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Movie-Making

The Last Tycoon directed by Elia Kazan at the Sack Charles Cinema

By Julia M. Klein

HOLLYWOOD OF THE 1930s is a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty, and Monroe Stahr, boy wonder, is at her service. Stahr's business is making pictures, transmuting the dreams of Depression-deadened America into vendable celluloid. His is an Horatio Alger story with an F. Scott Fitzgerald twist, a saga of material success rooted in romantic illusion. For a while, Stahr can have his cake and sell it too; but the crisis comes when he tries to shape his own life in the image of the movies by snatching happiness from an ill-fated love affair. For Fitzgerald, success and illusion may be wedded, but what Stahr learns finally is that both are easily wrecked on the rocks of American reality.

Stahr is not simply another Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald was far older when he wrote The Last Tycoon, and the romantic fervor which defined Gatsby has been replaced in Stahr by a "mixture of common sense, wise sensibility, theatrical ingenuity, and a certain half-naive conception of the common weal." A paternalistic employer of the old school, Stahr, like his literary forerunner, is condemned to repeat the past in an age which values only the present moment. In contrast to Gatsby, however, his nemesis is not the carelessness of the very rich but the more modern venality of American capitalism.

The faults of The Last Tycoon as a movie are mainly those of the book, to which screenwriter Harold Pinter has, on the whole, been faithful. What Fitzgerald left us when he died was only a fragment of a novel, a draft of a story still halfway from completion. Fitzgerald's narrator is Cecilia Brady, the daughter of Stahr's business partner, who views Hollywood "with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house." It is through Cecilia, whose gaze is at first glazed by infatuation and later embittered by cynicism, that we meet and experience Monroe Stahr. In a series of loosely-written scenes, Fitzgerald outlines Stahr's relations with members of his studio empire and his brief romance with yet another ghost, a haunting Irish woman who reminds him of his dead wife.

In the film, even more than the novel, Stahr emerges as the only fully realized character amid a sea of Hollywood types. While retaining much of the original dialogue, Pinter and director Elia Kazan have dispensed with the device of Cecilia as narrator; instead, we see Stahr head-on, dominating the film in the same way that he dominates everyone around him. The extent of his control is partly a function of the script, but it is enhanced immeasurably by Robert DeNiro's charismatic performance. DeNiro is brilliant in the role, evoking alternately the shrewd competence and romantic vulnerability which together make Stahr so intriguing a personality.

If the virtues of Fitzgerald's portrait of Stahr find their way into the filmed version, so do all the flaws of the rest of his book. One major problem is the treatment of Kathleen, Stahr's lover. Pinter and Kazan apparently took their cues from a line in the novel in which Stahr refers to Kathleen as a "Beautiful Doll." Ingrid Boulting is precisely that--a porcelain figure, heavily made-up and beautiful to look at, but seemingly ready to break at a touch. There is no real sensuality in her, none of the flesh-and-blood passion Fitzgerald probably means to suggest when he has Kathleen describe herself as "sex-starved."

Other characters are too sketchily conceived to be very convincing. Cecilia (Theresa Russell) turns into a snotty, would-be vamp, almost a figure of self-parody. Robert Mitchum, as her father, spends most of his time looking constipated. Jack Nicholson delivers a fine vignette of a labor organizer encroaching on Stahr's prerogatives, but his appearance is unfortunately brief.

More disturbing than these casting slipups are the film's basic structural weaknesses. Given that Fitzgerald left half his book unwritten, Pinter had two choices: stick to the original and add an ending, or else use the fragmentary notes Fitzgerald left about the rest of his novel to flesh out its contours. He opted for the first, and more obvious, route. The result is an abrupt ending which telescopes events designed to occur months or years apart--Kathleen's departure and Stahr's loss of power--into a period of a few filmed minutes. The effect is more sudden than powerful, since any necessary connection between the two crises, a connection which Fitzgerald's notes hint at, is never even suggested in the movie. The film merely ends in a crush of disaster, with DeNiro--who, on top of everything else, is scheduled to die soon of a fatal disease--walking dismally into blackness.

Kazan is unable to overlay Fitzgerald's materials with any subtlety or discipline of his own. When in doubt, he resorts to all the tried-and-true cinematic devices--the soft filters, the pastel tints--to create romantic mood. At the screenwriters' ball, Stahr watches his love through the mist of a water fountain; when they walk and talk together, she is dressed in lavender and ruffles, and the scaffolding of his house-to-be is bathed in purple light.

DESPITE ITS FAILINGS, one thing The Last Tycoon as a movie manages to do that the book cannot is to actualize the metaphoric connection between cinematic illusion and real life romance. As a producer, Stahr feeds a dream-starved audience "movie movies," where the hero is brave, the heroine is crystalline pure and the romance is sustained right through the end. Coaching an overly literary writer, Stahr at one point dramatizes a scene from an imaginary film to demonstrate the art of film-making. "What happens?" the writer asks, when Stahr stops short of the finish. "I don't know," Stahr replies. "I was just making movies."

The ending of The Last Tycoon finds Stahr alone in his office, after being rebuffed by both Kathleen and his fellow studio heads. Voices from the past besiege him. All at once, in the only completely non-realistic sequence in the movie, he begins to reenact the story he told his writer, about a woman stealthily burning a pair of black gloves. The camera cuts to Kathleen, now stealthily burning Stahr's last letter to her. Her husband enters, and she kisses him; but when her tear-stained face glances up, it is Stahr she is looking at. Another cut later, he is staring back. Then he sighs and concludes, "I was just making movies."

The point is clear: Stahr has tried to impose the structure of movie romance on an unromantic reality. His mission has been that of the artist, to bring order out of the chaos of everyday life. Kazan and Pinter have similarly attempted to give cinematic order to Fitzgerald's muddled work. If their mission has not been a complete success, their failure, like Stahr's, has at least provided the pleasure of romantic illusion along the way.

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