It’s clear, early on, that this new adaptation of The Last Tycoon isn’t going to be the long-awaited faithful translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, unfinished at his death in 1940. It’s much better than that. After the first two hours, in fact, the echoes of Fitzgerald’s book grow ever dimmer as this powerhouse of a drama series rolls on with a voice all its own, its riveting picture not only of 1930s Hollywood but of America and Europe, too. It manages to wed all that to romance of a high order and also a low kind — this is a drama that pays exquisitely close attention to the matter of the moguls and the women who serve them — and to scathing satire strikingly free of anything cartoonish. Which is why the film’s chief mogul, Pat Brady (a matchless Kelsey Grammer), who clearly considers the available sex to be part of his job benefits, and who is also capable of any brutality in order to keep his business afloat, is nonetheless a tremendously appealing character.
He can be soft-hearted; he hands money to the homeless at the Hooverville Depression-era shanty town set up near his studio, while hating them for being there. But he’s prepared to accommodate the Nazis, who have strict prohibitions against anything in a Hollywood film that the Third Reich finds offensive.
Any picture, for instance, in which a non-Jew is married to a Jew — a violation of the Nazi racial laws. That’s in addition to the requirement that all the studio’s Jews employed in Germany be fired.
The demands are presented to Brady by a Reich representative, Dr Gyssling, who carries a briefcase adorned with a shiny swastika and who is, in fact, based on an actual special consul from Germany in the 30s. The Reich agent in the film has no trouble persuading studio heads to agree. Germany, Brady says, is the secondlargest international market for Hollywood.
Taking all this in is Brady’s supremely talented young producer Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), who is, unlike his boss, exquisite looking — positively aglow with decency. Also, un- like Brady, he’s Jewish. Not that anyone would know from his name, which he changed in the interest of his career. He had scarcely known his hardworking father, he confides several episodes on in a scene vibrant with contained emotion — a tone in which Bomer is skilled.
His character, Monroe, is a moralist, but a kind everyone can love and does. Monroe leads a very complicated life. In mourning for his beloved actress wife, who died in a fire, he finds solace, briefly, in an affair with Rose (Rosemarie De Witt), wife of his boss, a man with whom he has an even more complicated relationship.
De Witt is stellar as Rose, heartbreakingly and cuttingly to the point about her need to continue the affair. Monroe wants out — everything about this violates his sense of propriety. Rose, like numerous others around him, is in love with Monroe, who is everything her husband is not — her husband being, as she informs him one night in a biting summation, a man who takes sexual advantage of women who work for him, doesn’t mind impoverishing employees, and traffics with Nazis.
The sumptuous period detail here will invite comparisons to Mad Men, but there’s infinitely more in this re-creation of an era than its fidelity to the look of things — though that look is, always, inescapably captivating, whether it’s of people hoping for a career in pictures, or of those, like the regally beautiful Margo Taft (Jennifer Beals), who already have one. A stardom so powerful she’s known to demand that any director wanting to work with her submit to having her measure his private parts.
Then there’s the look, no less enthralling, of the actual movie moguls as they traded, bargained and engaged in murderous competition, including blackmail threats such as leaked scandals, involving some rival studio’s star. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer is portrayed, wickedly, by Saul Rubinek; he bears no resemblance to Mayer but you get the picture, especially from the scene in which Mayer delivers a heartfelt funeral eulogy.
The Last Tycoon — from Billy Ray and Christopher Keyser, executive producers and writers — has, in addition to its looks, superb writing, wit and huge ambition, its grasp of the passionate political heart of the era.
There are no dead spots. streams on Amazon Prime Video. returns next week.