I don’t remember very much about The Last Tycoon (’76) except that it stunk. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh but but it certainly seemed inert. Robert DeNiro was almost comically miscast as coolly arrogant studio exec Monroe Stahr, whom original author F. Scott Fitzgerald had based upon legendary MGM exec Irving Thalberg.
De Niro played Thalberg as a relatively uncultured New York street guy (i.e., Travis Bickle wearing nice suits) with those Lower-East-Side Italian vowels of his. The real-deal Thalberg came from Brooklyn and never attended college, but I’ve always read he was a man of discipline and exactitude — a classy gent with a highly concentrated mind. I didn’t believe DeNiro’s “Travis” Thalberg for an instant. That idiot grin of his was pure loony Bickle. For what it’s worth I enjoyed the two or three scenes that De Niro shares with Jack Nicholson, who plays a commie union leader.
How could a film directed by Elia Kazan, based on a 1941 Fitzgerald novel, adapted by Harold Pinter, produced by Sam Spiegel, scored by Maurice Jarre and shot by Victor J. Kemper…how could a movie made by such an ace-level team turn out badly? But it did. It just sat there.
The Last Tycoon was DeNiro’s first shortfaller. He’d previously made five excellent films (Bang The Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, The Godfather, Part II, Taxi Driver, 1900). After Tycoon he starred in another failure (Scorsese’s New York, New York) but then rebounded with The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, True Confessions, The King of Comedy, Once Upon A Time in America and Falling in Love.