Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976)


The closing moments of Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon suggest that the film was intended all along as a romantic valorization of the "dream factory" aspect of Hollywood lore: its doomed 30’s studio head protagonist Monroe Stahr seeming on the verge of being eased out, for the first time addressing the camera directly to reprise a story he improvised earlier in the movie as inspiration for a bogged-down writer, except that now we understand it as an expression of lost love, followed by a final walk into the literal and figurative darkness. It’s an ending that extends the film’s two main strands – Stahr’s bullheaded approach to running things, perpetually making expensive creative decisions which no one else in the more money-minded executive suite sees the need for, and his longing for a woman who can ultimately never be his – but it carries far too little charge, given the strangely still and displaced quality of much that precedes it, the sense of a film joylessly located outside both history and myth. In theory at least, Kazan must have been better placed than most to probingly recreate the studio system’s uniquely epoch-defining mixture of glory and corruption, but his work here is dutiful and passionless, neither pleasurably nostalgic nor gleefully eviscerating. Similarly, Robert De Niro is at his most quietly withholding as Stahr – as with Kazan’s direction, it’s often hard to determine what he had in mind – but the film at least provides a good source of trivia questions and degrees-of-Bacon type connections: yes, it’s true, De Niro did indeed once act with Dana Andrews and Ray Milland. Jack Nicholson shows up late in the film as a union organizer, but he’s yet another oddly ineffectual presence, a theoretically crackerjack meeting of two of the decade’s defining actors coming across as a chore that they both just had to plod through.

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