Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a novel entitled The Last Tycoon (also referred to by some as The Love of the Last Tycoon) when he died at the age of 44. The unfinished work was published in 1941; it’s a roman a clef inspired by Fitzgerald’s friend, motion picture studio producer Irving Thalberg, in which a movie mogul named Monroe Stahr deals with a changing Hollywood while entering into an ill-fated romance with a mysterious woman named Kathleen Moore. Here’s your spoiler warning: Stahr’s preoccupation with Kathleen (who bears a strong resemblance to his late movie star wife) escalates his downfall at the fictional International World Films studio; the distraction allows a cabal led by Stahr’s boss and some of the “money men” to facilitate his ouster and Monroe is forced to abandon the studio in an admittedly ambiguous ending. (Stahr got off lucky—the real-life Thalberg died at the age of 37.)
The production history of The Last Tycoon is in some ways more interesting that the actual film, which I was able to watch recently on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive, which has resurrected the movie from its discontinued status (it had previously been released as a no-frills disc in 2003 by Paramount Home Video). Peter Bogdanovich was approached to direct the film but took a pass and so the project wound up in the hands of Mike Nichols (who tried to cast Dustin Hoffman in the part of Monroe Stahr). When Nichols abandoned the project, producer Sam Spiegel asked his old friend Elia Kazan (the two men had worked together on the Academy Award-winning On the Waterfront) to come out of retirement and direct. Spiegel had wanted Jack Nicholson for Stahr, but Kazan lobbied for Robert De Niro and won the day on that decision (though Nicholson does appear in the film as Brimmer, a New York labor organizer determined to unionize the writers at Stahr’s studio). Spiegel had also wanted Susan Sarandon to play Kathleen (a choice I personally think would have worked out better) but Ingrid Boulting, the daughter of writer-director John Boulting, snared the leading lady prize.
One decision in which Spiegel did prevail was in the film’s screenplay; it was written by playwright Harold Pinter, and according to Kazan’s autobiography, Sam considered the script inviolable and wouldn’t let the director monkey with it to add some needed dramatic tension. Pinter has his fans and non-fans; I’ve never really been able to get into his work (it demands patience, and for me it’s a bunch of talk-talk-talk) and I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t warm up to Tycoon like I hoped. I’m also not a devotee of Fitzgerald; I found Tycoon a little too Gatsby-ish for my tastes, with Stahr essentially playing the man who’s re-invented himself (despite his wealth and personal polish, Stahr’s origins are that of a poor boy from New York’s East Side) and finding his unattainable love in the Daisy Buchanan-ish Kathleen.
Still, the background of the film and much of its trappings piqued my interest, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied with The Last Tycoon there were components in the production that would allow me to recommend it to the curious. Though some might consider the choices Kazan made in the actors and actresses “stunt casting,” I liked how he builds a bridge between “Old” and “New” Hollywood. Granted, both De Niro and Nicholson aren’t technically newcomers (each actor already had an Oscar on their mantles by the time Tycoon was released) but they’re certainly the most recognizable personages in the film to modern-day moviegoers, and you’ll also spot Theresa Russell in her film debut (as the woman who’s secretly in love with Stahr) as well as Peter Strauss and Anjelica Huston in small roles. It’s great seeing classic film icons like Robert Mitchum (as the L.B. Mayer-like studio boss gunning for Monroe), Ray Milland (Mitchum’s lawyer accomplice), Dana Andrews (as a director given the sack by Stahr) and Tony Curtis—who, with Jeanne Moreau (in a role Romy Schneider nixed), play the “stars” of the film that Monroe and his yes-men watch intently in dailies (I like how these scenes were filmed in black-and-white to put across the Golden Age effect).
I got the most pleasure seeing TDOY fave John Carradine in a small but rewarding part as a guide giving visitors a studio tour, and another character great who’s tops here on the blog, Jeff Corey, plays Stahr’s physician. There are also fine performances from Donald Pleasence (as an alcoholic scriptwriter) and Tige Andrews (as one of Mitchum’s mob), and I recognized Bonnie Bartlett right off as one of Mitchum’s secretaries (this was her feature film debut as well) and John Cassavetes stand-by Seymour Cassel as the seal trainer in an odd vignette that finds Monroe and Kathleen at a beachfront café.
While it’s interesting to see Oscar winners De Niro and Nicholson work in their only film together (as of this writing, that is) they share just three scenes, and Jack wins all three of them on points. I just thought De Niro a little miscast in this thing; Al Pacino had been offered the lead and turned it down, but I think he might have been more convincing in the part (though I need to stress that I’m referring to the Pacino of old—the new one would have yelled at everyone throughout the picture while gobbling up scenery). To be honest, I think what really hurts De Niro is the fact that he has zero chemistry with leading lady Boulting; their love affair is indisputably the weakest part of Tycoon.
I think classic movie fans might enjoy The Last Tycoon; I think it evokes that filmmaking era almost as well as The Day of the Locust (1975), which was released by Paramount about that same time (though I’ll admit I prefer Locust because it’s a harsher condemnation of Hollywood). (True story: I tried to entice Mom into watching Day of the Locust when it turned up on Flix on Demand sometime back; a half-hour into the movie she asks me where the giant insects are.) The film served as director Kazan’s swan song (admittedly, it’s a better vehicle than his two previous releases, The Arrangement and The Visitors) and Tycoon’s sole Oscar nomination would be for Best Art Direction-Set Direction (which it lost to All the President’s Men), and it was well-deserved—it has that “classic” feel.