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Amazon’s Version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Amazon’s series has little to do with Fitzgerald’s novel, but it’s still compelling television.

I’ve always been a Fitzgerald fan – much more so than Hemingway, and this interesting take on Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel is several notches above the usual television fare, if only because it tries to do so many things at once – even as it strays almost completely from the original narrative of Fitzgerald’s work.

Monroe Stahr, fashioned after real life MGM boy wonder Irving Thalberg, runs a Hollywood studio in the 1930s with smooth charm and a velvet-gloved fist, while his fellow moguls try to take him down at every opportunity. Kelsey Grammer plays Monroe’s jealous and possessive boss – in real life, Louis B. Mayer at MGM – and is sure that Stahr is going to bolt for a different studio at this first opportunity.

Other than a famous story that Stahr tells a struggling screenwriter about a mysterious woman, a pair of black gloves, and two dimes and a nickel, as well as a house Stahr is building far from the studio as part of a love affair, that’s about all that’s taken from Fitzgerald’s book. It’s also interesting that in the Amazon series, the real Thalberg pops up, working for Louis B. Mayer (a superb Saul Rubinek) as Stahr’s competition, when nothing at all happens like that in the novel.

Add in a raft of new subplots, including the real-life incursion of Nazi censorship in Hollywood in the 1930s in the figure of Georg Gyssling (Michael Siberry), as well as the usual round of studio backstabbing, overnight stardom, insecure directors (the fictional Red Ridingwood [Brian Howe] from the novel, is referenced here, but in the novel he’s a failing hack; here, he’s the equivalent of Michael Curtiz) and refugees from Nazi Germany who find at home at Stahr’s studio.

Kelsey Grammer could have walked through the role of studio boss Pat Brady in his sleep, but instead offers a firm, assured performance – by the end of the series he’s become a real monster – while Matt Bomer as Stahr is definitely less successful, especially in the romantic sequences, and is most effective when he’s wheedling and cajoling his employees through a typical work day.

Real life figures like Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) flit in and out at the edges of the series, while Jennifer Beals offers an exceptionally strong turn as fictional “passing” African-American film star Margo Taft, who is subjected to blackmail by L.B. Mayer when her secret is discovered. Even Marlene Dietrich (Stefanie von Pfetten) stops by for a quick cameo, and the studio itself (the series was shot in Canada) is littered with authentic period equipment.

The show first dropped the pilot in 2016, and offered it as one possible series of many different choices – and the pilot is perhaps the best episode in the entire series, with a great deal of energy and compact exposition – a strong inducement to watch the entire first season. In now-standard fashion, Amazon has dropped the entire first season on Friday July 28th, and by Saturday night, I had watched the complete set of 10 episodes – it’s that effective.

Though it bears little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s work, somehow, in the end, that didn’t really bother me. This is more of a tale of Hollywood intrigue and double dealing in the 1930s, handsomely mounted and efficiently directed by a disparate group of women and men, which more often than not offers real satisfaction and insight – despite Bomer’s stiff performance in the leading role. The show starts off lightly, but that’s just to lure you in.

As the series draws to a close, the show gathers real power – episodes 6-8 are more or less filler – but in the final two hours, The Last Tycoon takes many an unexpected turn, and reveals just how rotten Hollywood really was in the Golden Era, in which people were bought and sold as commodities, blackmail was rampant, and even murders were covered up in the name of “studio business.”

Fitzgerald’s name is tacked on for marquee value, but even though the plot is often far-fetched, the performances at times melodramatic, and the writing uneven, the show offers definite value for money, and the best part of all is that if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can stream the whole series for free. When you add up all the bad and the good, it definitely comes out on the positive side of the ledger.

Check it out – from the pilot to the finish – it’s addictive television.

Mozart in The Jungle

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Since I have abandoned traditional television, this is a delightful web series worth your attention.

Amazon Studios just keeps getting better and better. They have a pilot right now online for The Last Tycoon, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, which is quite compelling – which was recently green lit for a series – and other remarkably well-produced series, of such as their two seasons, with a third in the offing of Mozart in The Jungle, which deals with the world of classical music in the 21st century era. It’s a time in history when if one wants to dedicate one’s self to the arts, it’s akin to taking a lifetime vow of poverty in pursuit of beauty.

As the press release for the book on which the series is based notes, in part, “In the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, Mozart in the Jungle delves into the lives of the musicians and conductors who inhabit the insular world of classical music.

In a book that inspired the Amazon original series starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, oboist Blair Tindall recounts her decades-long professional career as a classical musician, from the recitals and Broadway orchestra performances to the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth in the backbiting New York classical music scene . . .

