On Friday, the streaming service premieres its 10-episode adaptation of the literary giant’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, which traces the careers of two Hollywood moguls (played by Matt Bomer and Kelsey Grammer) in the late 1930s.
Talking to executive producer Joshua D. Maurer midway through the shoot, “I was like, ‘Hey, Josh, when did we divert from the original book?'” Grammer recalls. “And he was like, ‘Oh, God, a long time ago.’ The beauty of an unfinished novel is you get to finish it.”
Much of the terrain of Fitzgerald’s book, published posthumously in 1941, is covered in the first episode, which introduces the dapper Monroe Stahr (Bomer), a young man from a poor Jewish family in New York who worked his way up to become one of the most powerful producers in Tinseltown. His knack for spotting talent and rescuing even the most unsalvagable movies wins him the respect — and envy — of studio head Pat Brady (Grammer), while his gentility and charm earn the affections of Pat’s doe-eyed daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), an aspiring producer.
But Monroe — whom Fitzgerald modeled after “Boy Wonder” Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg — has many reasons for burying himself in work. Chief among them: the death of his wife, starlet Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw), and a congenital heart defect that could take his life at any moment.
“From the day he was born, he’s been reminded of how impermanent he is,” Bomer says. “He’s someone trying to put (his) stamp on the world and achieve some kind of immortality. That to me was interesting, his perfectionism and need to bring art to the world instead of just commerce.”
His artistic integrity clashes with the more pragmatic outlook of Pat, his surly father figure at the fictional Brady American Pictures. The character — loosely based on MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer — faces mounting pressure to make profitable pictures during the Great Depression and appease international buyers from Europe, where rising fascism has a chokehold on entertainment.
Monroe is “like the creature he created, and also the kid that he loves,” Grammer says. “There’s this battle about it. He has to say, ‘Don’t get out of line, this is my studio.’ But he also knows Monroe has something that he doesn’t, so he’s practical. He understands that guy has an eye for making a movie that he hasn’t got.”
Neither actor had read The Last Tycoon before series creator Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) sent them scripts, although both were familiar with the 1976 movie version that starred Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum. The stars revisited some of their favorite ’30s movies prior to shooting, and say they became nostalgic for the glitz and guarantees of yesteryear.
“There are certainly aspects of being who I am that would have been a lot more difficult, so I don’t envy that at all,” says Bomer, who is openly gay. “But there was a certain safety in the studio system. You didn’t have the kind of artistic freedom of getting to choose whatever you want to do; they figured out your formula and you stuck to that.
“You were under the wing of these people,” he continues. “But I’d also never want to do 40 movies in one year.”