F. Scott Fitzgerald had a lot of troubled relationships: with alcohol, with his unstable wife, with his own creativity, and definitely with Hollywood. All of those themes come up in his unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon, which was made into a movie by Elia Kazan, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and a superstar cast led by Robert De Niro. With that kind of pedigree, it beggars belief that you could end up with a total turkey, but they definitely pulled it off, managing to make even Jeanne Moreau and Tony Curtis annoying. That film gets one thing very right, though. Its ending is as ambiguous and abrupt as the novel itself, honoring the posthumous and incomplete source text with dexterity and integrity. But like just about everything Fitzgerald wrote for Hollywood—and like just about every Fitzgerald novel Hollywood has tried to take on—there’s generally something hollow and disappointing when the two come together.
Has Amazon Studios’ new series The Last Tycoon managed to get at the heart of Fitzgerald’s fictional magic?
Oh, probably not, but it certainly puts together a tense, stylish, meticulously detailed and plot-dense spin on the book Fitzgerald didn’t live to finish. People will compare it to Mad Men in terms of its worshipful faithfulness to period detail, and I won’t argue with them (in fact, the crew includes a huge clutch of former Mad Men stylists and designers). It has color and panache and mostly good pacing and it’s got a bright kind of relevance—and perhaps this is a success in adapting a novelist who was metaphor-driven—reflecting a strikingly contemporary set of pressures and tangles and social issues (race, class, immigration, religious intolerance, economic instability, displacement and homelessness, and civil rights are all bubbling cauldrons in late-thirties Hollywood). I’ll say this: Fitzgerald scholars will probably quibble with it and plenty of people will find plenty to sigh at, but it isn’t boring or soulless. At all.
Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) is a wunderkind movie producer. While his mentor, Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), is the name on the shingle, everyone knows who really runs things at Brady-American. Monroe’s meticulous, controlling, incredibly driven, and haunted by the untimely death of his wife, movie star Minna Davis. Brady’s daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), is in love with him, and Celia’s mother, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt), has a slightly off-the-grid relationship with him as well. He’s dying to make Brady a real force to be reckoned with, a true competitor to the likes of MGM and Warner—and when I say “dying to,” it’s more than a figure of speech, since everyone knows he has a heart condition that could kill him at any moment. The machinations of the studio are grueling but thrilling and he’s a masterful producer (maybe a projection of the productive and successful man Fitz wanted, but usually didn’t manage, to be). Then he meets Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott), a young Irish waitress with a bizarre resemblance to his late wife and an even more bizarre disinterest in “being in the pictures.” And then—say it with me—hijinks ensue.
The pilot takes a few minutes to find its footing: I found myself very lost in the opening, and not in a “wow, this so perfectly evokes the chaotic multivalent world of a studio lot” way. Just a “what the hell’s going on?” way. However, once it gets going, it’s really a lot of fun, evocative of the zeitgeist of prewar Hollywood. (There’s a running subplot involving a German government official who represents Hitler and threatens to shut the studio down at the faintest hint of anti-Nazi content, for instance.) It’s lavish and glamorous and busy. The relationships among the characters are complicated, mercurial or mysterious. Everyone becomes unwittingly entangled with people who are not who they seem to be; everyone is in over his or her head. At any given time it’s impossible to tell who’s for real and who’s… putting on an act, playing a role, setting up a MacGuffin or dazzling someone else with special effects in order to obscure their true designs. Everyone has a hidden side. Everyone has some form of false front, like a two-dimensional façade in an exterior shot on the lot. Beneath the sleek, glamorous surfaces of the studio sets and the characters’ lives there’s a hell of a lot of seething, dirty, nasty business going on. It’s ruthless and beautiful, full of twists.
