Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Last Tycoon (1976)


          Despite an impressive literary pedigree, the participation of a legendary director, and the presence of a high-wattage cast, The Last Tycoon is a lead balloon of a movie, so overcome with its own importance that barely any traces of life show through the artificially imposed veneer of highbrow seriousness. Were it not for the inherently lurid storyline, and the ease with which the varied film professionals involved in the piece skewer their own industry, the picture would be a chore to watch. As is, The Last Tycoon is bearable though not particularly enjoyable.
          Based on an unfinished novel by Jazz Age scribe F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was completed by editors for posthumous publication, The Last Tycoon is a veiled biography of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg, the brilliant but physically frail MGM executive of the 1930s. In Fitzgerald’s narrative, Thalberg becomes the fictional Monroe Stahr (played in the movie by Robert De Niro), a ’30s studio executive struggling to keep various projects on track despite egomaniacal stars, labor unrest among screenwriters, and romantic entanglements.
          Director Elia Kazan surrounds De Niro with a constellation of stars, so the cast includes Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasence, and Peter Strauss. In fleeting moments, the script (by esteemed British playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter) gives these actors material worthy of their skills, as in the tense scenes between Stahr and a crass union organizer (Nicholson). Sequences pulling back the curtain of the Golden Age filmmaking process have some zing as well, since it’s fun to watch Stahr screen rushes of in-progress films and bark out instructions for improving lackluster footage.
          Alas, Stahr’s professional life is only partially the focus of the movie, since Kazan devotes inordinate amounts of screen time to stultifying romantic scenes. It doesn’t help that De Niro gives a weirdly lifeless performance. One suspects De Niro wanted to work a different groove after several years of playing volatile characters, but he’s restrained to the point of catatonia throughout much of The Last Tycoon; combined with Kazan’s chaste camera style and Pinter’s characteristically terse dialogue, De Niro’s non-acting becomes deadly dull. Plus, there’s the basic problem of the source material never having been properly completed. Although the movie’s narrative runs a full course, it’s anybody’s guess whether this was the actual story Fitzgerald would have told if he finished his novel.

The Last Tycoon: FUNKY

1 comment:

The Rush Blog said...

Alas, Stahr’s professional life is only partially the focus of the movie, since Kazan devotes inordinate amounts of screen time to stultifying romantic scenes. It doesn’t help that De Niro gives a weirdly lifeless performance.


For me, the real problem was De Niro's leading lady, Ingrid Boulting. I'm sorry, but I found her looks better than her acting skills. And she and De Niro had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Their scenes together nearly ground the film to a halt.