No matter where you look, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t familiar with The Great Gatsby—and all of its glitz and glamour. As they say, experience is the best teacher, and the reason we feel so transported when we read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s account of the Roaring Twenties is because he, along with his wife, Zelda, lived it—and they lived it well.
The life and memory of Zelda Fitzgerald is the premise for Amazon's latest original series, Z: The Beginning of Everything, premiering today (Friday) with a ten-episode season. The bio-series stars Christina Ricci and promises to be the story of the Fitzgeralds’ love, without so much of the common Hemingway slant that she was crazy and ruined her husband's literary career. The truth, as stated by Therese Anne Fowler, author of the bestselling historical fiction novel the show is based on, is that their love was intense and, yes, dysfunctional, but neither party is innocent nor singularly to blame for its demise.
Recently, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, Fowler, Ricci, and moderator Caryn James spoke about the new show following a premiere screening.
"Zelda was misunderstood," Fowler said of her decision to tackle the historical icon in her novel. "She was a cause I felt I needed to champion, and I'd never been struck by an idea in quite the same way as I was by her."
Zelda and Scott were known for their alcohol-fueled liveliness. By every account, it seemed, they were the ones about town whom everyone wanted to know, the original celebrity "it" couple. But over time, it was noted that their youthful debauchery faded to self-destruction. Around the age of 30, while the Fitzgeralds were living in France, Zelda was diagnosed as schizophrenic, the characteristic by which many remember her.
Both Ricci and Fowler noted that today Zelda would not have received such a diagnosis. "Anyone facing the stress she was under at the time [due to her rigorous ballet practices and strained marriage] would have been likely to have a breakdown," Ricci says. "I don't believe she was mentally ill."
Fowler bemoaned the fact that Zelda was told by doctors that "her desire to be both a wife and a women with professional pursuits is what led to her schism in the mind." With women today so frequently pursuing both career and familial goals, it's hard to imagine being told that the pursuit of such a duality would cause a mental disorder.
Zelda was ahead of her time, and that played a big part in her life experiences, Ricci and Fowler agree. That's part of what makes Z, the show, so relatable, they say. "Women today are still catching up to her mindset; she's become much more relatable," says Ricci.
Fowler echoes that sentiment: "Today, women have given themselves permission to be different, to admit struggle, to challenge the patriarchy. In her time, Zelda was one of few."
As for the show, Fowler says there are two types of audiences: those who are already obsessed with the Jazz Age and those who are curious about it.
Either way, viewers will get what they came for. Costumes replete with fringe, long strands of pearls and fur are a plenty. Champagne is drunk from coupes (and sometimes straight from the bottle) in excess. And cigarettes in holders extend from ladies' gloved hands in nearly every scene.
Fowler says, "We revisit the Jazz Age because it's synonymous with rule-breakers." Ricci continues, "There was a palpable excitement at the time for what was next and new. We like to think that by engaging with a historical costume drama like Z, we'll get to experience that thrill."
Later in the season, viewers will see an episode where Scott grapples with whether to option his first novel for a film. Ultimately he's convinced not to because it would ruin his literary authority. It seems Fowler had no such reservation about the cinematic adaptation of her novel. She serves as a producer but says she has mostly left it up to the screenwriting professionals to transform her work. Early critics of the show, however, have accused it of that most dreaded of artistic offenses: cliché.
Yes, there is a distracting amount of martini props and some forced flapper-era sexuality, but as Scott's friend so aptly remarks to Zelda in one prominent scene, "Isn't that what you signed up for?" To that end, Fowler says, "Critics haven't recognized that the show is from the point of view of Zelda's memory, and therefore, the facts are colored." Still, a devotee of 1920s glamour and someone with a soft spot for entertaining, albeit interpretive, history will find something good here.
If you can see beyond the put-on Southern accent, Ricci as Zelda is mostly enjoyable and feels like a thoughtful portrayal. As for F. Scott Fitzgerald, played by David Hoflin in all but the pilot episode, you'll be a bit disappointed by his performance, although I did see a touch of mid-nineties Johnny Depp allure.
There is already much talk of seasons three and four and so on. The hope is that the series will cover the full span of the Fitzgeralds’ relationship as the novel does. The show offers a feminist narrative that feels especially relevant right now, according to Ricci and Fowler. Given that Good Girls Revolt, another Amazon original series, fit a similar bill but was promptly canceled following its season one release this past autumn, who knows what will come of this flapper-filled show.
Photo Credit: Amazon