Period film: The Last Tycoon (1976)

Dear readers, I apologize for taking an unexpected break! Things have been a bit wild for me on a personal level this month. I’ve had little time for movie-watching, and even less time for writing. I’m further behind on planning/prepping blog posts for August than I’d like to be, but I hope this post will mark a steady return to our normal three-days-a-week schedule on TMP. Thanks for sticking with me! Now, on to today’s review.

“I don’t think that I have more brains than a writer, I just think that his brains belong to me.”

Monroe Stahr (Robert DeNiro) is at the top of the food chain at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. He’s very creative and entirely dedicated to his work, having built up a strong reputation for himself in the business.

lasttycoon1
(Image via Thrilling Days of Yesteryear)

But the business is changing. The writers want more control over their own work, which doesn’t sit well with Stahr. He’s used to everyone beneath him following his every instruction.

As the writers begin to organize, Stahr’s professional life becomes more complicated, with him battling against union organizer Brimmer (Jack Nicholson). At the same time, his personal life is becoming more complicated, too. A troubled young woman named Kathleen (Ingrid Boulting) has caught his eye — in part due to her resemblance to his late wife — while he has caught the eye of Cecilia Brady (Theresa Russell), the daughter of a studio board member.

The Last Tycoon was directed by Elia Kazan, marking his final film as director. The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter, adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished, posthumously-published novel.

While The Last Tycoon was a final tale for two greats, Elia Kazan and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s not a “best” for anyone — the novelist, the director, the lead actor, or any of the other talent involved. Still, the film boasts some beautifully shot scenes, and some pretty successfully-staged drama. (Most notable are the “This is you” scene and the film’s ending, which really elevated my opinion of the entire picture.)

Hollywood loves to make movies about the movies, and I’ve seen dozens, many of them more thoughtful and unique than this. I did enjoy some of the dynamics between different “classes” of movie people, as noted in the quote above, in which Monroe Stahr proclaims his superiority/ownership over writers.

Where The Last Tycoon really succeeds is not as a “backstage” feature, but as a study of the character of Stahr. The film focuses not only on his devotion to his work, but how that devotion impacts every miniscule aspect of his life, within the backdrop of a rapidly changing business.

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(Image via The New York Times)

Aside from the interest generated by Stahr’s character study, there’s a lot to enjoy visually here. I loved the black and white movies within the movie. Wonderful attention to detail was paid in the set decoration/art direction and costuming throughout the film as well, which captures the period very effectively, both in its glamour and its day-to-day normalcy.

Another reason to tune in is that the cast is pretty huge, in size and in talent. Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson give solid performances as rivals, with appearances also made by such big names as Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, John Carradine, and Dana Andrews.

The Last Tycoon is not a film I’d recommend everyone run out and watch immediately, but it’s a fine watch, particularly worthwhile if you’re interested in period films, “Hollywood on Hollywood” stories, or the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the tone of which is quite successfully captured here).

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