief: A sad and lovely elegy to F. Scott Fitzgerald's final days.

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