Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Donald pleasance, Anjelica Huston, Jeanne Moreau all in the same film directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay adapted by Harold Pinter!
I’m sure I’m not alone in my excitement at this collaboration of titans. The line up seems like a movie buffs avengers. Expectations are nothing short of majestic when thinking of these giants working together. Believe me this film exists, released in 1976 named simply, The Last Tycoon.
This is a film about the changing Hollywood landscape of Golden Age Cinema and it hints at where the industry will be in the future. Governed by lawyers, investors, and private financiers, complete with ongoing battles between these exectives and the unions of the workforce they exploit . It’s an adaption of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous novel, The Love of The Last Tycoon, published in 1941. Inspired greatly by the legendary producer of Hollywoods golden age, Irving Thalberg on which the protagonist Monroe Stahr (played by De Niro) is based.
We watch Monroe’s decent from demi-god studio production chief who seems to single handedly control both the fortunes of his company along with the lives of the executives actors and directors that it encompasses. Monroe is portrayed as a young confident verging on arrogant yet extremely gifted storyteller. His genuis lies not only in his phenomenal organisational skills, but also his unnerving ability to spot just what it takes to make a great story. This is evidenced by the way he effortlessly dictates changes to be made whilst watching the preview of one of his companies films. It’s this obsessive nature for telling a good story that makes Monroe Stahr the studio’s wonder kid.
Haunted by the death of his beautiful movie star wife, Monroe throws himself into his work with feverish intensity, allowing it to consume every aspect of his life. A typical day in the office includes fending off potential power struggles in the boardroom, consoling neurotic aging movie stars both on and off of set, making precise editing decisions based on preview screenings, and pacifying disputes between star directors and hired scriptwriters. I’m exhausted just from writing this as I’m sure you are from reading it, yet Monroe undertakes these tasks with the fluidity and grace of a dancer, seamlessly moving between a barrage of tasks. But life seems to have lost its lustre for Monroe, until one day a natural disaster at the studio causes him to spot enigmatic beauty Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), who we are later told bares an uncanny resemblance to Monroe’s dead wife. It’s quite poignant that Kazan chooses a natural disaster (an earthquake) as the turning point for when Monroe begins his obsession with Kathleen, as it’s his natural wanton desires for her that ultimately leads to his demise.
The story moves at a glacial pace and centres mainly on Monroe’s pursuit of Kathleen. Kazan allows us to see Monroe’s romanticised view of Kathleen by shooting her in subdued lighting, from a first person perspective. We get long sequences of frames where we as the audience become the voyeur and see Kathleen as Monroe does, through his eyes. These moments are mirrored by close ups of De Niro looking on at her lust in his eyes. Other side stories include Monroe’s studio antagonist Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum) who is feeling the burden of working under Monroe’s “dictatorship”. This character is based on Louis B.Mayer. There are alot of relationships at work in this film and I wish they could be more fully explored, in particular the aging latin film star Rodriguez (Tony Curtis) whose persona is a hollywood hearthrob. Yet we see him come to see Monroe seeking help for his impotence. That said I liked the relationship between Monroe and Cecilia Brady (played by the quite brilliant Theresa Russell), she is the young daughter of top studio lawyer Pat with a real soft spot for Monroe. Russell plays this character so well. I really liked her reactions when she discovers Monroe’s obsession with Kathleen. The relationship with her father is believable and quite moving, particularly when she discovers him hiding a woman in his office cloakroom! Then there’s penultimate scene of the film where she tends to the drunken Monroe after he tries to start a fight with writers union leader Brimmer (Jack Nicholson).
Now without a doubt the strongest scene in the film is Monroe’s confrontation with writers union leader Brimmer. It’s basically Robert De Niro vs Jack Nicholson. This should be seen by all film fans without exception. De Niro was in top form for this film already having filmed Taxi Driver with Scorcese, and Nicholson worked with Marlon Brando on Missouri Breaks in the same year. I don’t want to give anything away here but I will say that you can cut the air in the room with a knife, the tension between the two characters is so great.
The film is not without its flaws however, and in many ways it feels as unfinished as the beach house Monroe shows off to impress Kathleen. The ending had a strange effect on me, a feeling of melancholy. Not because of pathos for the fallen hero but more to do with my personal expectations, I had somehow expected more. Interesting to note the novel the film is based on was unfinished, it was the last work by F Scott Fitzgerald, and the last film by Elia Kazan. Another point of interest to note; towards the end of the film when Kathleen reveals that she is due to marry her longtime lover, she writes a letter to Monroe . We hear her voice narrate as Monroe reads and she says something to the effect of “…I don’t know how to finish that sentence”. Could this be Kazan’s own admission for not knowing how to end this film??
a quote from the film, Monroe says this to the executives at the lunch meeting when they pester him about production costs being greater than the expected gross of the film. In some ways it sums up the ambitions of this movie precisely.
“Monroe: I don’t expect to make any money on this film. It’s a quality picture, throw it in as charity, goodwill. We owe it to the audience to make a quality film every year or so regardless of whether it’s profitable or not.”
This is not a film lampooning the industry of Hollywood in the same way as The Player (1992) did, nor is it trying to make a detailed account of the industry; it is infact a love story and it focuses on that throughout. Yes at times it felt slow, even for the glacial style of the piece, but it has a lot to offer. When again will we see such a powerful lineup of Hollywood royalty from actors, to writers all working on one film? I admire the films ambition, the desire to create something magnificient just as Monroe strived to do with his films. If it failed to live up to the expectations placed on it then it’s only because it set it’s goal so high.
I recommend this film for fans of the above mentioned cast 7/10