The Rich Are Different

Perfect Student: Irons, as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Campbell, as Frances Kroll, his secretary, in Showtime's Last Call.Photo: Ken Woroner/Showtime

Those of you who remember the literary criticism of Philip Rahv only from the anti-Stalinist pages of Partisan Review may be amused by his review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night in the Daily Worker in 1934. While Rahv understood the novel to be “a fearful indictment of the moneyed aristocracy,” he accused Fitzgerald of still loving his corrupt characters – of continuing “to caress them with soft words.” To the novelist on the Riviera, firebrand Rahv issued a warning: “You can’t hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella.”

I was reminded of Rahv’s review early on in Last Call, an engaging footnote to the history of American literature based on Frances Kroll Ring’s 1985 memoir, to which director-screenwriter Henry Bromell adds a ghost. At the age of 23 in 1939, Frances Kroll (Neve Campbell) is hired by Scott Fitzgerald (Jeremy Irons) as a secretary. She immediately reads all his novels, and then wants to know how come, in Tender Is the Night, Dick Diver always feels so much like an outsider. Without even pausing to think about it, F. Scott replies: “Because he isn’t rich.” Rahv was right. Fitzgerald spent too much time brooding about the special grace of the rich, as if they weren’t just peasants with beach umbrellas. It was a preoccupation as disabling as the booze, about which we also hear a lot in Last Call.

Do you know that F. Scott – fresh out of screenwriting gigs, hard put to pay for his wife, Zelda, in a hospital and his daughter, Scottie, at Vassar, quarreling with sometime mistress Sheilah Graham, trying to abstain from gin – actually dictated what we have of The Last Tycoon to his secretary? If this is so, there must surely be a Ph.D. thesis somewhere comparing the spoken-word styles of late Fitzgerald and late Henry James (The Golden Bowl). And even if it isn’t so, saying that it is allows us to watch a rapt Campbell listening to wonderful prose. She is the perfect student of a dying master, smitten but not stupid, serious with a transfiguring grin, resentful of his criticisms of her own writing yet knowing deep down that he’s right. They quote poetry at each other. They eat fudge together in the kitchen. She doesn’t scream once.

Besides which, Frances is conveniently Jewish, the daughter of a Russian émigré, permitting Scott to flesh out his understanding of Monroe Stahr, the Tycoon character based on Irving Thalberg. And I have to say that Irons is an excellent, if an unlikely, Fitzgerald, with just the right amount of frayed charm and damaged curiosity. When he is drinking, a ghostly Zelda appears to tease and taunt him. Since this ghost is played by Sissy Spacek, a wee bit overdoing her Alabama accent as Irons underplays his nasal English, we are treated to some period acting to go along with the period music and the period cars. Even Natalie Radford’s Sheilah Graham gets to show off as someone more substantial than the guttersnipe we get in the biographies. I’ve liked her ever since Beloved Infidel. She had the sort the sass he could have used much more of.

But he was no better a custodian of his body than he was of his talent. Frances Kroll seems to have seen to the publication of the unfinished Last Tycoon, perhaps not the triumph several critics suggest, certainly not in a class with Gatsby, but still something heroic. We should be as grateful for her perseverance as for the memoir that inspired Henry Bromell to make his movie. Nostalgia, to be sure – but nostalgia was the very stuff of Fitzgerald’s romantic poetry, and why we read him.

Damaged Care (the play, of course, is on “managed care”) is likewise based on a true story: that of Dr. Linda Peeno (Laura Dern), who actually worked for two HMOs until deciding she had to join the other side before she lost any more patients. This is the TV movie in high agitprop dudgeon and social-worker mode, my favorite of its several oldest forms. Dern is repeatedly flabbergasted by what guys in suits will do to avoid paying for decent health care. Adam Arkin, Regina King, and Diane Ladd are on her side, but her own doctor husband, James LeGros, isn’t.

In Brief

Teletubbies Get Up & Go! (May 22; 10:30 to 11 a.m.; Channel 13) celebrates the second annual Teletubbies Exercise Day by encouraging preschoolers everywhere to run around like Tinky Winky, Laa-Laa, Dipsy, and Po.

In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01 (May 26; 9 to 10:05 p.m.; HBO) features quite a lot of the former mayor and many members of his office staff. But the program also synthesizes footage from dozens of different sources, professional and amateur, to give us back the whole horrific day in a single hour that will reopen every wound.

Vietnam Passage: Journeys From War to Peace (May 26; 10:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) sends war correspondent David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times back to Indochina to find out how some former acquaintances are faring – a translator adopted by a Marine colonel when he was a teenager; a former Viet Cong commando who survived prison to work now with shrimp farmers; a spy who got himself trained as a fighter pilot in Texas, only to bomb Saigon’s Presidential Palace; “the Bob Dylan of Vietnam,” whose songs were banned in both the North and the South. Unfailingly interesting, but maybe someday American television will visit Hanoi instead of just revisiting Saigon.

Price for Peace (May 27; 8 to 10 p.m.; NBC), from Steven Spielberg and Stephen Ambrose, revisits World War II and interviews American and Japanese veterans of the Pacific Theater. A strong Memorial Day program that actually includes a firsthand account of the impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Founding Brothers (May 27 and 28; 9 to 11 p.m.; History Channel) lets the likes of Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, Jack Rakove, and Gordon S. Wood talk about Washington, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, who are in turn impersonated by the voices of Brian Dennehy, Peter Coyote, Hal Holbrook, Rob Lowe, James Woods, and Michael York.

Last Call
Saturday, May 25; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime.
Damaged Care
Sunday, May 26; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime.

The Rich Are Different