Elia Kazan was a coward who named names to the House of Un-American Activities Committee to protect his own career so I’ve never felt ashamed about not having seen many of his films. I quite liked On the Waterfront until somebody pointed out the film was a thinly veiled justification for Kazan’s own actions at those hearings. However Kazan’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon has been on my list since attending a workshop held by novelist Stewart O’Nan at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years back. O’Nan had just published West of Sunset, a novel based on Fitzgerald’s experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood working at MGM for two years. His only screenwriting credit was for 1938’s Three Comrades (Frank Borzage), but his time in the film industry clearly gave him enough material for The Last Tycoon and there are moments in the novel that feel like they come from first hand experience.
Published posthumously The Last Tycoon is only a fragment. You can read it in a few hours. It’s loosely based on the short life of MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg who passed away in 1936, the year before Fitzgerald took up employment at the studio. The novel is narrated by Cecilia Brady, daughter of a studio boss, who is attempting to carve out a career in Hollywood despite her father’s objections to her working in the industry and in particular the close relationship she forms with his younger partner Monroe Stahr.
I think this story works better if seen through Cecilia’s eyes but in the film Stahr (Robert De Niro) takes centre stage while Cecilia (Theresa Russell) is relegated to a supporting character. Otherwise Harold Pinter’s screenplay remains largely faithful to the narrative. Later editions of the novel include Fitzgerald’s notes which show the novel’s third act would have been much more dramatic with blackmail plots and murder but these are ignored.
The opening scene establishes Monroe Stahr’s involvement in all aspects of the studio production and his near mythical status in the eyes of the public. An elderly tour guide (John Barrymore) leads a group of visitors through the studio and tells anecdotes about Stahr and his tragic love affair with the late movie star Minna Davis (Ingrid Boulting). Barrymore’s presence, “I’ve been here since the silent days,” lets us know this is a film about Hollywood and it’s past. Then we are introduced to Stahr at work as he oversees the editing of a movie, fires a director because the leading lady (Jeanne Moreau) doesn’t respect him, and has a heart-to-heart with an ageing matinee idol (Tony Curtis) who is unable to make love to his wife anymore.
There’s a rueful moment when Curtis stares at a publicity still on the wall showing him in his younger days and it must have chimed with the former movie star who was now working regularly on television. Had Kazan made The Last Tycoon in the 50s’ Curtis would have been perfect as Monroe Stahr. He’s got a restless hurt quality which would have suited this part, but I’m not sure about De Niro. Charm isn’t exactly his thing. He’s good in the quiet reflective moments but his Stahr orders people around like a gangster.
The lack of story means there’s a lightness to The Last Tycoon, but this works in the film’s favour. At times it feels like a Hollywood ghost story with Stahr haunted by the absence of his wife. When returning home after working late he looks to the stairs as if expecting Minna to appear suddenly. When he enters his bedroom Kazan cuts to a scene from one of her movies as if he is retreating into that world. Later he’s stunned to see a woman on the lot who resembles Minna, Kathleen Moore (Boulting again), and he seeks her out as if to reassure himself she wasn’t an apparition. They begin a tentative affair but they both want different things from each other. With it’s Hollywood setting, doppelgängers, and potential for melodrama I wonder what David Lynch could have done with this kind of material.
I don’t know if Kazan meant this to be his final film but it feels like a farewell and a fuck you to the business. While Fitzgerald was writing a tragedy about a man brought down by his own flaws Kazan’s version of Stahr is undone by the machinations of those around him. The climactic scene is taken from the book, a lengthy meeting between a writer’s union rep which ends in a booze-fuelled punch-up. Here this is the incident which gets Stahr removed from his position at the studio. The talented filmmaker finds himself exiled from Hollywood, undone by the work of a Communist agitator (played by Jack Nicholson). I get the feeling Kazan never felt any shame about destroying his former friends lives at all.
The film closes with a reprise of an earlier scene in which Stahr had schooled an over-literary screenwriter (Donald Pleasance) in the art of keeping the story simple and yet dramatic (something I think Fitzgerald probably had said to him during his time in Hollywood) but with De Niro now addressing the camera. “I was only making pictures…” which given Kazan’s history feels like he’s speaking directly to the viewer and insisting his work is more important than any other aspect of his life and that’s what he should be remembered for. He’s still a grass though. I’m with Nick Nolte and Ed Harris who refused to applaud Kazan when De Niro presented him with an Honorary Oscar in 1999.