Wednesday 17 January 2018

2017 - the year that flappers broke out

She was the wild and troubled wife of F Scott Fitzgerald. Now, 70 years after her death, she is playing the leading lady
Christina Ricci in 'Z: The Beginning of Everything'
Christina Ricci in 'Z: The Beginning of Everything'
Jennifer Lawrence
Scarlett Johansson
Zelda Fitzgerald

Julia Molony

Damaged, wild and daring, in her time Zelda Fitzgerald was notorious. Since her death at the age of 47, in a fire at the mental hospital where she was being treated for schizophrenia, she has been best-known as a razzle-dazzle supporting character in the life of her famous husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

He was the jazz age literary superstar and she was his muse, lover and adversary - the woman who drove him both to the highest heights of artistic achievement and to the bottom of the bottle.

In 2018 it will be 70 years since Zelda's death. But it's not just because of this anniversary that she has come roaring back into popular culture with a bang. As a trailblazing, live-fast-die-young bohemian she seems, almost three-quarters of a century later, a remarkably contemporary woman. Now, her life, love and art are the subject of two new big new screen adaptations - two Hollywood films - plus a drama series currently being broadcast on Netflix.

This revival has been in the pipeline for some time. A script about the exploits of the glamorous, self-destructive and hedonistic Fitzgeralds titled The Beautiful and Damned has been in the works for about a decade by now.

Originally, it was Keira Knightley whose name was attached to play Zelda, with Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) set to direct, but as they both moved on to other things, the project seemed eternally stalled in pre-production. Last year, however, Millennium Films cranked things up again. They started shopping around for a new director and the news broke that Scarlett Johansson had signed up to star.

Soon after, news of a rival production hit the grapevines in LA. Zelda is in development by veteran director Ron Howard. Tantalisingly, another of Hollywood's blonde, beautiful queen bees, Jennifer Lawrence, has been named to star. No doubt pundits the world over will pass many hours pondering whether it is the insouciant, rebellious Johansson, or the screwball-but-steely Lawrence who is best placed to bring Zelda to life for modern audiences. Although it must be said that it's Lawrence who arguably has form here. In 2013 she won an Oscar for her portrayal of another emotionally unbalanced quirky heroine, Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook.

Meanwhile, the folk at Netflix have stormed ahead with Z: The Beginning of Everything, pipping them both to the post. The series is a fictionalised account of Zelda's life and is based on the novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. The show stars Christina Ricci in the title role and launched on the streaming service in January.

It's easy to understand the interest in Zelda Fitzgerald. She was born in 1900 to a prominent family in Alabama, the youngest daughter of a supreme court judge.

In 1918, she met the then 22-year-old Francis Scott Fitzgerald, an Irish-American Princeton scholar, at a country club dance. Her parents didn't approve of him, so two years later, after a turbulent two year romance, she married him.

It was the dawn of the jazz age - a time when women of a certain class, (and considerable means) threw off the constraints of respectability in favour of a life of fun, sensualism and rebellion. Zelda, a fixture in the gossip columns thanks to her husband's precocious literary success, seemed determined to lead the charge.

To the tabloid-reading public, who followed the exploits of the Fitzgeralds she was all-but-indistinguishable from the fictional characters she inspired; the beautiful and bewildered Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, and the tragic Nicole in Tender Is The Night, whose emotional frailty and psychological torment is the ghost which haunts the glamorous Cote d'Azur playground where she is exiled with her husband. This account, by Fowler, was clearly based closely on the experiences of Francis and Zelda, who spent much of the 1920s in the South of France, hanging out and drinking cocktails with the rest of the "lost generation" of artists and writers of the day.

Through her husband's work, Zelda's emotional collapse was crafted into poetry. But her voice was never represented. "Zelda always seemed like the tragic heroine of her own and other people's novels," biographer Sally Cline has said. "She was a woman who adored and hated her husband, who adored and oppressed and victimised her. Her melodramatic life was in real terms the stuff of fiction."

Therese Anne Fowler goes a step further, however. She declares that much of what we know and assume about Zelda is a misrepresentation. "As I dug through material, I got to know a woman who not only wasn't crazy but was far more intelligent, talented, and clear-thinking than popular culture would have us believe." But Scott jealously quashed any attempts she made to establish herself as a writer, and looted her life and her diaries for material for his books. "It is the persistent, damning mischaracterisation of Zelda as "insane" that most needs undoing," Fowler has written. "The trouble lies in the diagnosis she was given in 1930: "schizophrenia".

While today we know it to mean severe mental illness requiring delicate and often lifelong treatment with medications, therapies, and sometimes institutionalisation, in Zelda's time it was a catch-all label for a range of emotional difficulties. It was often applied to women who suffered depression or exhaustion brought on by impossible circumstances.

Zelda did suffer some mental health crises - depression, primarily - and was an uninhibited, uncensored woman who didn't always think before she acted, but she wasn't crazy. Unwise? Sometimes. Insane? No."

The tainted, troubled love affair that raged between Zelda and her husband proved to be fatal. He died in 1940, aged 44, penniless and heavily addicted to alcohol. "I lost my capacity for hope," he once wrote, "on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanatorium." Zelda lived a little longer but fared no better.

"Zelda was heavily drugged and given insulin and electric shock treatments for years," according to one profile in The Guardian newspaper. "On her occasional outings, she continued to behave erratically, once stripping naked during a game of tennis before being carried away screaming by hospital attendants."

It now seems that The Beautiful and Damned was not just a title of one of her husband's stories - but a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sunday Independent

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