This show also toys with the source material, making fictional characters interact with historical ones and pitting Fitzgerald’s fictional Brady-American Pictures against the actual large studios of the day (MGM, Columbia, Warner, Universal). Louis B. Mayer, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, and producer Irving Thalberg (Fitzgerald’s real-life model for Monroe) all appear as characters in the narrative alongside a stable of fictional actors, directors, producers and writers. The admixture gives the series dimension and also, it’s fun. The actors are great. (I love DeWitt’s turn as Brady’s frustrated wife; Chloe Guidry gets props for a thoroughly child-abuse-inspiring performance as a hideous Shirley Temple-oid Spoiled Little Shit; and Iddo Goldberg is a hilariously nasty Fritz Lang). Bomer’s Monroe Stahr actually has charisma and chemistry and intensity, and Grammer and McElligott and Collins are all wonderful foils. This series has many strengths.
But does it get at the heart of Scott Fitzgerald?
It sure gets closer than Kazan did. It gets closer than Baz Luhrmann’s beautiful, trashy, vacuous Gatsby did. Look, Fitzgerald was a lapidary prose stylist. There is a reason why HBO can make a masterpiece out of Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin is kind of a shit writer! Great with plot, yes; capable of setting the stage for characters with good psychological complexity, yes; an industrious strategist and universe-builder, sure. But paragraph to paragraph? A mess. (Sorry.) Fitzgerald’s a totally different beast, and one of a species that is very hard, perhaps not really possible, to translate to the screen without killing its spirit, because everything that happens in his work happens at the paragraph level, the sentence level, the figurative language level.
Here, we’ve at least touched down on his planet. Amazon’s treatment of The Last Tycoon is a layered, deeply tapestried evocation of one of Fitzgerald’s best-fleshed-out protagonists, and it’s playful and fairly effective in evoking the author himself. Their world implies him in many ways. A character dies. His wife brings Monroe his last, unfinished script (art imitates life imitates art imitates etc.). Monroe looks at it and says, “I used to wonder why he had so much good work in the mornings and so little in the afternoons. Did you write all his stuff for him?” That’s a nod to the open secret that Fitz borrowed copiously from his own wife, not always with Miss Zelda’s permission. The writers are treated like crap, recalling Fitzgerald’s own struggle to live in Hollywood’s brutalizing and dehumanizing writer culture. Class struggles erupt in an echo of incidents from his own life. Monroe’s beloved wife has died in a fire (so did Fitzgerald’s.) People are beaten down by never getting credit for their own work, as he generally was. And Monroe Stahr’s ticking-bomb heart condition is easy to see as a metaphor for the figuratively (and maybe not entirely figuratively) broken heart of his creator (Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack while writing The Last Tycoon in 1940). The season ends on a pretty obvious note, but it leaves plenty of space to keep interpreting its unfinished source text.
In the end, it might not in fact be possible to really nail Fitzgerald in film or TV. Billy Ray and this production team have certainly put their backs into it, though. The characters have a depth that the book’s very unfinished-ness seems to have permitted the cast and writers to explore. They use it as a jumping-off point to make something larger than just a pedantically faithful adaptation (which in the case of The Last Tycoon would probably only ever be a mistake). This is a series that explores the soul-killing effects of celebrity, the effects of class-clash and power deltas, the horrible weight of lies. It touches desperation, both the desperation to rise from terrible circumstances and the desperation to hold onto power or privilege once you have them. It touches on Hollywood anti-Semitism in some unsubtle and some clever ways, for instance, particularly when Monroe (who is Jewish) starts going to confession at a Catholic church (those are some funny and poignant scenes). It looks at personal loyalties and family dysfunction and betrayal and ego in ways that are not stupid or obvious—indeed, many are very affecting. None of these people are merely one thing, and they wouldn’t have been that in Fitzgerald’s pages either. As Scott famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” (Amen, brother.)
A perfect adaptation? In the context of an unfinished novel from a master writer who died at age 44 from, well, breakage of the heart, there might be no such thing, just a vanishing horizon of “relatively good.” The closest we might be able to get to a masterful Fitzgerald adaptation is to be very metaphorical about it.
I think this one’s worth taking seriously.
The Last Tycoon is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.