It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Amazon’s latest foray into F. Scott Fitzgerald nostalgia, The Last Tycoon, goes wrong. It’s certainly stunning to look at, with shadows and cameras and movie sets more picturesque than the films they’re apparently shooting, and behind-the-scenes players more attractive than the actual supposed movie stars. But where Fitzgerald focused on Hollywood as a manufacturer of innermost hopes and dreams, The Last Tycoon is satisfied merely to offer a dreamlike-looking picture.
It’s a sad epilogue for Fitzgerald, who died at the age of 44 working on these same kinds of films (as chronicled in Stewart O’Nan’s 2015 fictionalized history West Of Sunset). The unfinished Last Tycoon was his final work: 60,000 words that were about half of the projected total. In 1941, The New York Times said this about it:
[It] is the best piece of creative writing that we have about one phase of American life-Hollywood and the movies… Of all our novelists, Fitzgerald was by reason of his temperament and his gifts the best fitted to explore and reveal the inner world of the movies and of the men who make them. The subject needs a romantic realist, which Fitzgerald was; it requires a lively sense of the fantastic, which he had; it demands the kind of intuitive perceptions which were his in abundance.
Unfortunately, Amazon’s Last Tycoon interpretation lacks those necessary intuitive perceptions. Fitzgerald’s enigmatic lead characters have always been tough to bring to the screen: Has there ever really been an effective Jay Gatsby? Monroe Stahr, here, suffers from the same sense of mystery, despite the considerable efforts of Matt Bomer, more handsome than the movie stars he’s pushing as he wanders around putting out fires all over the studio lot. Bomer’s steely Stahr unfortunately comes off like Don Draper Lite: Almost everyone he comes in contact with seems to fall for him, whether it’s the boss’ wife, the boss’ daughter, or a waitress from a nearby restaurant. Men at the control of vast empires—like that boss, gruffly played by Kelsey Grammer, or Saul Rubinek as Louis B. Mayer—also vie for his loyalty and devotion. Stahr is able to talk down a drunk writer or get an underage brat to behave herself without even raising his voice. He’s our hero, the boss’ daughter, Celia (the suddenly ubiquitous Lily Collins), tells a newcomer, and Stahr’s domination over his tiny Hollywood universe seems annoyingly and tediously secure.
As in Fitzgerald’s novel, Stahr has a tragic backstory: His wife, a prominent actress and Irish immigrant, died in a fire (in footage borrowed from the end of Hitchcock’s Rebecca). That alluring waitress bears a strong resemblance, as well as a familiar accent. It’s 1936, and there are Okies living on the outskirts of the lot, Germans trying to dictate movie plots for their prosperous market, and Communist organizers meeting in secret. Many of the smaller characters boast names we’re familiar with: Fritz Lang aims to seduce Celia, Marlene Dietrich lounges around scandalously in the nude, and studio boy wonder Irving Thalberg functions as Stahr’s mirror image: Why even show Thalberg in a story that was loosely based on Thalberg himself? Also, why attribute a famous quote like Joan Crawford’s “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door” to Jennifer Beals’ veteran actor with a secret? Why have the studio push “Sally Sweet” as an almost exact replica of Shirley Temple: Do they think audiences just won’t notice?
The Last Tycoon is in the vein of Hollywood’s current trend of turning the cameras on itself. But while both La La Land and FX’s Feud: Bette And Joan used Hollywood allegories to tell tales of actual lives, this latest effort is just glossy and showy, like the unreality of Hollywood itself, lacking much of a heart or soul. Worse than that, it’s predictable. Of course, Stahr’s boss is eventually going to resent his protégée’s popularity usurping his own. Of course Stahr is too much of a Svengali not to want to turn his own paramour into a star. Of course Stahr and Celia are destined to hook up, because her schoolgirl crush on him will not be denied (also taking a page or two from the book).
Perhaps the series’ main problem is that it’s too ambitious: Besides the union-organizing story from the novel (the union that would eventually result in the Writers Guild) and the Nazis trying to dictate scripts for the German market, there are also plotlines that delve into the private lives of at least five other characters. The result is an admittedly picturesque vintage Hollywood soap opera, which would be passable enough, if it weren’t tied to the Fitzgerald pedigree. Amazon’s previous Fitzgerald-focused series, Z: The Beginning Of Everything, had the advantage of a compelling, spirited lead and a single plot that was actually headed somewhere. The Last Tycoon, like its lead, is spread too thin and is a bit shallow.