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The Last Tycoon

by Glenn Erickson Dec 09, 2023

Elia Kazan and Harold Pinter’s classy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel looks and plays better than ever, with a fine script that refuses to ‘fix’ what Fitzgerald wrote. Robert De Niro’s excellent Monroe Stahr is surrounded by a powerhouse cast: Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Theresa Russell, Ingrid Boulting, Donald Pleasance, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Peter Strauss, John Carradine, Jeff Corey, Seymour Cassel and Anjelica Huston. It’s quality filmmaking, with some original surprises we don’t expect in a ‘Hollywood exposé.’ Kino offers a new commentary by Joseph McBride.


The Last Tycoon
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1976 / Color + B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date November 28, 2023 / Special Edition / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Theresa Russell, Ingrid Boulting, Donald Pleasance, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Peter Strauss, Tige Andrews, Morgan Farley, John Carradine, Jeff Corey, Seymour Cassel, Anjelica Huston, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Rutanya Alda, Byron Morrow, .
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Production Designer: Gene Callahan
Art Director: Jack T. Collis
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone, Anthea Sylbert
Film Editor: Richard Marks
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Written by Harold Pinter from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Directed by
Elia Kazan

The newspaper ads back in 1976 made The Last Tycoon look ‘important,’ and we went to see it because we were already interested in the star, the director and the source book. The movie held our close attention. Some films by ‘old hands’ just exude confidence — we can tell that the filmmakers know what they’re doing and that everything we’re seeing is exactly as they wanted it to be. That feeling was not shared by many critics, but we felt at ease, even as we can tell the movie will become an unconventional puzzle.

Directed by an old Hollywood great, The Last Tycoon offered a conventional look at a time when trends were going in other directions. The project was initiated by producer Sam Spiegel. When director Mike Nichols withdrew, Spiegel asked his old associate Kazan to come out of retirement. The legendary Elia Kazan’s last hit movie had been 1961’s Splendor in the Grass  (Where’s that Blu-ray, Warners?).  The hot ’70s star Robert De Niro had just worked in Italy with Bernardo Bertolucci. The beautifully-mounted production gathers an exceedingly interestting group of name actors, old and new. Kazan has no difficulty mixing the new stars De Niro and Jack Nicholson with actors from earlier eras.

Unfinished novels have historically been a trap for the unwary filmmaker. The controversial F. Scott Fitzgerald was barely halfway through Tycoon before his premature death in 1940. The book’s movie tycoon was said to be loosely based on MGM’s Irving Thalberg, and there is an executive rivalry with a character supposedly standing for Louis B. Mayer. Other characters do no seem directly aligned with real-life figures, but events like the 1933 earthquake are worked into the story fabric. Thalberg was in poor health and died young, an angle with a coincidental connection to the celebrated author.

 

Welcome to the busy, regimented world of a big movie studio. Production head Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro) is a tireless organizer, negotiator, and hands-on creative powerhouse. He personally keeps tabs on the many movies under way on his lot. Monroe intervenes when the fussy director Red Ridingwood (Dana Andrews) loses control of a movie starring the demanding Didi (Jeanne Moreau). He counsels the insecure matinee idol Rodriguez (Tony Curtis). He tries to motivate a prominent author he’s hired, Boxley (Donald Pleasance) to stop complaining and get to work. Monroe fulfills a tight schedule to keep his films on track, and also to stay ahead of studio executive Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum), an ambitious schemer looking for opportunities to undermine his authority.

Monroe can seemingly do no wrong, no matter what demands are made on him. He handles the politics of a studio lunch with such diplomacy, that Brady’s power play with the studio attorney Fleishacker loses traction. When an earthquake forces a real-life emergency on his fantasy factory, Stahr almost sleeps through it. He rallies to supervise the crisis, stemming a flood from a broken water main, and keeping production on schedule.

But Monroe Stahr’s personal life proves his undoing. He’s a widower, and his lost wife Minna Davis is treated with reverence by the studio’s tour guide (John Carradine). He’s too busy working to get involved in a romance. Pat Brady’s daughter Cecilia (Theresa Russell, in her first film) returns from college. She makes a big play for Monroe, but he gently turns her down by saying he’s too old and just not interested.

But Stahr instead becomes obsessed by a studio employee he saw during the earthquake crisis. His minions track down the wrong woman, Edna (Anjelica Huston), who graciously puts Monroe in contact with the object of his quest. Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting) is delicate and reserved and refuses to be swept off her feet. Is she just being standoffish?  Monroe falls hard, and his persistence results in an odd series of dates, despite Kathleen’s insistence that the relationship is impossible. She even sleeps with him at his only partially-built beach house — perhaps abandoned when Minna died?  Kathleen’s abrupt rejection causes Monroe to lose his equilibrium, which immediately affects his job performance. He makes a drunken mess of a delicate meeting with Brimmer (Jack Nicholson), a leftist representative of the writer’s union. The stumble gives Pat Brady the needed leverage to shake Monroe Stahr from his position of power.

