Review by C.J. Bunce
It sums up every feature on the brilliant Amazon Studios series The Last Tycoon, a loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s incomplete final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. With a nine-episode first season only touching on the threads of Fitzgerald’s original ideas, just as the characters begin to fall apart in the season’s cliffhanger finale, Amazon Studios does what studios do–tightens it belt and cancels the series. It helps to know this before you watch this one-season-wonder (we’ll add it to the list), because you will get pulled into the world of 1936 Hollywood in a way you could only be reeled in by a genuine 1930s picture. Even if it was all filmed in Canada in an unthinkably short 65 day production.
The Last Tycoon does it all differently and gets it all right–it’s the series we hoped the film Mank would be. It’s not an exact adaptation of Fitzgerald’s work, but the bones are there, and creator/writer/executive producer/director Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Terminator: Dark Fate) creates something perfect, probably better than any Fitzgerald adaptation you’ve ever seen, with some of your favorite genre actors.
Unfortunately, unless you were paying close attention, you probably missed the Amazon production when it first arrived on the streaming platform in 2017. It doesn’t ever just surface on the primary selection pages either. For its six lead actors, it’s their best work yet: Matt Bomer (White Collar, Chuck, Tru Calling) plays Monroe Stahr, the suave talent behind movie studio Brady-American Pictures. Kelsey Grammer (X-Men, Frazier, Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays Brady, the gruff studio head who acts like he thinks he’s a mobster. Jennifer Beals (Swamp Thing, Taken, Castle) plays a biracial, top-draw actress who hides her secret from almost everyone. Lily Collins (Mank, The Mortal Instruments, Mirror, Mirror) is Brady’s daughter, an aspiring producer who has a crush on Monroe. Rosemarie DeWitt (Black Mirror, Poltergeist, Mad Men) plays Brady’s wife Rose (who is also cheating on Brady with Monroe). And Dominique McElligott (The Boys, House of Cards, Moon) plays an Irish waitress who catches Monroe’s eye.
The love triangles are too many to count. Before we meet the characters, Monroe Stahr’s ex-wife Minna, Hollywood’s #1 star, has died. The writers were probably going to get to the reason in later seasons. Stahr and Brady are the ultimate business personalities, friends and partners one minute, who hate each other the next. Stahr is all about loyalty, and Brady is all about distrust, his self-persecution complex always ready to explode with bad decisions unless he is stopped. Woven into both Fitzgerald’s characters and Billy Ray’s new characters are real-life Hollywood faces: Saul Rubinek (Unforgiven, Warehouse 13, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Nero Wolfe) plays Louis B. Mayer. Iddo Goldberg (Snowpiercer, Westworld, Supergirl) plays a particular loathsome and fascinating Fritz Lang. Sharon Lawrence (Monk, L.A.’s Finest, Community, Star Trek Voyager) plays Frances Goldwyn. Seth Fisher (The Good Wife) plays Irving Thalberg–an interesting person to weave into the story as an additional character since Fitzgerald based series star Bomer’s Monroe Stahr on Thalberg, both troubled with congenital heart disease, which killed Thalberg at 37.
Viewers will also see brief appearances by actors taking on Hollywood A-listers of the Golden Age like Jack Warner, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Marlene Dietrich, and Hedda Hopper. Genre fans may recognize Jessica De Gouw (Pennyworth, Arrow) as the late Minna Davis and Enzo Cilenti (Luther, Guardians of the Galaxy, Game of Thrones) as the ultimate struggling screenwriter (think Herman Mankiewicz).
Along with the world of movies in The Last Tycoon is the world outside of Hollywood, and how that world was interwoven. Nazi Germany is trying to wedge its way into Hollywood decisions. Viewers know Jews are already being killed in Europe, but most of the characters don’t see it coming. The Depression-stricken poor occupy shanties just outside the gates of the studio. Inside, viewers see the making of a musical starring the next Shirley Temple (including well-designed pieces of several numbers “in production”).
Yes it’s a glimpse behind the magic on the movie lot–a mix of reality and fantasy. Love, hope, passion, betrayal, con artists, mobsters, death, and destruction. It’s also real-life 1930s people facing racial discrimination, economic disparity, a world between wars–all up against the movies, which include light-hearted “wholesome” shows that don’t echo reality–early Capra movies–until one of the characters gets an idea that ties some unlikely people into making a surprising movie that could do everyone some good.
The script (Billy Ray), the production (Oscar-winner Patrizia von Brandenstein, Amadeus, The Untouchables, Sneakers, The Money Pit), the cinematography (Danny Moder), the costumes (Janie Bryant, Mad Men, The Romanoffs, Deadwood), the makeup (Lana Horochowski, Mad Men, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels), the hairstyling (Theraesa Rivers, Mad Men, Bones, GLOW), the music (Oscar-winner Mychael Danna, Moneyball, Dollhouse, Life of Pi), the jewelry, the cars, the actors–this is exactly how everyone should make a piece of historical fiction. It’s a marriage of the kind of writing Fitzgerald is known for and a visionary–Billy Ray–who knows how to adapt a classic for modern audiences. Anyone who likes classic Hollywood should be falling for this series. Classic Hollywood never looked better. But again, it got cancelled. Because that’s what irony is. The better the show, the quicker it gets cancelled. That’s showbiz. Keep an eye out for the Brady-American Pictures logo in the end credits.
Jennifer Beals’ layered performance alone will knock your socks off. But Lily Collins, Matt Bomer, Kelsey Grammer… everyone gets to shine. Don’t miss it just because it’s a beginning without an ending.