‘Great Gatsby’ box office is Fitzgerald’s Hollywood validation
Literary scholars and film experts will debate whether F. Scott Fitzgerald would have embraced or abhorred a big-budget 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby.” (Baz Luhrmann has speculated that the author, a famous showman, might have liked it.) But there’s one thing Fitzgerald almost unequivocally would have enjoyed about the new movie: its box-office success.
The new Leonardo DiCaprio-Carey Mulligan version of the film opened to $51.1 million in the U.S. this past weekend, higher than many analysts expected and certainly more than many of the skeptics predicted when the movie was delayed from last holiday season.
And though biographers say Fitzgerald was ambivalent about working in Hollywood, he certainly wanted to find success here. But try as he might, it eluded him.
Moving to Southern California in the late 1930s, the author toiled fruitlessly in a number of Tinseltown jobs. Mainly he worked on scripts from MGM, uncredited work on movies such as 1943’s “Madam Curie” and even 1939’s “Gone With The Wind.” He saw some but hardly a lot of money, and even less recognition. The author came west because he wanted to try a new discipline and, even more so, because he needed the money. Neither quite worked out as planned.
In fact, probably the greatest sum he ever received from a Hollywood film production came from something he did before he arrived here: he sold the rights to “Gatsby” for just over $16,000, or nearly $220,000 in today’s dollars (though he had to pay about 20% on that in commissions).
Fitzgerald was sufficiently disillusioned by the experience that he mocked his Hollywood turn in the so-called Pat Hobby stories. He became far better known for that than any film work.
(The author, of course, was hardly alone among his peer group in a strained relationship with Hollywood. Hemingway made money but disliked the adaptations made of his work. Ditto for Faulkner, who once said that “Hollywood is a place where a man can get stabbed in the back while climbing a ladder.”)
Further sullying Fitzgerald’s big-screen legacy was that other film versions of “Gatsby” — including the Robert Redford-toplined take in 1974 — were box-office disappointments. The 1962 version of “Tender Is the Night” was decently reviewed but far from a hit.
In recent years, however, Fitzgerald has had something of the Hollywood rehabilitation that eluded him in life. Five years ago, his short story became the (loose) basis for the worldwide blockbuster “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” And now “Gatsby” has had the third-biggest domestic opening of the year, and the biggest opening for the adaptation of a classic novel in many years.
It’s hard to imagine the dollars themselves would have changed Fitzgerald’s mind. “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works,” he once said. But for a man who tried unsuccessfully to make it in the film business, he might well have liked the approval those dollars confer.
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