Seeing the show again in this glowing Blu-ray presentation, we are more impressed than ever that screenwriter Harold Pinter didn’t invent a finish that wrapped up all the book’s loose ends. This may be the most satisfying movie based on a famous unfinished novel. The study of power in the Golden Age of Hollywood Moguls is neither a cheap exposé of the abuses of the system, nor a glamorous whitewash.

 

Not long after Fitzgerald’s death, the literary experts reportedly pieced together the author’s intentions for the balance of his unfinished book. The book begins with Stahr boarding an airplane, and much of the narrative is told by Cecilia Brady, from some future date. In Fitzgerald’s notes, the studio rivalry was to reach critical mass, with both Monroe Stahr and Pat Brady hiring gangland hits on each other. Fitzgerald reportedly intended for that plane to crash, killing Monroe Stahr. By 1939, Hollywood had already accumulated a few conspiracy rumors centered on the deaths of prominent actors, directors and studio personnel.

We also wonder if Fitzgerald was constantly updating his outline for unwritten chapters. Could he have gone in a different direction altogether?  Would various details have been revised?  We wonder if the character name ‘Red Ridingwood’ was just a placeholder, to remind the author to find a real name later?

Playwright Harold Pinter had written several noted Joseph Losey pictures, a few of which frustrated audiences weary of unresolved ‘art movie’ fade-outs. Instead of inventing a finish for Fitzgerald’s story, Pinter and Elia Kazan more or less ended The Last Tycoon where the text left off. The last major event is Stahr’s diplomatic disaster with the self-avowed communist writers’ representative. Not much is resolved, but it is implied that Monroe Stahr will not fight to regain his production empire. He routinely invented fixes for his audience-pleasing fantasies, but he couldn’t engineer his personal life the same way. The finish is an abrupt, open-ended question mark that refuses to re-write Fitzgerald or presume on the author’s intentions.

Few ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ stories are as insightful about the workings of the studios. Tycoon makes sense of a system that consolidated its power in a head of production who routinely rewrites and reshoots ‘his’ movies until he considers them ready for public consumption. It explains how the studios’ output can sometimes seem so homogenous — there is no such thing as a director’s cut. Even Hollywood’s greatest directors rarely enjoyed a final cut on anything: the ‘auteur’ Fritz Lang was treated like any other journeyman director, and Darryl Zanuck routinely recut and re-shaped the films that John Ford made at Fox.

 

The ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg was an uncredited uber-producer on most everything MGM released. He reportedly ‘rode herd’ on emotional and unreliable creative people just as does Monroe Stahr — an imperious actress, an insecure actor, a weak director, a pompous writer. Mogul Louis B. Mayer would later do battle with another production chief, Dore Schary, casting himself as the protector of wholesome entertainment for America. Several trends eventually brought down the autocratic studio system, but in the middle 1930s the biggest threat to the moguls were the emerging guilds and unions. As the drunken Monroe foolishly declares to the po-faced Brimmer, ” I will not give them power. I’ll give them money, I won’t give them power. Anyway, they’re not equipped for authority.”

Tycoon delineates well a factory system that turned out polished entertainment but often resisted the complexities of book adaptations, and real-world issues. Old Hollywood tried twice to film Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and each time tried to conform it to standard filmic conventions, as either a domestic melodrama or a film noir thriller.

Looking at notes from an earlier DVD review, it’s amusing to read that one reason I liked The Last Tycoon when it was new, is because 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 rules his studio with charm and self-control. Like Thalberg, 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.

 

The show paints a dreamlike image of studio life without the bitter venom of The Day of the Locust. It’s a fiefdom with pawns and players that do or don’t talk to each other depending on their class within the system. Monroe handles them all beautifully. Other executives grouse about his ‘artistic’ ideas getting in the way of commerce, and talk fearfully of the commies in the writer’s group. The crisp opening reels contain great sketches of studio life. He’s particularly good at motivating his creative talent. The more abstract content begins when Monroe makes love to his dream woman amid the raw framing of his incomplete beach house. Here’s where the symbolism starts — the house expresses Monroe’s abandoned love life, but to us it also stands in for Fitzgerald’s half-finished book.

The film promptly de-focuses, as Monroe falls apart over his mystery girlfriend. The flow begins to resemble one of De Niro’s opium dreams in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a palace coup by Stahr’s board of directors, based on three days of bad behavior and one fistfight. We might wonder if the dream girl Kathleen Moore were yet another plot to destabilize Stahr, but Tycoon is not a thriller. Monroe Stahr’s fate lies in his character.

