Is it possible to bring the nuanced charm of F Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction to life on TV? Going by the evidence of Amazon’s adaptation of The Last Tycoon, and much of what has come before it, the answer is a resounding no.
The new series makes a vaulting attempt to become for Hollywood in the 1930s what Mad Men was for 1960s New York. It fails, predominantly because its Don Draper surrogate, Matt Bomer’s movie mogul Monroe Stahr, is so achingly one dimensional that by the time he exhibits any sign of life beyond his shiny public persona, most viewers will have switched it off.
The story adds some melodramatic spice to the events of Fitzgerald’s novel, which was left unfinished when he died in 1940. The writer spent his final years trying to break into screenwriting in Hollywood, and based his characters loosely upon figures he had encountered during his time there, including legendary producers Irving Thalberg and Louis B Mayer (the 2nd M in MGM).
Monroe is grieving the death of his movie star wife Minna Davis (played with a laughable Irish accent by Jessica de Gouw), while attempting to produce a film that will best serve her memory. He has a tumultuous relationship with his boss Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), whose 19-year-old daughter Cecelia (Lily Collins) is in love with him.
These relationships form the crux of the narrative, though so much plot is packed into the nine episode season that it is easy to forget why we’re here in the first place. There’s a limp love story between Stahr and an Irish actress who reminds him of Minna, a healthy dose of adultery – he is also sleeping with Brady’s wife – and plenty of familial disputes: Cecelia becomes a movie producer against her father’s wishes, but insists on entering the business from the ground up to get an insight into the working lives of the lower paid film staff.
Kelsey Grammer & Lily Collins in The Last Tycoon
In the book, much is told from Cecelia’s perspective, but the TV adaptation struggles to make up for the loss of a narrator. As a result, they make the dialogue do a lot of work. Plot details and character insights are shoehorned in via jarring chat: there is a tour guide on the lot who explains the circumstances of Minna’s death; Cecelia vocalises her love for Monroe on numerous occasions; and Pat and Cecelia discuss Monroe’s congenital heart defect for no clear reason other than to hammer home the idea that the lead might die.
It is difficult not to think of Mad Men while watching the show, even setting aside the fact that the creators tapped up over 40 behind-the-scenes staff – including set designers, makeup artists and directors – from Matthew Weiner’s show to help sculpt the aesthetic.
The comparison does The Last Tycoon no favours, as it has neither the character development nor the depth of plot that made millions of viewers forgive Mad Men for an incredibly slow-burning narrative. Don Draper was a character of great intrigue, while Monroe Stahr is little more than a shell.
Dominique McElligot & Matt Bomer
Kelsey Grammer does well to add intrigue to his character, a philandering, paranoid, rags-to-riches movie producer, who is so afraid of losing Monroe’s loyalty that he ends up pushing him away.
The series does improve once you wade past the opening episodes, yet none of the late season developments – one count of murder, two counts of betrayal and a laughable cliffhanger – feel earned.
A common critique of Fitzgerald adaptations – as can certainly be said of Baz Luhrmann’s shallow take on The Great Gatsby – is that filmmakers drawn into the aesthetic lose the true weight of Fitzgerald’s words along the way.
In Luhrmann’s case, it felt as if the director actually valued the glamour of 1920s high society above the story. Here, The Last Tycoon is at pains to express that it does indeed get the idea behind the book. It brings up important social developments, such as mistreated staff members turning to unions, big studios pushing communities out of their homes to build film lots, and the rise of national socialism in Germany. The film that Monroe is trying to make in the pilot is literally called ‘The American Dream’.
But these ideas are only half explored, making way as the drama drifts towards latter-stage teen-soap territory, where unexpected death is deployed in an effort to keep people interested. This route is equally flawed, because they never develop the relationships enough for us to truly care about what happens to any of them; the death knell falls upon deaf ears.
So, despite creator Billy Ray’s (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) best efforts, The Last Tycoon joins its Robert De Niro-led 1970s predecessor, five Gatsbys, two Tender is The Nights and a Curious Case of Benjamin Button on the list of ill-advised Fitzgerald adaptations – but that doesn’t mean Hollywood will stop trying to make that one perfect picture.
The Last Tycoon is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video from 28th July