The Last Tycoon, the new show on Amazon Prime, is a sumptuous dip into 1930s Hollywood, often dubbed the golden age of American cinema. This was the time of colossal stardom when screen gods and goddesses could reach, for the first time, the far corners of the world on colour film in simple-minded tales that spoke to honesty, goodwill and love.
The situation on the sets, though, could not be more different. Based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, the show is set on a fictional studio that is facing financial difficulties since the death of its most bankable star Minna Davis. Kelsey Grammer stars as Pat Brady, the studio’s mercurial owner. The Depression has made matters worse and so has the presence of Adolf Hitler’s emissaries in Hollywood, smooth-talking men using the power of pelf to censor movies.
Brady’s blue-eyed boy, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) is the quintessential movie man – his golden touch can rescue any film from disaster and everyone on the lot – from the writers to Brady’s daughter Celia (Lily Collins) – is eager to please him. A Jew, he also happens to be the husband of Minna whose memory shapes his days and colors his visions. It is his wish to make a grand tribute to his dead wife, a project that Brady is happy to bankroll.
Enter the Nazis. George Gyssling (Michael Sibbery) won’t allow the studio to make a film on a star who was married to a Jew, and with Germany being the second largest foreign market for Hollywood films, every producer in Los Angeles is eager to appease him. The Last Tycoon expertly brings out the capitulation of Hollywood moguls to a bunch of bullies who hold the purse strings.
There are other political overtones. Unionisation is a dirty word on the lot, but secret meetings organised after hours to demand better wages see an increasing number of studio personnel mark their attendance. When Brady decides to cut everyone’s salary by 30% to tide over the financial crisis, he is met with strident arguments denouncing capitalism, forcing him to ultimately rescind the pay cut.
Even so, the show is much more than politics. Focused almost entirely on Monroe’s joys and pains, it still manages to branch off in several directions each of which yields satisfying narrative arcs. Celia grows from a girl with a crush on Monroe to a woman who fights to come into her own as a producer, much against her father’s wishes. Her mother Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt) battles intense loneliness and ends up having an affair. When that ends, she dissolves into quiet desperation, making for some of the best acting you will see this year.
And there is Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott) from Wisconsin, come to Hollywood with dreams in her eyes, working as a waitress in a diner close to the lot. She catches Monroe’s eye, and her Irish accent and resemblance to Minna ensure that a romance blossoms. Is everything as innocent as it looks? As with a parallel storyline about a biracial actress who passes for white, The Last Tycoon teems with secrets that are waiting to explode.