“The Beautiful and the Damned” is not the F. Scott Fitzgerald work that Amazon has chosen to adapt, but it could serve as an alternate title to the handsome and romantic drama “The Last Tycoon,” a lovely period piece that contains several top-notch performances.
Featuring Kelsey Grammer, Matt Bomer and Jennifer Beals doing some of their best work, “The Last Tycoon” wraps its most unforgiving truths expensive satin and drapes them in softly lit diamonds. At its best, the series recalls the melancholy elegance of some of the best films of the 1930s, which is when this story is set. The drama chronicles the desperation that seeps into every corner of Brady American Pictures, a film studio trying to survive the Depression as well as creative infighting, oafish bankers and dissatisfied employees. Just about everyone on the screen is either rich, famous or both.
From camera techniques to costumes to the yearning music, the show pays homage to classic cinema; like the ’60s-set “Mad Men,” it’s likely to make a viewer long for an era they probably didn’t live through. And yet the Amazon series doesn’t sugarcoat the foundations of its story — one that Fitzgerald told over and over over again, about the glittering lives of people who appear to have it all but who feel an acute emptiness. Fitzgerald’s men and women — the beautiful, the damned and especially the rich — are often skilled at looking as if they hadn’t a care in the world, especially if that pose accelerates their social climbing.
“The Last Tycoon” was published 75 years ago, but almost everything the TV adaptation from Billy Ray and Christopher Keyser touches on could have come from a contemporary Variety headline. Studio executives Pat Brady (Grammer) and Monroe Stahr (Bomer) want to make a meaningful picture that will allow them to comment on the rise of Fascist populism, but they’re hemmed in on all sides: Employees want a larger slice of the pie — and are willing to stage a labor action to get it — while bankers and their philistine hangers-on ensure that Brady International will keep churning out saccharine (and successful) musicals starring a Shirley Temple look-alike.
Coming in and out of Brady and Stahr’s offices are a parade of diva actresses, devious newcomers, cranky writers and imperious directors — and the boss’s headstrong daughter Celia (Lily Collins) barges in frequently as well. Viewers will see phenomena familiar to everyone in Hollywood: Brady thrives on the adversity he complains about, and even in good times he seethes at the credit his hot-shot underling gets (even if that underling deserves it). At the core of the drama is the oldest story of Tinseltown: Getting to the top of the ladder usually requires the kind of amorality that makes enjoying the fruits of success exceedingly difficult.
It’s a dilemma made gripping through Grammer’s towering performance in a role he was born to play. Brady is capable of moments of real connection, and even tenderness, but his business acumen is matched by his ability to sabotage himself and those around him — and then play the furious victim when chaos ensues. As Brady, Grammer’s flinty silences are magnetic, his volcanic rage is somehow charismatic and his moments of good cheer and friendship are, miraculously, of a piece with everything else. Brady is a lively con man that you’d want to share a drink with, making sure you never turned your back on him for a second, of course.
Grammer gets the most from all of his scenes, as does Beals, who demonstrates terrific range as a powerful superstar with hidden vulnerabilities. But the show’s core revolves around Monroe, who grew up as a poor Jewish kid on the Lower East Side. He has reinvented himself as the consummate “movie man” — a charming, unflappable executive who can rescue a failing picture, motivate a grousing writer and coach a troubled actress to greatness. Bomer quietly shows the cost of Monroe’s appearance of perfection, as well as the rage he feels when his boss is unpredictable and unfair.
“The Last Tycoon” sometimes misses opportunities to go deeper: It’s obvious why Brady’s long-suffering wife, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt), has fallen out of love with him, but her reasons for forgiving him can be far more difficult to discern. And as the love affairs and rivalries deepen, some subplots simply don’t rise to the level of the best scenes between Brady and Monroe or between Monroe and Kathleen (a fine Dominique McElligott), a mysterious woman who comes into the younger executive’s life.
That said, unlike many other TV dramas, the series doesn’t revel in darkness for its own sake. A scene between a moderately creepy photographer and a naive would-be actress ends before anything truly objectionable happens; a drug addict’s needle is glimpsed but never seen in use. And unlike “Mad Men,” “The Last Tycoon” is not routinely indirect or oblique, but the slightly square sincerity and earnestness of this lovingly crafted series are often winning. Characters come out and say what they’re thinking, and in a party scene in which Monroe has many conflicting objectives, you can be sure a juggler will show up and toss a number of balls in the air. Especially when it comes to the central romance, “The Last Tycoon” recalls the classic melodrama “Rebecca,” where yearning, love and disappointment coexist alongside revenge, anger and the kind of wayward nostalgia Don Draper warned us about.
The truth is, for all its well-appointed period trappings, “The Last Tycoon” excels at depicting one of the most enticing addictions of all — the helpless devotion storytellers have to their craft. Movie men (and women) tell themselves they’re not going to sacrifice their deepest beliefs, or their souls, or the people they love, to the craven gods of Hollywood.
But then they get a wonderful idea, and, like Brady and Monroe, they just can’t help themselves.