The Great Gatsby is days away from public unveiling, but there's such a media storm around it I feel like I've already seen it.
So I'm turning my attention to the anti-Gatsby.
Which turns out also to have been written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Last Tycoon was Fitzgerald's last novel. He had written 17 scenes and made notes for the remaining 13 when he died. That puts it in the category of "unfinished," which makes it sound disreputable and diminished, doesn't it? Hemingway certainly thought so. He mocked F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''gigantic, preposterous'' outline for Tycoon' and doubted that Fitzgerald would ever have finished the book.
I first read The Last Tycoon in the 1970s, shortly before the film was released. On my second reading, with a literally in-your-face 3-D Gatsby upon us, these 190 pages seem even better than I recall. Indeed, Tycoon seems almost equal to Gatsby. As for the main character, you could make the case that Monroe Stahr is --- even in this unfinished novel --- a more satisfying creation than Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby is a romantic, possessed by the romantic's adolescent fantasy of recapturing the past. Stahr is based on Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM in the late 1920s and 1930s. Thalberg was a realist --- the ultimate realist. For more than a decade, he assembled hit movie after hit movie. Gatsby's success was covert, as murky as his real identity; Thalberg's success was measured each weekend in box office receipts.
Gatsby died a lurid, movie-star death, bigger than life; Thalberg, never healthy, worked himself to death at 37. And Shahr, like Thalberg, was a "boy genius," vastly smarter than Gatsby. "Not half a dozen men have been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads," Fitzgerald wrote. Stahr could. As a Times critic noted:
The equation he held in his head told him how much a certain kind of picture would gross, which, in turn, told him how much could be profitably spent on its production. He knew whose brains to rent. The capacities of directors, writers and actors were as apparent to him as labeled contents. He could cut four minutes from a dreary 100-minute movie in such a way to make it seem a single, breathless experience of 60 minutes. In those days, movies --- pictures --- didn't waste time getting to points.
And neither does The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald didn't quite know the inner workings of the Long Island rich, but he knew Hollywood cold. Like other failed novelists, he had gone west to make a living writing movies. In The Pat Hobby Stories, he shows the comic side of this stupid, vulgar work. In The Last Tycoon, he got serious.
The issues in Tycoon are deeper than the noisy concerns of Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Stahr has lost a woman, but in his case, she was his wife, and she died. He meets, fleetingly, a young woman who reminds him of her, and he seeks her out, but she doesn't, as in Gatsby, become his single-minded obsession. He has bigger challenges. Like the rise of a union, the Writers Guild. Like an epic conflict with the owner of the studio. And, most of all, the unending challenge of creating culture that can be transformed into commerce: "Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed --- to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded."
The movie was written by Harold Pinter, who treated the novel with wit and respect. Elia Kazan directed; it was his last film. Robert De Niro --- so young, so thin --- was Monroe Stahr. Robert Mitchum played the owner of the studio. Jack Nicholson was the union organizer. There were cameos by Jeanne Moreau and Tony Curtis. A very classy endeavor, wouldn't you say?
There's much to savor in the book and movie, but one scene stands out. Boxley, an English writer on contract to the studio, has been summoned to Stahr's office. He is an artist. He's writing crap. He knows it. Stahr knows it. In the hands of a second-rate novelist, Stahr screams at Boxley and fires him. But watch what Fitzgerald does (presented here in Pinter's screenplay):
Boxley walks into Monroe Stahr's office a bit diffidently, eyeing the other two writers in the room seated in front of Stahr. Stahr welcomes him and offers him a seat between the other writers.
MONROE STAHR: Sit down, Mr. Boxley.
BOXLEY: I can't go on. It's a waste of time.
BOXLEY: You've stuck me with two hacks. They can't write. And they... bugger up everything I write.
STAHR: Well, why don't you just write it yourself?
BOXLEY: I have. I sent you some.
STAHR: That was just talk. We'd lose the audience.
BOXLEY: I don't think you people read things. The men... The men are dueling when this conversation takes place. At the end, one of them falls into a well and has to be hauled up...in a bucket.
STAHR: Would you write that in a book of your own?
BOXLEY: Of course I wouldn't. I inherited this absurd situation.
STAHR: Let me ask you, do you ever go to the movies?
STAHR: Because people are always dueling and falling down wells?
BOXLEY: And talking a load of rubbish!
(Stahr gets out of his chair and comes around to the front of his desk)
STAHR: Listen... has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?
BOXLEY: I think so.
(Stahr crosses to the work-table at back of his office. Boxley's eyes follow him)
STAHR: Suppose you're in your office. You've been fighting duels all day. You're exhausted.... This is you.... A girl comes in. She doesn't see you.
(Stahr crosses the room to the door, goes through it, then comes back in, looking furtively in both directions. He crosses to his desk and mimes the actions)
STAHR: She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table. You watch her.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: This is you.
(Stahr crosses back to his desk and mimes the actions, except for the nickel which he takes out of his pocket and bounces on his desk)
STAHR: Now... She has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse. She takes the gloves...they're black.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: Puts them into the stove. Lights a match. Suddenly, the telephone rings. She picks it up. She listens. She says, "I've never owned a pair of black gloves in my life." Hangs up. Kneels by the stove. Lights another match.
(Boxley listens attentively, then catches himself. He's actually enjoying this.)
STAHR: Suddenly, you notice... there's another man in the room...
(Boxley can't help but look) (Stahr crosses the room to the front door)
STAHR: ...watching every move the girl makes.
(Stahr crosses to his desk. Looks at Boxley. The other writers look at Stahr, then turn their attention to Boxley, who looks at them expectantly.)
(Stahr looks at Boxley, letting the moment hang. Then he slides into his chair looking like the cat that ate the canary. He looks again at Boxley and waits. Then he looks over at the other writer and smiles)
BOXLEY: What happens?
STAHR: I don't know. I was just making pictures.
BOXLEY: What was the nickel for?
STAHR: Jane, what was the nickel for?
JANE: The nickel was for the movies.
BOXLEY: What do you pay me for? I don't understand the damn stuff.
STAHR: Yes, you do... or you wouldn't have asked about the nickel.
Now watch it:
When you see The Great Gatsby, think back to that moment. A man. A desk. A nickel. And... magic.
[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]