F. Scott Fitzgerald had written some 60,000 words of The Last Tycoon when he died suddenly of a heart-attack in 1940, aged just 44. The general consensus, when it was published posthumously a year after his death, was that it would have been a novel to rival even the majesty of his magnum opus, The Great Gatsby. While Gatsby defined the 1920s Jazz Age of Fitzgerald’s youth, The Last Tycoon drew upon his decade languishing as a salaried screenwriter in Hollywood. Having created dissolute alcoholic alter ego Pat Hobby for a series of sardonic short stories, in Tycoon he created Monroe Stahr, a brilliant but flawed movie producer, based on real life mogul Irving Thalberg, who helped make MGM one of Hollywood’s most successful studios.
Tycoon has been adapted for TV and stage several times, including a brilliant but rather forgotten 1976 movie starring a Taxi Driver-era Robert De Niro. This latest iteration, developed by HBO but picked up in turnaround by Amazon, is solid, entertaining, but hardly the televisual equivalent of the great literature from whence it sprang.
To judge it on its own merits, The Last Tycoon is lightweight fun and the seedy glamour of 1930s Hollywood is most definitely alluring; movie aficionados will enjoy seeing legends like producer Louis B. Mayer and director Fritz Lang brought to life. The duo at the centre – Matt Bomer as Stahr, in a love-hate relationship with his boss, Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) – are extremely strong, and the support around them is of a similarly high calibre.
We first meet Stahr a couple of years after his movie siren wife, Minna (Jessica De Gouw), has burned to death in a mysterious fire (a fate suffered in real life by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda). Stahr’s thrown himself into his work and, although he has a lot of offers – including from Brady’s daughter Celia, brilliantly portrayed by Lily Collins, daughter of everyone’s favourite baldy drummer Phil Collins – he notoriously “doesn’t date”. Exactly what he does do is revealed at the close of Episode 1, adding a layer of dysfunctional darkness to proceedings.
Another threatening undercurrent comes in the form of the Third Reich, whose cultural ambassadors are present to put pressure on Hollywood to adhere to Germany’s “moral” codes. As the Reich represents the second biggest foreign market, Stahr finds himself forced to choose between commerce and decency; true to his devious character, he manages somehow to do both.
This strand is genuinely compelling, as are the political shenanigans involved in getting a slate of pictures made. Particularly effective – and surprisingly moving – is the storyline involving demanding diva Carol DeParis (Nicole DuPort) and the issues of race it touches upon.
For all this, though, there’s a definite TV movie vibe to the whole affair. It looks like we’re in the past, without convincing us that we are in the past – everything’s just a little too shiny, or, in the case of the Hooverville residents, the rags look more like costumes from Oliver! than clothes.
The script, too, lets the side down. There are some great sequences, with the subtext and things unsaid allowed to do its job. But all too often, someone – at the behest of a heavy-handed producer, perhaps? – undercuts it all with some on-the-nose exposition. “No one recasts like Monroe,” says Celia to his new love interest, Kathleen (Dominique McElligott), a line heavy with all its implications. But its impact is ruined almost immediately when Kathleen makes this explicit and exclaims: “I can’t be a stand-in for Minna!” The result is melodrama, bordering on soap opera, which is perfectly fine, but does not make it, one suspects, a show of which Fitzgerald would approve.
In both The Last Tycoon and the Pat Hobby stories, Fitzgerald created a rich and convincing portrait of Hollywood as it really was. He knew it intimately and both loved it and despised it in equal measure. This adaptation squanders that unique verisimilitude and replaces it with something entertaining, unremarkable and safe; Amazon really are taking over from Hollywood.
The Last Tycoon is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 28th July.
This review is based on the opening four episodes of Season 1.