There is a hulking metaphor sitting on Monroe Stahr’s pristine film set: a giant Shiva head, the deity’s face lovingly crafted. But what is behind its glorious facade? Just the rough inner workings exposed, the bits of wood and wire holding the fakery up. And this, we are led to believe, sums up Hollywood in its golden age, where The Last Tycoon (Amazon Prime) is set, because nobody seems to have anything nice to say about it. Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), the boss of a 1930s movie studio, urges his daughter Celia to “please, please find another business”.
The series is based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last (unfinished) novel. Stahr, played by Matt Bomer, is a genuine movie man. Pictures appear to him like visions; he instinctively knows how to rescue a turkey. But he hasn’t made his perfect film … yet. He thinks a film about his late wife, Minna Davis, might be the one. “It could be our Oscar,” he tells Brady, who is part boss, part father figure. The problem is the Germans, or one German in particular. “There is no bigger film fan than the Führer,” says Georg Gyssling, an emissary from the Third Reich who is pale and powdery as mildew. The Germans won’t want to watch a movie about an actress who, as everyone knows, married Stahr, a Jew. Or indeed anything else that is “offensive to the German people”. The film must be cancelled. Brady, like other studio bosses, capitulates – it’s the Depression, and Germany is the second biggest foreign market. “You can’t have art without commerce,” he says, like a true Hollywood mogul.
Elsewhere, you can’t have commerce without exploitation, and the film crews aren’t happy – they’re organising. “I said the word the bigwigs all hate: union,” says one of the leaders at a secret meeting (try saying it to Jeff Bezos, the big boss at Amazon). There’s a camp of homeless people beside the lot and the bank is about to pull the studio’s funding. So there’s a lot going on – maybe too much – and that’s without the grieving Stahr’s late-night hookups with his boss’s wife, the ingenues trying to get his attention, and the small matter of his heart defect (“One of these days his heart’s just going to explode!”). The Last Tycoon is a bit silly when it’s trying to be dramatic, and some of the lines are jarring when they’re trying to be profound. You may start to care about the characters three or four episodes in. And goodness, it looks beautiful – the people, the costumes, the whole seductive world. But like the giant Shiva head, which Stahr orders back to the mill to be finished, it’s all a bit hollow.