This morning at the supermarket, picking up The Sunday New York Times, which everyone should read — every day — I saw a copy of the DVD of Elia Kazan’s 1976 film The Last Tycoon, based on the unfinished Hollywood novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. There it was in the checkout aisle, priced at just $5 for a widescreen version (as opposed to a pan and scan copy) of the film. I didn’t even have to think twice about it; I snapped it up.
Robert De Niro, still young and magnetic, toplines as Monroe Stahr, an obvious stand in for Irving Thalberg, the boy genius who started at Universal at the age of 19, and then moved to MGM to run the studio under Louis B. Mayer.
Set in the late 1930s, the peak of the studio era, with a literate script by Harold Pinter, and excellent supporting performances from Tony Curtis (as a star on his way down), Dana Andrews (as a director who has lost his touch, and is summarily canned during the making of a film), Jeanne Moreau (as a fading and difficult leading lady), Ray Milland and Robert Mitchum (as corrupt studio money men from the East), and Donald Pleasance (as a novelist hired to write a screenplay, but has no idea how to deal with the medium of film), The Last Tycoon eventually collapses under the sheer weight of its numerous plot strands, but for the first half hour, at least, as Stahr goes through a typical workday at the studio, the film is absolutely right on target.
Kazan is always remembered for On The Waterfront (1954) and his other great films of the 50s, and The Last Tycoon has nowhere near the same degree of control and concision of these earlier works, but when the film succeeds, I can’t think of another film that more accurately depicts the Hollywood studio system during the Classic Age.
The Last Tycoon is also one of the best adaptations of Fitzgerald to make it to the screen, and it’s oddly appropriate that the film should trail off, just as Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel does, but not before giving us an indelible picture of studio life in the days of the unquestioned moguls.
Right now, I’m finishing up a new book, The End of Empire: The Collapse of the Studio System, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press. Immersed as I am in the details of studio history right now, this film resonated, and should be more widely seen and appreciated.
Yes, in the end Kazan’s The Last Tycoon collapses, but that’s partly because it tries to accomplish something more than providing mere genre entertainment — it’s not a comic book movie, in short. It was not only Fitzgerald’s last novel; it was also the last movie Kazan directed, about an industry he had worked in since the 1940s, starting as an actor.
I doubt if it could be made today. I would like to be proved wrong. There’s an excellent Fitzgerald script lying around entitled Infidelity; it’s 4/5ths complete, and in the mid 1980s, I uncovered Fitzgerald’s rough draft of the ending for the project. Fitzgerald wrote it for MGM, before censorship concerns derailed the project; I don’t know who owns the property now, but it would be an excellent idea to bring it to the screen.