The interesting behind-the-scenes aspects of the 1976 Robert De Niro film "The Last Tycoon," which Warner Archive has released on DVD, make its topic of 1930s studio executive Monroe Stahr a very apt subject. The film is based on an unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that reflects Fitzgerald's less-than-positive experiences with legendary MGM executive Irving Thalberg. The always awesome Harold Pinter provides the screenplay.
Film historians report that Thalberg strived to strike a proper balance between art and commerce in the film industry. He is also considered responsible for shifting the power in that business from directors to studio executives. His conflicts with creative types extended beyond his relationship with Fitzgerald to include battles with other greats, such as Erich von Stroheim.
Robert De Niro does a great job portraying both Thalberg's ruthless style and less-than-pleasing personality, as well as Thalberg's genuine love for stars and starlets of the day. It additionally is incredibly nice to see De Niro in the type of dramatic role that he plays so well in this era in which he has made the focked up decision to play light comedic roles the last several years.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, is of one of "Tycoon's" best scenes. De Niro delivers an overall good performance and demonstrates why Stahr is king of the studio.
Nicholson and De Niro play particularly well off each other. Their great moments include Stahr telling Brimmer that he will give the writers more money but not more power and playing arguably the most competitive and high-stakes ping-pong game ever.
Considering its subject matter and conclusion, it is also very fitting that "Tycoon" is the last film of well-respected director Elia Kazan. His classic film credits extend well beyond "On the Waterfront" and "Splendor in the Grass." Kazan has an obvious love of this era before movie screens and the actors on them shrank.
Kazan does a great job recreating the cars, fashions, and wonder art deco style of the '30s. This success greatly helps draw the audience into the film.
Like Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Stahr has seemingly thrived despite past tragedy still greatly occupying his thoughts. Kazan uses an interesting narrative technique to tell the audience about Stahr's deceased wife.
This loss seems to propel "Wonder Boy" Stahr's fast-paced and tough-as-nails style at the beginning of "Tycoon." He issues his word quickly and decisively, and it clearly is law at the studio.
An event early on that reminds Stahr on a few levels that there are forces in the universe that are more powerful than him leads to an "it's complicated" relationship with the equal parts independent and dependent Kathleen Moore, who closely resembles Stahr's deceased wife. The scenes that occur on the evening of Moore's and Stahr's actual meeting are highlights of the film and realistic.
Additionally, Stahr's strong advocacy for making a film that likely would lose money is reminiscent of the practice of recruiting stars to make a commercial success by promising that they can also make a more artistic film. A prime example is Bill Murray doing "Ghostbusters" as a means to making "The Razor's Edge," which incidentally co-stars "Tycoon" star Theresa Russell in her first film role.
Channeling Stahr, the final word regarding "Tycoon" is that it is well-produced and provides viewers a chance to not only forget their own problems for a while but get a close look at exactly how dirty the film industry is and the (sometimes literally) blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a film.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Tycoon" is welcome to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.