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The Last Tycoon
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Tagline: He has the power to make anyone's dream come true... except his own.

Pizza: Marcelino's

Preshow Entertainment: TREASURE ISLE


I've always wanted to see THE LAST TYCOON (1976). It's got an amazing cast featuring De Niro, Nicholson, Mitchum, Milland, Tony Curtis (you can't just say Curtis, right?) and John Freakin' Carradine, yet the fact that this isn't a movie that everyone talks about all the time, or at all, made me suspicious as to its quality. It turns out that my suspicions were well founded. THE LAST TYCOON is a criminal outing whose makers (sadly, the ON THE WATERFRONT director-producer team of Elia Kazan and Sam Spiegel) should have been blacklisted. At first I thought it was me, that I had sat on the remote and pressed "pause" by accident. How dare anyone make such a somniferous movie, considering the people who were on board. There were enough red flags to restart the Soviet Union, but here are just four:

    Red Flag #1: TYCOON was based on an unfinished book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Unfinished...

    Red Flag #2: The screenplay was written by playwright Harold Pinter, known for his molasses dialogue and numerous pauses, which are abundantly in use here.

    Red Flag #3: Producer Spiegel insisted that not one word of Pinter's script be changed.

    Red Flag #4: Director Elia Kazan came out of retirement to make this picture.
The only thing missing from this recipe for disaster is eye of newt.

Studio head, Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro)
Ironically, THE LAST TYCOON is the story of a movie studio honcho who has a Midas touch for making successful movies. Robert De Niro plays Monroe Stahr, studio cheese during Hollywood's Golden Age. It's no secret that this part is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's friend Irving Thalberg, who was head of production for MGM. They even refer to Stahr as "The Boy Wonder," a nickname Thalberg had. Like Thalberg, Stahr has the knack for making movies that work, so says studio chief Marcus (Morgan Farley, who actually started acting in silents), a man so ancient that he must be carried in and out of rooms. Although he's the head of production for the studio, Stahr's life is dead. He lives alone (unless you count his manservant) in a Bel-Air mansion that's as drab as he is.
Ingrid Boulting (Kathleen)
He even slept through an earthquake as plasterboard dust fell on him. But that temblor does end up shaking his world up. While inspecting damage to the studio, he spots extra Kathleen Moore (the beautiful Ingrid Boulting, now an artist based in Ojai), who reminds him of his dead wife. It's here that TYCOON takes a jarring turn and becomes a totally different movie. Suddenly, Stahr's obsession with Kathleen becomes a psychotic storyline as these two characters play a junior high tug-of-war for affection that's so labored and soapy that I found myself saying, out loud, "These two morons deserve each other."

Meanwhile, complications arise when the Writers Guild of America begins its battle with Hollywood over things like collective bargaining, credits and residuals for internet downloads (wait, I think those came later). Stahr won't have any of this ("I'll give them money, but I won't give them power."), but he's distracted by Kathleen. Thalberg himself actually said "The guilds will be established over my dead body."

Hey look! A trained seal! Why am I saying "a trained seal" out of nowhere?? Because out of nowhere comes a scene with a trained seal...on the dock in a restaurant. That's just goofy. This whole fucking movie belongs on the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Anyway...

So union strong-arm Brimmer (Jack Nicholson) is coming to town to meet with Stahr. Don't let me mislead you - Jack and Bobby (yeah, I know) are only in the movie together for maybe 15 minutes, which these two powerhouse actors spend doing a metric ton of nothing. SIDENOTE: De Niro would do this again in 1995's HEAT with Al Pacino...a three hour movie that had them sharing the screen together for a colossal six minutes.
Anyway...besides the union, more conflicts arise. Studio exec (it's unclear where the seniority lies) Pat Brady's (Robert Mitchum) daughter Cecelia (Theresa Russell, in her first role) has a crush on Stahr. Rodriguez (Tony Curtis), the star of one of Stahr's movies, comes to him with his problem of impotence, though I'm not sure what he expected Stahr to do about that. And Stahr himself is sick, witnessed by his pills and his doctor saying, "Any pain?" For a movie filled with conflicts, you'd think there would be some emotion, something to give us a reason to care. About anybody. But nothing creates any wind. It all just lays there, and then evaporates.

Eventually, Stahr's obsession with Kathleen begins to affect his business, as he repeatedly cancels appointments and leaves parties before he's meant to.

