The Last Tycoon would seem to be a trap waiting for the foolish filmmaker. Controversial writer F. Scott Fitzgerald got barely halfway through it before his premature death, and critics have been debating the merit of the published result ever since, trying to gauge what its potential might have been. 'Boy wonder' Fitzgerald's book concerned a 'boy wonder' loosely based on MGM's Irving Thalberg, who also died at a young age.
The book is about a changing Hollywood, one incapable of making great films out of books like The Great Gatsby. It tried twice. In 1976, Elia Kazan came out of retirement for one last push at greatness, in this beautifully-mounted production that uses more interesting actors, old and new, than any film has since. Kazan proves himself capable of marshaling new stars De Niro and Nicholson and making them mesh with actors from earlier eras.
How does one find a screenwriter for a book without an ending? Playwright Harold Pinter successfully wrote several Joseph Losey pictures, none of which bothered with a conventional ending. The movie ends up an open-ended question mark filmed with taste and discretion by a genuine Hollywood master.
I was charmed by The Last Tycoon when it was new, and it only seems better on DVD. I think it was the first film where Robert De Niro played a character even remotely likeable. His Monroe Stahr is a fascinating man, an organizational genius who exudes charm and control while ruling his studio. This is probably an improvement on the real Irving Thalberg, who would have been loved by Hollywood simply for not being an infantile tyrant like Cohn or Mayer. Like Thalberg, Monroe Stahr has taste and discretion and can foster difficult talent and wrangle creative egos while not straining a hair on his head. Even an earthquake fazes him not. His films are everything. 1
Kazan paints a dreamlike image of studio life, without the satirical venom of The Day of the Locust. It's a fiefdom with pawns and players, where people talk or don't talk to others depending on their class within the system. Monroe handles them all beautifully. The financial executives (Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland) grouse about his 'artistic' ideas getting in the way of commerce, and talk fearfully of the commies in the writer's group. He's particularly good at motivating his creative talent, whether giving a sloppy director (Dana Andrews, of Kazan's Boomerang! 27 years earlier) a dressing-down, or inspiring a jaded novelist (Donald Pleasance) to believe that, in movie terms, the simple act of observing unexplained actions can take the place of literate prose. 2
The crisp opening reels contain great sketches of studio life, with Jeanne Moreau as an impossible star capable of great things if handled well, and Tony Curtis as a matinee idol (kind of a slightly paunchy The Great Leslie) with sexual dysfunction issues. Monroe Stahr fields their personal problems with endless patience. He even has time to gently deflect the attentions of Cecelia Brady (ravishing young Theresa Russell), an executive's daughter.
Monroe's downfall begins with his dreamlike fling with mystery woman Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), a beauty who resembles his dead wife Minna. She represents everything Monroe needs, and they meet and eventually make love amid the raw framing of his incomplete beach house. Here's where the symbolism starts - the house has to be a symbol for Fitzgerald's half-finished book. We keep coming back to it, like a Sartre play where all roads lead to Malibu.
The second half of the film decomposes as Monroe falls apart over his mystery girlfriend. Supreme dramatist Kazan gives Pinter's fuzzy ambiguity and undefined conflicts a classy treatment that makes the film feel almost like one of De Niro's pipe dreams in Once Upon a Time in America. There's a palace coup by Stahr's board of directors, but unless three days of bad behavior and one fistfight can wreck Monroe's stature with the New York front office, it happens too abruptly. There's an inclination to think that dream girl Kathleen Moore may be part of a plot to destabilize Stahr, but it's not pursued and it doesn't sound very interesting.
Jack Nicholson's in for barely three scenes as a New York writer's representative with whom Monroe Stahr needs to negotiate. The big star interaction is good, but muted. Learning some bad news about his girlfriend, the previously impregnable Stahr crumbles, and the life goes out of the show just as Nicholson comes in.
I'd forgotten completely how The Last Tycoon ends, and after seeing it again over 25 years later, that part of the movie didn't get any better. Frankly, the last couple of scenes play like a bad foreign movie that even Joseph Losey wouldn't put his name on. Pinter has filmic reality dissolve into some meaningful static stares and semi-abstract visuals in search of a fade out.
But the movie's simply too well made and Hollywood-savvy to be dismissed. Kazan never worked with a script this ill-defined, but he makes it play well, while creating details that keep us watching the screen just as in Monroe Stahr's office pantomime. Perhaps the right way to make a half-written novel into a movie, is to make a half-brilliant movie, which is what this show feels like.
Paramount's DVD of The Last Tycoon is another one of their extras-free beauties. The picture plays like new for both visuals and audio. The color is strong, and the stylization interesting, even when the image shifts to B&W for Jeanne Moreau's imitation Casablanca movie within a movie. Maurice Jarre's cautious score swells for the emotional highlights. There's no lack of nudity in the picture, but the MPAA gave it a PG. There must have been a Monroe Stahr-type at Paramount doing some effective telephone lobbying.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Tycoon rates:
1. Savant likes to 'collect'
scenes about film editors in Hollywood sagas. Here the top cutter at Monroe's studio dies of a heart
attack right in the middle of a daily screening, and nobody finds out until the lights come up. An
assistant says the dead man probably didn't want to disrupt Stahr's concentration!
2. De Niro's coy play-acting in his office fascinates and charms us as
much as it does Pleasance's stuffy author. Real Hollywood moguls were famous for staging elaborate
personal 'performances' to get their way (see the Cohn substitute Stanley Hoff in Robert Aldrich's
The Big Knife) and Monroe's gentle pantomime
should go down as a great moment in film history, about film history. The astute casting makes all
the difference - Pleasance's performance is more focused than most of the genre work he was churning
out at the time, and for a seasoned 'lady writer' by his side, Tycoon casts Betsy-Jones Moreland,
the Corman actress from The Last Woman on Earth. It's possible that both her presence and
that of Angelica (Anjelica) Huston were the doing of co-star Jack Nicholson.