Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.
-Zelda Fitzgerald at the birth of her daughter Scottie
And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.
-Daisy Buchanan at the birth of her daughter in The Great Gatsby
All describe Zelda Fitzgerald as beautiful and intelligent, while some describe her as a talented painter and a dazzling writer. Most often she’s described as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and muse, and—most damningly by Ernest Hemingway—as her husband’s downfall. Woody Allen’s new film clearly takes the Hemingway macho take on this lady writer. “She’s just like you think she would be,” says Owen Wilson’s awestruck novelist character of her. “Brilliant. But all over the map!” She’s depicted as having both felicitous and suicidal streaks. “I hate my skin. I want to die,” she says in a scene that seems disjointed from the other scenes of literary life as endless bohemian bacchanalia. In this scene in which she attempts to jump into the Seine, she seems as if she could be played by Mia Farrow, by Farrow in any film of Allen’s anyway.
Zeldas pop up frequently in Woody’s work. Diane Keaton’s ambitious and brittle writer bitch in Manhattan is described as the winner of the “Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.” And Allen’s best female character in years, Penelope Cruz’s ball-of-fire competitive painter in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, puts Javier Bardem in his place by saucily spewing, “Your whole worldview is mine.”
Literary competition is a subtheme in Allen’s new film (Hemingway frequently suggests solving these squabbles by putting on gloves and having it out in a few rounds), and Zelda Fitzgerald is the ultimate literary competition unsolved mystery for lit critics. She co-wrote articles with Scott Fitzgerald that were published under his name, since as a more established writer, he could collect a higher fee for this always cash-strapped, hard-drinking couple. When she wrote an autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, in less than a month while being treated for hysteria at a sanitarium, Scott was furious. He tried to suppress publication since this was “his” material (for Tender is the Night, which came out later, eight years after his previous novel, The Great Gatsby, covering much of the same material as Zelda’s novel; these have been described as the ultimate he said/she said comparison in fictionalized biography).
So was she a talented writer whose vivacity and original phrasings influenced her husband’s work, but who was not able to thrive under his shadow? Clearly Woody Allen takes the other, less feminist point of view, and at recent press conference I had a chance to ask him about his Zelda fixation. “I wanted to ask you about Zelda Fitzgerald,” I began, and he suddenly seemed excited. Previously he had been deflecting questions about method and autobiography with a string of low-key jokes. (“I have never been called a communist,” he responded to a question about the film’s political message. “I could never even share a bathroom.”)
“Yes?” he said, perking up at mention of Zelda.
“It may be just a rumor but I once read that you wanted to make a film about her. Is there any truth to that?”
“No, there’s no truth,” he said. “I would have liked to have made a version of The Great Gatsby, because it’s a great film for me to make. I mean everyone thinks it’s grandiose, but I think I could have done a good job with it. You know, I like that era. And it’s a New York, Long Island film. And I just feel that, you know I could have made that film work.
“And I’ve always had a… CRUSH on women like Zelda Fitzgerald. Now, this is very self-destructive. I’ve always selected in my lifetime women who had that, uh, that uh… sort of streak of insanity in them that she has. And it didn’t do me any good! But I was fascinated by it, always. And, you know, I’ve used that kind of character in my movies many, many times.” There was audible lip smacking at this point, then a deep breath, and he collected himself.
“So, I just think I would have been good to make that picture. But it was never in the cards. I was not eligible to make it when I first started, and it’s been made a few times. And now I think they’re making it again, into a musical. Baz Lurmann is doing it, I read in the paper, who will probably do a great job with it. “