Most of the movies now in release register as exercises in aesthetic and didactic overkill (an appropriate term since many of these violent films are designed to jolt us with a high body count). It almost seems as if Hollywood in order to compete with TV now sees its mission in terms of sensationalism the big thrill, the gigantic shock, the spectacular panorama, the superstars paraded before us. Hence the films at your local theatre are characterized by ambitious plots trying to cover too much, overwrought scripts, and acting which is often shrill and exaggerated.
In definite contrast to all this is Sam Spiegel's production of The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel on Hollywood during the Thirties. Harold Pinter has shaped a spare and poignant screenplay out of Fitzgerald's interesting fictional work. The playwright knows how to measure the spaces between verbal exchanges and how to convey the nuances of communication. Director Elia Kazan has focused the film with a simple and clear directness. The aesthetic of less is more pervades The Last Tycoon in all departments and is especially noticeable in the tasteful cinematography of Victor Kemper and Gene Callahan's understated production design.
Robert de Niro is featured as Monroe Stahr, a young man from the East Side of New York who has overcome his humble origins and risen to a position of power as head of production for a prominent film company. His physical drive, business acumen, and showman's sense make him a threat to those around him, namely Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum), the studio head and Fleishacker (Ray Milland), the shrewd lawyer from the East Coast investors.
Stahr is a man on the move mothering performers (Tony Curtis as a matinee idol with marital problems and Jeanne Moreau as a finicky foreign actress), firmly handling screenwriters (Peter Strauss who must learn to work with others and Donald Pleasence, a literary figure who must adapt his talents to the requirements of the screen), and exercising total control over directors (he dumps Dana Andrews from a film when he doesn't draw out Moreau's full acting abilities). Stahr puts himself in a touchy situation when he suggests that the studio can afford to make a few quality pictures along with all the moneymakers.
His power position is really rocked when Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), an exotic English woman literally floats into his life clinging to the head of Shiva (a large prop) during the flooding of a set in a small Los Angeles earthquake. She is the incarnation of his fantasy woman lovely, delicate, and mysterious. Stahr sees in her the very qualities lacking in Cecilia Brady (Theresa Russell), the aggressive and high-strung college-educated woman who's in love with him.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was the essential romantic a believer in kairotic moments of love. One of Kathleen's lines in the novel conveys this dimension of his writing: "There's a moment when you needn't and there's another when you known nothing in the world would keep it from you." Seduction is a dance of eros with alternating steps of holding back and giving oneself. The scenes with De Niro and Ingrid Boulting at Stahr's unfinished place near the ocean contain some of the most gentle and affecting moments of kairotic love seen in any movie this year. They capture the magical breakdown in a relationship when awkwardness and apprehension give way to free flowing emotion and spontaneous feeling.
Stahr the man in total control lets go only to lose Kathleen to another suitor. His problems on the job accelerate until he encounters a communist writer (Jack Nicholson) who is trying to organize screenwriters; Stahr loses his control and with one punch throws away his career. In the film's last scene, he walks alone into a dark and quiet sound stage. We imagine him stranded there doomed to wander forever in the empty shell of his Hollywood dream.
Credit Messrs. Spiegel, Kazin, and Pinter for bringing Fitzgerald's fragmentary novel to the screen with such exquisite care. De Niro's performance is another reason why he must be called one of America's best screen stars. And Ingrid Boulting's acting debut is a sheer delight to witness. The Last Tycoon with its maximum of taste and absolute lack of waste in a thoroughly appealing and worthwhile cinematic experience.