A Personal Story
I cried when I read it - the phrase stuck with me, and eventually, I found myself on the phone with Wendy Schmaltz, the agent for the Fitzgerald estate, asking if I could make the movie.
I had always been a fan of Fitzgerald, and when I read The Sensible Thing, it really struck a chord with me. It's a story that recalls a searing moment in life for so many of us -- that first love, it's inevitable end, and the realization that you can never go back.
When the approval came through, I packed up my laptop and headed down the coast to San Simeon on a weekend writer's retreat. I needed to sink into the work of Fitzgerald, to understand the characters and find ways to interpret the narrative voice as I had previously done with theatrical performance pieces, but this time through the medium of film.
Fitzgerald, at first glance, seems to embody the quintessential prep school male perspective. His work can be so easily dismissed by those who don't fit into the "WASP" persona, but oh, what a grave mistake that would be! My explorations into his work brought me to a much different conclusion. And revealed a tragedy far deeper than the seemingly simple nostalgic story of a boy who can't marry his sweetheart for lack of money.
San Simeon was perfect. A half-deserted windswept town on the Pacific coast, I sat outside on the deck at the Motel 6 and racked my brain to the tune of the waves crashing against the rocks. I took two pilgrimages to the infamous Hearst castle, a perfect inspiration for the time period of the story, and, surprisingly, the seed of what became, for me, the underlying tragedy of the film. It had to do with money and status, and being trapped by the need to have these things.
The Sensible Thing is, ostensibly, the story of George, a young man without enough money to marry his sweetheart. She ends up breaking off the engagement, even though she loves him, because there is no promise that he can support himself, much less her. Poor guy. Well, he goes off to make his fame and fortune, returning triumphant a year later to win her back -- and he does. Happy ending, right? He gets the girl. And they live happily ever after. Classic. Sweet. Simple.
Then why do we walk away feeling like this couple will never be happy?
Life is not so simple. Fairy Tales have endings, but lives keep going. The compromises and decisions George and Jonquil make along the way reveal too much about their own natures, and make a pure, innocent love impossible.
As I wrote, and even more so, as we rehearsed, it became clear to me that real tragic character in this story is not George, but Jonquil. She is the quintessential Fitzgerald woman, the sought after, the unattainable, beautiful, smart, in control. She's got George wrapped around her little finger. Jonquil has spent a lifetime learning how to work a man, learning how to play the little games that cause men to fall in love with her. But she has done this out of necessity, because she has also learned from birth that the particular man she chooses will be the key to her success in life. She is defined by her man.
This is why George presents a problem. She falls in love with him, even though he is not wealthy, and has no status in her world. She sees something in him, a spark, a talent - something that awakens her own spirit. He's a brilliant young engineer, and she loves this, but is also aware that it would probably take a lifetime of work to put him in the proper financial position to marry her. So she encourages him to go to New York and sell insurance, hoping he'll quickly make his fame and fortune.
This is the fatal defining moment. George compromises his integrity to do something he hates, and he's a miserable failure at it. Jonquil is disappointed, and without the spark he had as an engineer pursuing his passion, he becomes a lot less attractive to her as well. This makes it easier for her to finally do what her culture deems the "sensible thing," and she sends him away. Utterly defeated, George leaves to start over again somewhere else.
But consider Jonquil... Quickly she realizes the selfishness and shortsightedness of her actions. She compromised both his integrity and her own, and now she is left to live with the reality of what she has given up. She dives back into her life of parties with the local beaux, quickly realizing how shallow and materialistic they are, and that she could not possibly love nor marry any one of them, after experiencing the true love she had with George. Yet, if she does not marry at all, what kind of life can she have? She is trapped.
And then George's triumphant return. Redemption? Not really. He is utterly changed. The priorities that influenced her decision to send him away became imprinted on him. When he left, it was with a new found determination to succeed - not for the love of his work, but so that he could win the girl of his dreams. It's all in the final line of the story "She was something desirable and rare that he had fought for and made his own." Innocent love was replaced by his desire to win her, to have her, to make her his own. He has become like the other men, and it is because of her. In the new George, Jonquil recognizes the very qualities she first embraced and then disdained, and she must live forever with the guilt.
Before beginning her film career, director Elise Robertson was a student of acting and literature at Northwestern University, where she played (among other roles) another classic Fitzgerald heroine, Judy Jones from the well-known short story Winter Dreams.