WASHINGTON, November 24, 2015 – American lit fans should be rejoicing today. It looks as if, at long last, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” will be coming to cable TV, this time courtesy of Amazon.com. Like Netflix, Amazon has been picking up the tab for an increasing number of original shows and series, and it looks like “Tycoon” will be their latest entertainment product.
The story broke this morning on Deadline, which reported the following details:
“Matt Bomer, coming off a starring role in American Horror Story: Hotel, has been tapped as the lead in The Last Tycoon, Amazon Studios’ drama pilot based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final unfinished novel. The project, from Sony’s TriStar Television, was quietly ordered earlier this month as cast-contingent. The casting of Bomer lifts the contingency, clearing the pilot for production.”
TV aficionados will also remember Bomer for his run as a master thief who more or less goes over to the good side in the USA series “White Collar,” which ended its run a couple of seasons back.
Fitzgerald, Pat Hobby and Irving Thalberg
Fitzgerald’s final novel, which lay roughly half-completed when he died in 1940 at the age of 44 from a sudden heart attack, was pulled into editorial shape by his onetime friend, the scholarly and well-regarded literary critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson ended the novel where it left off, unfinished, providing notes indicating at least some of the author’s intentions for the final work, and it was published in 1941.
“Last Tycoon,” with its Tinseltown allure, began to attract the attention of film producers and early television producers as well. A stage play version of the novel eventually appeared on TV in 1957, and in 1976, Elia Kazan directed a big screen version of the novel based on a Harold Printer script and featuring Robert De Niro in the title role. Sadly, this, Kazan’s final film, was largely judged to be a flop by most movie critics.
By the time Fitzgerald began writing “The Last Tycoon,” he was already enmeshed as a screenwriter buried deep within Hollywood’s studio system. He quickly came to regard what he did as hackwork, but he needed the money to support his daughter as well as providing long-term care for his long-institutionalized wife, Zelda.
Fitzgerald’s literary reputation (and sales figures) had rapidly waned over the years due primarily to his acute and devastating alcoholism. Yet his rep was still good enough to get him off-and-on work writing or repairing scripts in Tinseltown.
Always an acute observer of humanity, even in an alcoholic haze, Fitzgerald was fascinated and repelled by the cynical ruthlessness of Hollywood, particularly with regard to its arrogant kingpins, the now legendary bigtime studio moguls of the era.
Between screenwriting gigs that often went nowhere, Fitzgerald continued to earn money here and there by peddling a new line of short stories—eventually collected as the “Pat Hobby Stories”—to East Coast magazines like the Saturday Evening Post that used to publish him regularly. Pat—a lightly fictionalized stand-in for Fitzgerald—was a hapless Hollywood hack whose often humorous back lot misadventures provided telling glimpses into a sordid world that was not all glitter and gold.
Largely forgotten today, the “Pat Hobby Stories” were likely a proving ground for “The Last Tycoon,” which, had he survived his 40s, could possibly have been Fitzgerald’s magnum opus.
In “Last Tycoon,” Fitzgerald went upscale from Pat Hobby, writing a thinly-disguised biopic substituting his fictional Monroe Star for the legendary studio exec Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), who, like Fitzgerald, also ended up dying young.
The dashing Thalberg, regarded in Hollywood as “The Boy Wonder reached his zenith of fame and power even as he contended with studio unions and his onetime mentor and now-rival Pat Brady, who many regard as a thinly fictionalized stand-in for Louis B. Mayer.
Thalberg was instrumental, along with Mayer, in creating the mega-studio eventually known as Metro Goldwyn Mayer and was also responsible for discovering and nurturing many of Hollywood’s brightest stars in the 1930s, such as Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Ramon Novarro as well as Thalberg’s glamorous wife-to-be, Norma Shearer
Unlike any of his previous novels—at least in their edited and published form—there is a darkness in “Last Tycoon,” a starkness, an honesty, that is not always apparent in earlier works, though it’s hard to know at times exactly what Scott’s editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins, excised from earlier novels to earn them the equivalent of a PG rating in their time.
A scholar attempts to determine how Fitzgerald might have concluded “Tycoon”
The late University of South Carolina professor Matthew J. Bruccoli, a noted Fitzgerald and Hemingway scholar (and this writer’s dissertation advisor), did much to uncover the author’s real intentions in “The Great Gatsby,” unearthing darker material that Perkins had clearly excised—material that helped lend a more ominous underside to Baz Luhrmann’s colorful but ultimately failed 2013 cinematic take on that novel.
Likewise, Bruccoli edited a new and improved version of “The Last Tycoon,” publishing it through the Cambridge University Press in 1993 under the title Fitzgerald apparently would have preferred, “The Love of the Last Tycoon.”
Bruccoli’s edition exhaustively reshaped and re-edited the existing seventeen chapters of “Tycoon,” based on the author’s notes while providing hard evidence toward the likely content of the remaining fourteen chapters Fitzgerald apparently had planned to conclude the novel. It’s presumably this more accurate edition that will serve as the bedrock for the new Amazon production.
That said, the novel remained unfinished at Fitzgerald’s death, leaving room for producers and directors to film a conjectural complete version of the story presumably based on existing literary evidence, assuming no veto from Fitzgerald’s estate or his publisher of record, Scribner, if indeed that’s an issue.
Netflix productions vs. Amazon
Given its bevy of famous (if moderately disguised) stars, its inside tales of studio intrigue and union machinations, and its passionate romances, “The Last Tycoon”—or whatever Amazon’s producers decide to call it—could be a great work of cable cinema, assuming the production’s creative staff can get the mix of grit and glamor just right.
Amazon rival Netflix has done extraordinarily well with its recent in-house original series productions, particularly its new Marvel properties (“Daredevil” and the brand new “Jessica Jones”). Ditto its recent Season 4 revival of “Longmire” which was deeper and much improved over its three A&E seasons.
Contrariwise, Amazon, for the most part, has yet to find a consistent winning formula for its original productions. But in “Last Tycoon,” they have a potentially winning goldmine of a literary property. Whether Amazon’s final product is a miniseries or a film (reports are a bit unclear on this), one can hope that at long last, Amazon (and Sony Studios) can finally do cinematic justice to what might have been Scott Fitzgerald’s crowning literary achievement.