The Last Tycoon
There is a scene early in Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976) where boyish producer Monroe Starr (Robert De Niro) convinces the risk-averse studio hierarchy to bankroll a prestige picture, assuring them that they've made more than enough money on their popular entertainments, and that they should now give something back to the audience, rather than pander to them. "Write it off as good will," he says. Based on the unfinished final novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and featuring an impressive roster of genuinely great actors, good will isn't hard to come by when settling in to watch this film, which would be Kazan's last. But it's that unshakable feeling that this is supposed to be a Picture of Terrible Importance that puts a damper on the proceedings from the first scene on. The story of Thalberg-esque producer Starr's self-destructive quest to chase down his soul, which he lost when the movie-star love of his life killed herself, is freighted with the usual heavy-handed symbolism and metaphor that makes Fitzgerald such a love-him-or-hate-him writer. Starr becomes captivated by a mysterious young ingénue named Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting, who would all but disappear after her appearance here), who, wouldn't you know it, looks just like his old flame. While Starr pursues what appears to be the second coming of his true love, his prestige production begins to spiral out of control. The film's vain, aging star, Didi (Jeanne Moreau), clashes with the director, forcing Starr to sneakily replace him in one of the movie's best scenes, while the temperamental novelist brought on to punch up the screenplay, Boxley (Donald Pleasence), turns to drink and winds up contributing turgid dialogue that necessitates an expensive reshoot of the final scene. A major problem with The Last Tycoon is that the character of Starr is only blandly miserable. He is supposed to be growing increasingly ill (as Fitzgerald was at the time of the writing), but Kazan, along with screenwriter Harold Pinter, have turned him into a cipher. Starr is a man without a soul, and he's played with such convincing emptiness by De Niro that we never catch a glimpse of the spark that made him such a creative force. He's very much like the skeletal frame of his unfinished beach house, one of the movie's most lumbering symbols, meaning that all of his emotions, including his all-consuming sadness, are utterly hollow. He's Jay Gatsby without the mysterious, almost innocent charm. The best moments in the picture are supplied by Moreau, Tony Curtis (as her equally vain co-star), and Jack Nicholson, who shows up late in the story as a communist union organizer. It's hard to watch this Red knock Starr on his keister and not sense that Kazan is commenting on his own ignominious political past, but whether it's a moment of defiance or apology is unclear. The film is equally muddled. Lazily composed and often horribly edited (there are a number of jarring transitions), this is not the brilliant Kazan of the '50s. His unmistakable voice is so absent that this one is impossible to recommend even as an interesting failure he would at least have had to try to earn that classification. Paramount presents The Last Tycoon in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. No extras, keep-case.