Jack Nicholson is in for what amounts to an extended cameo, mostly just reacting to Monroe Stahr’s unexpected breakdown. The big star conflict is good, but muted. We wonder if the casting of Anjelica Huston was prompted by her close friend Nicholson. Ingrid Boulting, the step-daughter of England’s Roy Boulting, possesses the ethereal beauty required of Kathleen. The critics of 1976 all but blamed Boulting for ruining Tycoon — as if Elia Kazan didn’t want Kathleen to be distant and unreadable. The film’s most dynamic find is Theresa Russell. Her Cecilia comes across as diverting and maybe even healthy for Monroe, which almost seems a shame.

 

Pinter and Kazan make excellent use of a gallery of past stars. Jeanne Moreau is little more than adequate, but Tony Curtis throws himself into his abbreviated appearance with just the right spirit. Dana Andrews and Ray Milland add stature to lesser parts, while Robert Mitchum plays Pat Brady as an ambitious bull, especially when his daughter catches him having sex in his office during company hours. Peter Strauss, John Carradine and Jeff Corey are side benefits.

The movie is too well made and Hollywood-savvy to be dismissed. The ‘watch what happens’ progression of events is very much like Monroe Stahr’s own office pantomime ‘lesson’ for his writer Boxley, the set piece about the contents of a lady’s purse, and the nickel that’s ‘for the movies.’ There is perhaps no sure way to make a half-written novel into a great movie, but Kazan and company never embarrass themselves — the show is true to its literary source.

So many years later, I’m again surprised to see how the movie ends. As if making a statement about the lack of closure or resolution, the last few shots dissolve into some meaningful static stares and semi-abstract visuals. Filmic reality goes in search of a fade-out. The ‘walking off into the studio’ finish somehow reminds us of Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans, a Hollywood story that comes off as its own kind of fable-making. I remember Spielberg as being very down-to-Earth and approachable, yet his finale seems intent on granting himself ‘future legend’ status.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Last Tycoon is billed as a new HD Master from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. The image all but glows yet cameraman Victor Kemper never relaxes into the standard glamour lighting of earlier Hollywood tales — The Carpetbaggers, etc.. Kemper was better known for gritty realism, as in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Dog Day Afternoon — no matter how pretty the art direction, the cinematography always has an edge.

The show hasn’t the overdressed feeling of Paramount’s The Great Gatsby remake, where the costumes sometimes seem to be wearing the people instead of vice-versa. The image shifts to B&W for Jeanne Moreau’s imitation Casablanca movie within a movie. The original mono mix is present, together with a presumed 5.1 remix. Maurice Jarre’s score captures the flavor of the 1930s yet doesn’t rub the period into our faces, visually or musically. At only 123 minutes’ duration, Tycoon never feels over-extended.

The disc’s one new extra is an audio commentary by critic Joseph McBride. I think this may be his first commentary for an Elia Kazan picture, so his back-stories, production information and personalty profiles are fresh. His recounting of relevant Hollywood history isfascinating, as is his analysis of the choice made not to invent a new ending for Fitzgerald’s book. McBride was active professionally in Hollywood at this time, and so is able to mix his personal memories in where appropriate.

 

Two notes in parting: The Last Tycoon joins a short list of Hollywood stories that ‘tell the truth’ of film work by relegating film editors to minor status in the studio pecking order: when directors and producers are present, the editor can suddenly be demoted to gopher duty. Here the top cutter at Monroe’s studio dies of a heart attack right in the middle of a dailies screening, and nobody finds out until the lights come up. The dead man didn’t want to disrupt Stahr’s concentration!

Monroe Stahr’s office pantomime for the benefit of his writers is the film’s most memorable moment. Some noted Hollywood moguls were famous for staging such elaborate personal ‘performances.’ It is said that Louis B. Mayer often broke down in tears during his story pitches, perhaps to insure that nobody dare tell him that the idea stinks. Monroe’s gentle pantomime should have gone down as a great moment in film history. The astute casting makes all the difference, especially Donald Pleasance’s understated performance. To play the ‘lady writer’ in the room Tycoon casts Betsy-Jones Moreland, Roger Corman’s actress from Last Woman on Earth. It’s possible that both Moreland’s presence and that of Anjelica Huston were the doing of co-star Jack Nicholson.

Just reading now, I’ve found out that Amazon turned The Last Tycoon into a TV series in 2016. It’s rated as fairly good, scoring higher on some polls than the Elia Kazan film. For now I’ll stick to this version.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Last Tycoon
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Joseph McBride
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 6, 2023
(7040tyco)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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