Amazon’s new series THE LAST TYCOON is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously-published unfinished novel of the same name. The story follows Monroe Stahr, a young, hot-shot film producer modeled after Irving Thalberg, who ironically also appears as a character himself. Stahr, like his prototype, suffers from a heart condition that dramatically reduces his life expectancy. He lives without the promise of time. He also lives in grief. His movie star wife, Minna Davis, died tragically in a house fire two years before the story begins. Monroe is Hollywood’s most eligible and desired bachelor (and he’s played by the ever-charming Matt Bomer, which certainly adds credence to that stature), but he’s disinterested in the young, beautiful women who throw themselves at him—including Celia Brady (Lily Collins), the boss’s daughter.
Celia, despite everyone’s requests that she return to college at Bennington, is determined to make a name for herself at the studio. She’s a kid playing at being an adult. She’s concerned for the plight of the poor, but what she feels is sympathy, not empathy. Her privileged life prevents her from truly understanding the problems of those she purports to stand for. She comes off as well-intentioned, but hopelessly naive.
Celia’s father and Monroe’s boss, studio-head Pat Brady is played by Kelsey Grammer. I’ve never been a particular fan of Grammer’s (sacrilege to all Frasier devotees, I’m sure), but he comports himself nicely as the insecure, lecherous Brady. As a character, however, Brady is perhaps the most realistic to the time period. He has no compunction in regards to his very open cheating on his wife. Nor does he seems to be much concerned with taking money from Nazis if it means getting his films made—despite his right-hand man being Jewish. It is Brady, after all, who made “Monroe Stahr” out of Milton Sternberg. He often uses Jewish slurs in front of Monroe, but then distinguishes that Monroe isn’t “that kind of Jew,” which is how racist people often defend their own racism. It only applies to other people who fit the category, but never the ones with whom the racist has a personal relationship. They are somehow different.
The pilot is well done. It rapidly introduces all of the players without causing confusion. It grounds Monroe in the grief of Minna’s loss while offering a small twist at the end when it turns out he’s been sleeping with Brady’s wife (and Celia’s mother) in secret. It includes the not-entirely-shocking, though still impactful suicide of Minna’s brother, Dex, which helps catalyze Monroe to defy both Brady and his Nazi financiers by greenlighting Celia’s movie—a thinly-veiled espionage film about the evils of a Hitler-like regime.
The following two episodes are far less eventful, and move at a languid pace. The characters are underdeveloped, and act as you would expect them too. There’s little complexity, even when the characters themselves claim that trait. That being said, I found it strangely relaxing to watch these beautiful cutouts in gorgeous clothes meander around their little bubble. In an era of dark, gritty, prestige TV, The Last Tycoon provides a relief. The viewer is never asked to think too hard or read too much into the themes of the show. Even when the show is trying to make a point about unions or poverty or anti-semitism, it does so overtly in the dialogue. There’s little to no subtext here.
The show even makes a few attempts at feminism, although they generally fall flat—particularly in the case of movie star Margo Taft (Jennifer Beals). Margo requires that all of her directors drop their trousers for her. It’s an obvious power-play, and she ultimately never makes them go through with it. She simply wants to keep the rumor alive. It’s presented as Margo having the upper hand, and claiming her power, but it reads as harassment. This seems to be a common portrayal in film and television—the once abused woman takes her revenge by enacting the same abuses upon men. It feels myopic and false. I’d much rather see women (regardless of time period) reclaiming their power by ending the cycle rather than perpetuating it. Sexuality isn’t a woman’s only source of power.
The Last Tycoon also makes an attempt at romance between Monroe and an Irish waitress named Kathleen, who reminds him of his beloved Minna—a fact that Kathleen calls him out on very early. Despite the actors’ best efforts, the couple lacks any real chemistry. Kathleen is hesitant to get involved with Monroe. She admonishes him for moving too fast, and claims she wants nothing from him, yet she sleeps with him after just a few dates, and ultimately takes him up on a job offer to become a studio tour guide. She’s either fundamentally weak, or manipulating him. The latter would make for a much better story. Perhaps she’s a secret Nazi spy? One can only hope.
The only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read is The Great Gatsby, and my knowledge of his life is pretty much limited to his portrayal in another Amazon series, Z: The Beginning of Everything, which focuses on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. However, one can certainly draw some conclusions about Fitzgerald, and The Last Tycoon’s viewpoint on women from that limited engagement with the work. Outwardly, the author and the show esteem so-called strong, independent women. Zelda herself was quite the free spirit, and her influence can be seen in many of The Last Tycoon’s female characters including Celia, Rose, Kathleen, and Margo. However, like Fitzgerald, the men of The Last Tycoon don’t really want these women to own their power too much. They still want control—of the film, of the relationships, of the power dynamic. A self-possessed woman is a good thing . . . until it’s not.
The Last Tycoon is a glossy period piece highlighting the Golden Age of Hollywood in the midst of the Great Depression, and on the precipice of World War II. It’s shot in the style of the films its characters produce, which leaves it feeling flat in places—particularly the scenes in the Hooverville next to the lot, and at the secret union meetings of the studio workers. Everyone is a little too clean. A little too polished. Actually demonstrating the stark differences between the haves and have nots would have been an interesting visual choice, and it feels like a missed opportunity to tell a bigger story.
Despite its flaws, and there are many, if you take The Last Tycoon at face value, it’s pretty enjoyable. Matt Bomer is nothing if not a compelling screen presence, and Lily Collins’ big eyes and bright smile make Celia sympathetic despite her naivete. Not every show has to be the height of art or commentary. Sometimes you just want to be told a story that doesn’t make you think too hard, and The Last Tycoon certainly offers that. Monroe Stahr, of all people, understands the value of pure entertainment.
Season 1, Episodes 1-3 (S01E01-03)
The Last Tycoon is streaming now on Amazon Prime
A.R. Wasserman | Contributor