I suppose the subtext is that Stahr's old school mogulicious ways are over (hence the title), giving rise to a new Hollywood. This is symbolized by Kathleen's entrance; atop a giant Egyptian head that is floating off the set, due to a flood caused by the earthquake. A giant head, out of control and helplessly floating away. But the heavy-handed symbolism doesn't end there. Stahr is building a house by the ocean, a house that's right now just a shell. The house he can't seem to finish, the life he can't seem to complete. And what are Stahr and Brimmer doing while opposing each other's views? Playing a game of ping pong, of course.


Stuck in this squib of a movie that should have been an M-80 are some fine actors, all trying to CPR this corpse. I'm sorry if I'm going overboard here, but come on - De Niro had just done GODFATHER II and Nicholson ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. We didn't deserve this. Or better yet, they didn't. De Niro's not even near good in this movie...answering people's questions as if he were being given a lie detector test. At times he even seemed to be channeling Pacino (who passed on the role).
Tige Andrews (MOD SQUAD boss) and Ray Milland (it took me a while to recognize him with his absence of hair) played studio suits (again, it's never made clear what the pecking order of authority among the moguls were). Angelica (that's how she spelled it then) Huston played Edna, the girl Stahr accidentally called when he was searching for Kathleen. Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau (who we saw last year in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK) played the actors, Dana Andrews (the lead in RMC super-fave HOT RODS TO HELL) was emasculated director Red Ridingwood (his last name was never mentioned in the movie, but he does get eaten by the wolf - Stahr). John Carradine was a tour guide, and Seymour Cassel the seal trainer.

THE LAST TYCOON'S disdain for writers is boundless. From the "bastard" writer dating Cecelia, to Brady saying that "writers will sell each other out for a nickel", to Stahr saying "All writers are children. Fifty percent are drunks...", to staff writer Wiley (Peter Strauss) being useless in Stahr's eyes, to alcoholic novel writer Boxley (Donald Pleasence) who's out of his depth writing screenplays. Perhaps, no, not perhaps...surely this is because Fitzgerald himself couldn't quite connect to being a screenwriter, though he did connect with the alcohol part. In fact, the more I ponder, the more it seems like the entire film is an in-joke that drowns in the Ironic Ocean. Permit me: Stahr explains to Boxley that movies should use action over words. He even acts a scene out by himself to demonstrate. Yet, THE LAST TYCOON itself is devoid of any action whatsoever (okay, someone gets punched once). There's also a time when Stahr complains about a line of dialogue in a film being screened; "'Nor have I?' Who talks like that?" Well, nearly everyone in THE LAST TYCOON does. Also, as mentioned, producer Spiegel didn't let Kazan change the script, yet Stahr spends his days doctoring scripts.

I counted only two amusing scenes (and that was by comparison) in THE LAST TYCOON. One was the one I just mentioned, where De Niro acts out a scene for embittered and embattled screenwriter Boxley. The second is a movie-within-a-movie, parroting CASABLANCA to clever and even comic effect. "Wow, this could have been a good movie if there were more scenes like this," says I.

I love Elia Kazan, even though he named names. I just saw PINKY recently. What a great movie. Not as good as ON THE WATERFRONT or A FACE IN THE CROWD, or my favorite, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (an astonishing first feature). Kazan understood people. He was an actor's director (he co-founded the Actor's Studio). He knew how to tell a story, usually while crusading for something. Yep, Kazan knew how to do everything. Except stay retired.

Preshow Entertainment: TREASURE ISLE

This was a game show from the 60s. I don't know how or why I remembered it so well. In fact, I've been trying to track it down for years. I even went to the Museum of Broadcasting to see if they had it in their catalog. They didn't. Maybe because I thought the name was TREASURE ISLAND and not TREASURE ISLE. In any case, I finally got my hands on a few episodes. It cost me ten bucks but it was well worth it.

Treasure Isle JBT
Shot on film and in black and white weren't the only cool things. This game show was shot outdoors, on a series of small man-made islands. Two young couples went through three rounds of games involving skill (though I remember jet skis, this episode had the men rowing boats, while the women popped balloons they found in the water). Then they had to piece a giant jigsaw puzzle together. The winning couple has the final round to themselves, choosing compass points to dig under, revealing clues to locate tiny, prize-bearing treasure chests in the sand.

The show was hosted by John Bartholomew Tucker, who I remember thinking was so cool. He wore a large mike on a lanyard, and had scruffy hair. His announcer called him JBT.

Researching the show now, I've come to learn that it was filmed in Singer Island, where my parents wound up getting a timeshare. Hell, if I knew I stayed on the same land that they shot TREASURE ISLE on, I would have, well, I guess I wouldn't have cared all that much. But it's sort of a cool thing. And now that I saw the show again, for the first time since I was 10 years old, I feel like I've unearthed my own buried treasure.


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