Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie Review: The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, directed by Elia Kazan, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1976)



Some of the cast of The Last Tycoon. From left to right: Tony Curtis, Leslie Curtis (Tony's real-life wife playing his movie wife), Ray Milland, Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Mitchum, and Theresa Russell.


Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson size each other up in The Last Tycoon, 1976. This is before they play ping pong.

Robert De Niro, generating zero chemistry with co-star Ingrid Boulting in The Last Tycoon, 1976.
Director Elia Kazan’s last movie was his 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The movie is proof that all the talent in the world can still produce a bad movie.

There are so many things wrong with The Last Tycoon that it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps making a movie of an unfinished novel was not a good idea. I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, also known as The Love of the Last Tycoon, so I don’t know how faithful the movie is to his writing, but it sure feels like it was based on an unfinished novel. The Last Tycoon is set in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, and the titular character is Monroe Stahr, who is the head of a film studio. (Stahr was loosely based on real-life movie mogul Irving Thalberg.) The film follows him as he works on movies and seeks out a beautiful young woman who reminds him of his dead movie star wife. 

Unfortunately, Robert De Niro is miscast as Stahr. Monroe Stahr is a boring character, and it’s a disservice to cast one of the silver screen’s most exciting performers in that role. Stahr was too much of a blank slate for me to ever feel invested in his emotions. There’s no dramatic tension to the movie, and whatever lingering tension there was comes to a screeching halt during the way too long love scenes between De Niro and Ingrid Boulting, as the girl who reminds Stahr of his dead wife. The scenes between Boulting and De Niro are just not that interesting, and they don’t have any chemistry together. Theresa Russell plays the other main female character, and while Boulting and Russell are both very beautiful to look at, they are not very good actresses. On a positive note, I did love Stahr's beautiful red Packard convertible.

Kazan seemed determined to include every famous person he could find in the cast, which makes watching The Last Tycoon slightly more interesting. The supporting cast includes Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Jeanne Moreau, Donald Pleasence, John Carradine, Jeff Corey, Anjelica Huston, Peter Strauss, and, oh yeah, Jack Nicholson. Yes, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro made a movie together in 1976. Unfortunately, it was this turkey.

I couldn’t figure out the tone that The Last Tycoon was going for. There are times when it seems to want to be a comedy. On their first date, Stahr takes Boulting’s character to see a trained seal at a restaurant. Am I supposed to laugh at De Niro’s interactions with the seal and his trainer? Is the scene where a movie editor dies during a screening supposed to be humorously ironic? I have no idea. I blame Harold Pinter for this. 

Another weird moment is when we see the movie-within-a-movie that Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau have been working on. It’s very obviously a pastiche of Casablanca, as Curtis plays the piano and bids Moreau adieu. She even sings part of the song he’s playing. It’s almost high camp, but not quite. I really think it’s supposed to be serious. Also, Casablanca wasn’t released until 1942, which is several years after the time period of The Last Tycoon. Curtis also has a scene where he confides to Stahr that he can’t get it up anymore, but he knows that Stahr will have a solution for his problem. I don’t remember what the hell Stahr tells him, but it works for Curtis. Of the random celebrity cameos, Robert Mitchum gets the most to do as another powerful producer at the studio. It is fun to watch Mitchum and De Niro together, as they both played the same role in the two different versions of Cape Fear. Hell, it’s always fun to watch Robert Mitchum. Ray Milland doesn’t have much to do other than hang out with Robert Mitchum and look like a more bald version of Jimmy Stewart. Dana Andrews has a couple of scenes as a beleaguered director whom Stahr releases from a movie. Despite his real-life battle with alcoholism, which he overcame in the late 1960’s, Andrews looks super handsome and not much different from his heyday as a leading man in the 1940’s. 

So, what about Jack Nicholson? Does he swoop in to save the movie from terminal boredom? Does he demand to order toast from the studio commissary? Isn’t it super exciting that The Last Tycoon pairs up two of the greatest actors of the 1970’s? Well, even the scenes between De Niro and Nicholson are dull. Their characters are adversaries, as Nicholson plays a Communist who wants to unionize the screenwriters at De Niro’s studio. Both Nicholson and De Niro seem to be operating at half-speed during their first scene together. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is super boring. And I don’t know if Nicholson is trying to do an accent or what-his character is from Tennessee-but he doesn’t have his usual Jack Nicholson vocal cadences. It’s terribly frustrating to watch two exciting, dynamic actors play boring people. In their other two scenes together De Niro totally overacts Stahr’s drunkenness, as he challenges Nicholson’s character to a game of ping pong. Yep, De Niro and Nicholson face off in a movie over a fucking game of ping pong. Opportunity wasted!

The last scene of The Last Tycoon, where De Niro/Stahr breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera as he tells a story about watching a girl burn a pair of gloves-a story we’ve already heard once before in the movie-is a real “what the fuck?” moment. 

The Last Tycoon was an unfortunate waste of talent, and a sad ending to the great directing career of Elia Kazan.

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