Tindall and her fellow journeymen musicians live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. These are working-class musicians who schlep across the city between low-paying gigs, without health-care benefits or retirement plans―a stark contrast to the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars.”

The series itself is a lot less hard-edged, and centers around Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo De Souza, a tempestuous Maestro who’s been brought in to help an ailing New York symphony orchestra regain its former greatness. Malcolm McDowell as Thomas Pembridge, the outgoing conductor, and Bernadette Peters as Gloria Windsor, the fundraiser who tries to keep the orchestra above water are both excellent in their roles, and Lola Kirke as Hailey Rutledge, the ostensible stand in for author Blair Tindall, shines in her role as a young, ambition oboist whose dream is to get a permanent gig with with the orchestra.

Billed as a comedy, and blessedly free of a laugh track, Mozart in the Jungle sometimes strays into darker territory, but it’s a real and distinct pleasure to hear so much classical music played so beautifully in a contemporary, one-camera sitcom, which is obviously made with loving care and a real attention to detail. You can stream the series on Amazon – two whole seasons, with half-hour episodes – and in an era dominated by serial killers and ultra-violence on both the web and in theaters, it’s a relief to view something more thoughtful, more passionate, and much more optimistic about life.

Mozart in The Jungle – definitely worth checking out.

Web Changes Everything for Indie Films and TV Series

Monday, April 13th, 2015

This is a key moment – Netflix and other web providers are producing both “TV” series and theatrical films.

As Dina Gachman reports in Studio System News, “Netflix is buying feature films, Woody Allen is making an Amazon show, and A-list Oscar winners have no problem taking a role in a TV show or miniseries, even at the height of their career. In other words, it’s an exciting time for television. The landscape is changing so rapidly it’ll give you whiplash.

That’s all great news for actors, writers, and producers – and maybe not-so-great news for theater chains, whose owners were recently up in arms about Netflix buying Cary Fukunaga’s feature film Beasts of No Nation for a reported $12 million. Features and television are experiencing an indie revolution – just look at the Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. The vast majority of the nominees were made outside of the studio system, with Warner Bros. American Sniper being the oft-cited exception.

In television, the traditional process of getting a pilot made is still the norm, but there are more channels, more online platforms, and more opportunities for writers and producers to get their project made than ever before. Going the independent route and shooting the pilot yourself is one option, and the stigma of making a pilot DIY-style is quickly becoming a thing of the past [and] while it hasn’t become the norm, indie pilots are definitely becoming an increasingly common route for creators who want to get their passion project off the ground, by any means necessary.

Former House EP Katie Jacobs and veteran indie producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, Reservation Road, Magic Mike) have recently teamed to produce an independent pilot called Dr. Del, with John Hawkes starring and John Sayles writing. They’ll shoot the pilot on their own, with total creative freedom, and then take it to cable and broadcast network.”

As she puts it, “there really is no excuse not to make your pilot anymore.”

Woody Allen’s New “TV” Series – on Amazon

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Woody Allen is doing his first “TV series” ever – with Amazon!

As always with Woody Allen, details are scarce, but Amazon has signed Allen to write and direct a full season of what is now being appropriately referred to as the “Untitled Woody Allen Project,” as the always reliable Nancy Tartaglione reports in Deadline. Of course, it’s not really a “TV series,” though it seems it will resemble one in format, because it’s only going to be on Amazon Prime. What a “full season” means these days is anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping it means at least 13 half-hours. As Tartaglione writes, “Amazon Studios broke new ground this weekend at the Golden Globes, winning its first major awards with the Best Television Series and Best Actor – Comedy or Musical statues going to Transparent.

Now, the streaming service is ramping up another first: signing Woody Allen to his first-ever TV series. Amazon has ordered a full season of the Untitled Woody Allen Project, which will premiere exclusively on Prime Instant Video. The Oscar-winner will write and direct the half-hour show whose logline is under wraps. (Allen previously penned an unaired sitcom pilot, The Laughmakers, for ABC in 1962.) An exact time frame was not provided for the project, however Amazon says its customers in the U.S., the UK and Germany will be able to see the series next year. Further details, including casting, are to come.

‘Woody Allen is a visionary creator who has made some of the greatest films of all-time, and it’s an honor to be working with him on his first television series,’ said Roy Price, Vice President of Amazon Studios. ‘From Annie Hall to Blue Jasmine, Woody has been at the creative forefront of American cinema and we couldn’t be more excited to premiere his first TV series exclusively on Prime Instant Video next year.’ Allen added, ‘I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin. My guess is that Roy Price will regret this.'”

I love it! “No ideas and I’m not sure where to begin.” That’s the way to launch a series!

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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