When, on December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald took his last breath, he left behind a college-aged daughter, an intermittently institutionalized wife, a failed career as a screenwriter, and an unfinished novelization of his time in Hollywood, in addition to his better known work. His final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, is a thinly veiled account of the studio system based on his time as a screenwriter. It is a fragmented novel. But it still holds that prescient Fitzgerald wisdom, that ability to capture so exquisitely the mores and style specific to an era and a place with language so sparse and yet so sharp and insightful. It is a novel eternally in progress, but it is as scathing as any account of a cynical and superficial ecosystem.
The novel follows producer Monroe Stahr, a fictionalized Irving Thalberg, as he maneuvers through the daily difficulties of running a studio. Stahr is a hero, a moral man with convictions, pride, and a generous helping of ego, a man whose scruples run the studio just as much as he does. Fitzgerald struggled in Hollywood and his experiences with producers were not wholly positive, but in Stahr he created the ideal, the heroic success story. The whole world is at Stahr’s beck and call, but to him, love and genuine human connection is elusive. It is with the subtitle of the novel, A Western, that we first become aware of Fitzgerald’s conception of Stahr. With just such a wording, Fitzgerald is able to harness the iconography of the trailblazer, the myth of the lone genius, of a wilderness just waiting to be tamed by some resourceful man, by someone, it becomes clear, that is like Stahr. Hollywood is our last great American myth and Fitzgerald is here to expose and celebrate it as such. Early on, we are taken on a tour of the studio, in which we are shown the duties of a producer, as well as a glimpse behind the beauty and glamour. We are shown a world in which a starlet is not an untouchable and elevated deity, but a mere woman in “a low gown which displayed the bright eczema of her chest and back. Before each take the blemished surface was plastered over with an emollient, which was removed immediately after the take. Her hair was of the color and viscosity of drying blood but there was starlight that actually photographed in her eyes” (50). The glamour is disrupted, the ideal is shattered, but the underlying power of the myth of stardom remains partially intact.
Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood are background throughout the novel; a dull but persistent whisper in which we are shown a more comprehensive view of the author in later life. Fitzgerald’s issues stemmed from his inability to grasp the conventions of script writing. He dedicated himself to learning; screening movies and keeping copious notes about the medium, but he was ultimately unable to transfer these into a cohesive script. His dialogue was too wordy and pretentious, too literary in scope and failed to capture the natural rhythms of speech that are so necessary in film. Often, his work was rewritten by producers to make it more manageable. Ultimately, he was shuttled between studios because his work was unusable. But during this time, Fitzgerald was becoming more aware of the system in which he worked. This knowledge served him as he began his novel. It is clear that Fitzgerald understands Hollywood and the studio system and speaks of it with an unguarded intimacy. It is a world of appearances and hearsay, a world guided by beauty and populated with gossip. As with his most famous protagonist, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald is positioned on the outside, forced to be merely a spectator amid the opulence, the facade of decadence and glamour, and he is able to see the small human dramas that pervade the studio; the life behind the screen.
Throughout this novel, we see two of America’s most enduring legends, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hollywood, brought together and laid bare. We are shown these legends, both emblematic of America’s greatest conflicts, decadences, foibles, and beauty, and we are forced to contend with the reality of their existences. We are given a privileged glimpse into private worlds and handed shattered illusions by the man who knew best how to shatter the illusions we hold most dear, the illusions of ourselves, our society, and of the beauty that we mistakenly believe has no cost. Despite the fact that the novel is unfinished, this is clear: Fitzgerald populates every character, every word, and every syllable of The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Love of the Last Tycoon encompasses all Fitzgerald was and all he worked for.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1993.