TENDER IS THE NIGHT was fingers-crossed with expectations on release in 1962, but quickly sank under negative reviews and weak box-office. There is enough of value in the drawn-out and depressing 142 minutes to warrant a view and applause, and to puzzle over the choices that made for flaws substantial enough to sink it and sting several careers in the process.*
In the 1920s, the dreams,spirit and career of psychiatrist ‘Dick Diver’ fall apart as he tries to restore and maintain the sanity of a rich patient he marries, while surrounded by a jaded cluster of moneyed American expatriates and debonair Continentals, bemused and baffled by the excesses of their meal tickets.
Ivan Moffat’s script did an okay job adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 320-page novel; the scenery is gorgeous, the music score lush and half of the performances are quite good. Those attributes contend with a miscast male lead, an off-kilter supporting actor, a truly atrocious supporting actress and—most damaging—oddly stillborn direction from a veteran studio craftsman that leaches impact from scene after scene.
Countering a sterling stage rep, Jason Robards’ early movies (this his second, at 40) didn’t flatter his talent. He came off too harsh and strident as a lead: his character is supposed to be attractive and charming here— it’s a hard sell. As yet another of Fitzgerald’s parade of boozy losers, he has an off-putting role to shoulder to start with. In support, Tom Ewell overplays it as a tiresome soused buffoon, perhaps trying to emulate Oscar Levant (why that would be a good idea calls for another bottle of champagne to answer). Someone at Fox gave the hold-to-the-last-vowel order to cast Jill St. John—yet again—in a part that called for an actress who could at least fake sounds like they knew how to talk. After her hoof-in-mouth delivery had punched Titanic-sized holes in Holiday For Lovers, The Lost World and The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone, the forlorn hope she could handle Fitzgerald put her back in bimbo territory where she pretty much remained.
Matched against the weak links are the fine jobs from Jennifer Jones and Joan Fontaine, and a decent turn from suave Cesare Danova. Pilloried over her gasping in A Farewell To Arms, Jones took a five-year break, and had hopes pinned on a return to earlier glory with the crucial role of ‘Nicole’ (standing in for Fitzgerald’s disturbed wife Zelda). Since the part had ‘Go Big’ written into it, you worry Jones will go Full Frontal Fiasco as she did with Rock Hudson in the Hemingway epic, but she keeps it subdued and affecting, so the pain comes across but the dignity is intact. She needed a comeback, Hollywood being unforgiving, especially to women past a certain age (ever thus and still), and her Golden Age girlfriend Fontaine had also by then joined the royalty rank being tossed aside as yesterdays news.
Unlike Lana Turner and Susan Hayward, both still working the catwalk to a degree, Fontaine took a cue from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—as well as her feuding sister, Olivia de Havilland—and dials back the demure diva aura to make room for her inner heartless bitch (the character, not Miss Fontaine) and sans manner, she effortlessly steals each scene she’s in with sharp line readings and deft positioning. That these actresses were only 43 and 45, respectively, bares the merciless use & toss bottom line showbiz draws for women.
Though not much period feeling comes across in the costuming, the locales in Zurich and on the French & Italian Riviera are gloriously showcased in CinemaScope by Leon Shamroy’s camera. Bernard Herrmann provides a fine soundtrack, highlighted by the wistful, Oscar-nominated title theme.
What really hurts is the refusal of Henry King to let Shamroy move the camera into so much as a single close-up: everything stays distanced, and with a story that is 90% talk and reaction, losing closeups hurts all the actors (almost—with no bikini available, there is nothing to be done with St.John). King’s once polished work had been sliding for a while and his previous picture, Beloved Infidel, another period piece dealing with Fitzgerald, had stranded Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr in stasis. At 75, he called it a wrap after this.
Despite the aloof direction, a wooden Robards, An Earache Called Jill, and whether you can relate to Fitzgerald’s madcap decaying rich folk or not (I never got it, him or them), the good work of Jones, Fontaine and Danova, and from Shamroy and Herrmann balances the flaws. The hurt from missed opportunity and faded love is universal and it comes through.
The result was #52 for the year, earnings of $3,300,000 marking a major loss against the $3,900,000 it cost to make. With Paul Lukas, Sanford Meisner (the famous acting coach, wielding an accent you need a chisel to penetrate), Bea Benadaret, Charles Fredericks, Alan Napier (as a cruel Spaniard) and legendary pianist Earl Grant. Tony Bennett nicked a winner with the haunting title tune.
* Nearly all involved took a paddling. It was a weak finale for King’s 32-year run of 117 credits, including steering Jones her Oscar for The Song Of Bernadette. The insecure Jones only made three more pictures, each several years apart. Robards had more luck that same year with Long Days Journey Into Night, before heading back to the stage for a good spell. He really came into his own in movies when he was older, in memorable supporting roles. Fontaine’s movie career was done—at least she went out in style—and she made do with TV jobs. Ewell had a bad year, as his TV series was canceled after one season, and the remake of State Fair bombed. St. John kept working, mostly in second-string flicks or on the tube where she could do less harm.
Published in 1934, the book was Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, his last completed: he thought it his best. Reception at the time was mixed, now it’s considered a classic. I’ve never much warmed up to his riff, including the various versions of The Great Gatsby: I prefer this flawed movie over those. There goes my invitation to wreck a piano during Christmas with a nervous breakdown while dead drunk at the big house on the hill….oh, well, maybe someday a snob in knickerbockers will call me “Sport” and I can break a golf club over his darts trophy.