"I don't think I have more brains than a writer. I just think that his brains belong to me."—Monroe Stahr
Elia Kazan's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon represents a fascinating conundrum. It is the last film directed by one of the giants of Hollywood cinema, features one of the best casts a movie could hope to put together (no doubt due to the influence of legendary producer Sam Spiegel), and succeeds masterfully in recreating the Hollywood of a bygone era. It is somewhat strange, then, that the entire production feels so dramatically stiff, so chained down by its own self-importance. It's too well made and beautifully staged to dismiss entirely, but with a pedigree like this, one has to wonder, is this the best they could come up with?
Facts of the Case
It's 1930s Hollywood, where Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro), is the reigning chief of one of the biggest studios in town. He is good at his job. He understands the business, knows talent when he sees it, and seems to run on a limitless well of energy. He knows how to get films made, when to take risks on high-budget material, and even understands that a picture that loses money can still profit the studio. In the course of a day, he finds himself dealing with drunken writers (Donald Pleasance), vain starlets (Jeanne Moreau), and ambitious union bosses (Jack Nicholson).
One night, after an earthquake, Monroe spots Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), a beautiful young muse, and falls instantly, deeply in love. At first, she is resistant to his flirtation, but eventually she succumbs, and the two are immediately caught up in a passionate romance. But when revelations about her past threaten to destroy their fragile relationship, Monroe finds the line between his personal and professional life blurred in ways he never imagined possible.
The Last Tycoon was F. Scott Fitzgerald's final novel, and was no doubt based on the author's own experiences in Hollywood as a screenwriter and script doctor. Unfortunately, the book was never completed (Fitzgerald died less than halfway through writing it), leaving the filmmakers behind the screen adaptation in an inevitable bind. How does one go about completing something begun by one of America's most cherished novelists without betraying that author's original ideas and intentions, not even knowing what those intentions originally were? Not being familiar with the Fitzgerald source material, I can only speculate, but I do know that the cinematic results of the attempt are a decidedly mixed bag.
The first thing that grabs you about Elia Kazan's film is the striking production design, done by Gene Callahan and Jack T. Collis, which works beautifully in recreating Hollywood circa the 1930s. Everything feels authentic, from the immaculately designed office interiors to the soundstages of the golden-era studios to even the automobiles. The level of detail is so meticulous that we forget we're watching a period film and just accept that this is the way things are supposed to look. Like the great films set in this era, e.g. Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the production design doesn't call attention to itself and, as such, doesn't distract the audience from what is actually happening onscreen, which is exactly as it should be. Now, if only what was happening onscreen were a bit more interesting.
I wrestled for a long time with where exactly The Last Tycoon goes wrong, and I think I've finally figured it out: it's the script. Adapted from the Fitzgerald novel by Harold Pinter, the writing is so stiff and labored that you can feel the writer paying reverence to the source material when he should really be taking a greater joy in his opportunity to make a film set in this, one of the most fascinating periods of American film history. The movie just isn't as much fun as it should be. It's got the pretentiousness of Fellini's 8 1/2, another movie about the movies, but it lacks that film's joie de vivre. And though it's not a satire in the same vein as Robert Altman's The Player, you would think that an attempt would be made to at least have some fun with the subject matter.
The character that suffers the most from the film's stuffiness is Kathleen Moore, the girl who commands so much of the protagonist's attention. She's absolutely gorgeous to look at, and you can certainly see the initial attraction that he feels toward her. But when we actually hear her speak, she's a colossal bore, and one wonders why Monroe remains interested after he actually spends some time with her. I understand that she's supposed to be somewhat angelic and, in a way, unattainable, but you wonder why he doesn't just ditch her for the much more earthy and equally lovely Cecilia Brady (Theresa Russell), the daughter of fellow executive Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum), who clearly loves him more than the icy, remote Kathleen. In order to buy into Monroe's obsession, on which the major narrative drive of the film hinges, we have to believe that she's worth it. And we don't.
As Monroe, Robert De Niro does his absolute best with the material, and proves just what a consummate actor he is (and was). It's not really made much of an issue in the film, but anyone's going to have a hard time believing someone who appears so young (supposedly 35-ish) is going to be in full command of a 1930s-era studio, and De Niro slips so convincingly into the role and is such an authoritative presence that it's easy to accept him in the position. Even with the stilted dialogue and the constraints placed on him by the stodgy script, he finds a way to break free and make the role his own. The film was released in 1977, the year after he appeared in Martin Scorsese's much stronger and better-known Taxi Driver, and if you watch the two films in succession with 1974's The Godfather II, you can literally see the actor coming into his own. If there's a reason to watch The Last Tycoon, it's De Niro.
The supporting cast is one of the best that any casting director could hope for, and combines stars from old Hollywood (Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum) and then-up-and-comers (including Anjelica Huston, herself movie star royalty). These players lend an air of authenticity to the Hollywood trappings and, with their knowledge of the workings of the studio system, help to further the credibility of the era fashioned by the production design. In the end, The Last Tycoon is a curiosity piece, but one that is well worth seeing, if only to witness one of our greatest directors at the end of his career and one of our finest actors at the beginning of his. Though I wish the material were worthier of the talents of those concerned, you take what you can get.
Paramount's DVD of The Last Tycoon is another one of their gorgeous no-frills releases. Though the extras are nonexistent (literally), the widescreen transfer is absolutely breathtaking, and serves to highlight just how incredibly designed this film is. Color saturation is excellent, with no bleeding and very little edge enhancement. The film is presented with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and, although the film is dialogue heavy and therefore most of the activity comes from the front and center channels, the surround track highlight's Maurice Jarre's subtle, lovely score. If Paramount is going to continue to release their catalogue movies without extras, we can only hope that the rest of them look and sound as good as this.
Although the film itself is a bit of a disappointment considering the level of talent involved, the same can't be said for Paramount's DVD treatment of one of their more obscure properties. The disc's video and audio quality are top-notch, and cinema lovers wishing to flesh out their knowledge of one of the medium's legendary directors should at least consider giving a look to this severely flawed but nevertheless fascinating piece of movie history.
Not guilty. Paramount are once again praised for at least giving their lesser-known titles the aesthetic respect they deserve, even if it seems that, when it comes to supplemental material, they'll probably never learn. Case dismissed.
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