Reading Elia Kazan’s memoirs, which include his diary of making THE LAST TYCOON, his last film, it’s easy to see why the film came out oddly. Kazan’s mother was dying, and he experienced an unsettling outpouring of hate and bitterness from her as she went — he could not entirely convince himself that this was merely the result of her illness. So he was more than a little distracted. I rather hate Kazan for political reasons, but I couldn’t help but pity him here — and he wasn’t asking me to.
He complained that screenwriter Harold Pinter had shortchanged him on the love story, and that Pinter had failed to provide a usable ending. Indeed, though Pinter’s usual approach is to leave big gaps for us to read between the lines, this script is so spacious it feels less complete than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished source novel. (This is one of the great late films — it’s director’s final movie, based on a posthumous and incomplete book, featuring a host of aging Hollywood talent including Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. The hero even has an unfinished house.) Pinter, not much of a romantic, ALWAYS seems to scrimp on the love stories, and DeNiro can be a limp, ungenerous lead in love scenes. As for the finale, no doubt Fitzgerald’s brace of assassination schemes was judged too melodramatic, but what Pinter substitutes is curiously UNdramatic. Kazan shot his star/Stahr Robert DeNiro (the movie is an “interesting” blend of new talent and old) repeating a speech from earlier, shuffled into a suggestive montage, and lets his leading man wander into a darkened sound stage for his fadeout. It has the SENSE of an ending without being an ending.
If the movie doesn’t end, it doesn’t seem to begin or middle either — it just drifts. Actors turn up — Jack Nicholson makes an amazingly late appearance, and livens things up a bit — or disappear. It’s very enjoyable to hear Mitchum and Curtis speak Pinter — you still get a sense of the playwright’s weird rhythms. Vincent Canby, praising the film, remarked that Ingrid Boulting, DeNiro’s love interest, alternates between an eerie certainty and a clueless inability to say a line. That’s about right — I’m assuming poor Kazan wasn’t much help to her, given his state of mind. A Spiegel discovery — neither Kazan nor Pinter wanted her — she could have carried it off with more guidance — her good moments are evidence enough of this. She was rather good in THE WITCHES ten years earlier — here, she’s being “introduced,” which is usually the kiss of death to a career.
Fitzgerald had written a striking entrance for his love interest, floating on a disembodied prop statue head through a flooded studio. By the time Kazan got around to filming it, it must have seemed like second-hand Fellini. I actually wonder if the scene in the book could have inspired FELLINI CASANOVA the same year. But I doubt FF ever read the book. It is kind of nice that the head is carrying Angelica Huston, daughter of John, and Ingrid Boulting, step-daughter of Roy. The film, if it is a film, is a decided clash between old generation and new.
Pinter’s sense of period Hollywood is shaky — early on, John Carradine, sepulchral studio tour guide, brags that he’s worked for the studio since “way back in the silent days.” Way back when you were a young man of sixty-five, John? Jeanne Moreau makes an implausible thirties star, and places impossible stresses on the wrong words: “What’s wrong with my frigging hair?” (My normal hair is fine, but the hair I have specifically for frigging with, that’s all out of whack.) Having invented fictitious movie stars, the film starts referring to real ones halfway through, which is suddenly distracting. Maurice Jarre’s music is weak. Kazan’s blocking and cutting is sometimes choppy and chaotic. As with Jack Clayton’s THE GREAT GATSBY, the adaptation leaves you rather wondering what the book was about. And yet… it’s all rather watchable, flowing by in a distracted manner. Nice clothes, nice-looking people (Theresa Russell squints and grins attractively), nice locations. And Tony Curtis as an aging matinee idol speaking in Pinteresque non-sequiturs — that tickles me.
“I love her. She’s my wife.”
THE LATE SHOW — The Late Films Blogathon will be running all week.