By Michael Troyan (Sacramento, CA, USA)
Revisiting The Last Tycoon (1976)
“F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably the most sensitive eyewitness the [film] industry ever had.”
-Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times review of The Last Tycoon (1976)
How fortunate are we movie buffs that F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to write about 1930s Hollywood. And what better time to revisit a classic like Elia Kazan’s 1976 screen adaption of The Last Tycoon, released by Paramount, than when excitement has risen over the release of a new adaptation – this time a television pilot produced by Amazon Studios/Tri-Star Television. Although not well received critically, with only one Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction, the 1976 film has a starry cast that continues to grow more impressive over the years including Robert De Niro as the Irving Thalberg-like Monroe Stahr, Robert Mitchum as the L.B. Mayer-like Pat Brady, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Theresa Russell, and Ingrid Boulting. It has a celebrated director in Elia Kazan and screenwriter in Nobel Prize-winning Harold Pinter. This new version stars Matt Bomer as Stahr, Kelsey Grammer as Brady, Lily Collins, Dominique McElligott, and Jessica De Gouw, and was made by writer/director Billy Ray. Had Ray literally re-made Kazan’s film, consider how effective Bomer would have been playing Curtis’ role as a troubled screen lover.
Interestingly, both productions were filmed in the same milieu: the exteriors of the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. With a larger budget allotted to a feature film, the 1976 film utilizes the studio’s old water tank and huge sky backing – perhaps most famously used in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) – to recreate an evocative scene in the book when, due to an earthquake, the fictional studio backlot floods and Monroe Stahr first meets Kathleen Moore floating by on an enormous prop. Nevertheless the introduction of Kathleen in the 2016 version is still effective. Indeed, among the laurels to bestow on the 2016 version is that despite the economies of a television budget, this amazing pilot does not falter in comparison to the production values of its antecedent. The two films even share a Paramount lot location: the façade of a building most famously depicted as the Writer’s Building in Sunset Boulevard (1950) where William Holden and Nancy Olson fall in love.
Whether by design, or the times in which they were produced, the two shows offer different views and aspects of 1930s Hollywood and Fitzgerald’s characters. The 2016 version presents a more exciting, glamorous 1930s. Perhaps it is the difference between a film made by world-weary Hollywood veterans in an industry that had yet to be re-energized by George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and another by talent eager to express their affection for a period in Hollywood history that has yet to be surpassed. The 1976 version focuses on the industry’s concerns about communists – not to mention the threat of unionization as memorably and violently personified by Jack Nicholson. The 2016 version exposes the rampant anti-Semitism, increasing influence of Nazi Germany over the movies, and devastating effects of the Great Depression. There is contrast in De Niro’s fascinating, detached Stahr and Bomer’s more dashing, likeable ladies’ man whose internal pain is perhaps even more poignant. Theresa Russell is very good as the down-to-earth, almost tomboyish Cecelia Brady (Pat Brady’s daughter) hopelessly in love with Stahr. Lily Collins’ characterization and look is a more delicate one, and yet entirely believable as a woman who could heal Stahr. The warmth Dominique McElligott imbues in her Kathleen makes her more accessible than Ingrid Boulting’s distant one.
Of course the feature-length 1976 film offers more of Fitzgerald’s fascinating novel than the one-hour pilot, so it is intriguing to re-watch the earlier film to see just what might happen should the pilot hopefully becomes a series. Here’s to enjoying both of them!