The interior writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald is practically impossible to adapt to film. It takes work for us to invest and understand the interior life of these characters, and this adaptation fails to do that. Many of these characters are not as sharply observed as they are in his novel, and the film continually suffers for it.
There’s also the strange case of Jennifer Jones in the lead role. She’s about twenty years too old for the role, but it’s the last performance of any worth in her career. It comes as a pleasant surprise after a series of overacted and artificial turns in films like Good Morning, Miss Dove and A Farewell to Arms. Jones had her own problems with emotional and mental disturbances, and she funnels those personal demons into this part. Nicole Diver is a part that can sustain her grandiose emotional turbulence, and Jones enlivens every frame as she expertly navigates her Zelda Fitzgerald proxy’s madness, recovery, and episodic fits.
It’s a shame that the rest of the players, and the film as a whole, do not rise to her level of commitment. Jason Robards is trying, but the script doesn’t believably transition his F. Scott proxy’s descent and turmoil. The worst of the worst has to be Jill St. John’s starlet, a completely vacuous creation as envisioned by the script and her wooden performance. Only Joan Fontaine as Jones’ older sister makes a good impression. Fontaine goes for broke, not in a sense of overacting but in a way that artistically channels the unintentionally callous and vacuous glitterati of Fitzgerald’s work. Fontaine and Robards have several tense scenes where she throws money at the problem, not in an effort to be cruel, but in a way that suggests this is the only way to problem-solve that she knows. Tender is the Night needed more of this character building and empathy and far less of the surface-level glitz and glamour that it traffics in.