‘The Last Tycoon’ and the Erasure of Hollywood Labor
The opening credits of Amazon’s original series The Last Tycoon begin with a blank page threaded into a typewriter. Keys clack, stage directions are typed: “A woman stands alone on a stage.” Cut to a brush on a storyboard panel, this woman in a silver dress. Then a close-up of scissors cutting fabric for the dress, followed by flashes of costuming, makeup, and lighting lead us step by step through the process of staging this scene. In brief, The Last Tycoon fetishizes the means of its own production, and in so doing it overtly dramatizes the struggles of labor against capital in a manner that suggests the show will be sympathetic to the unacknowledged workers that make Hollywood possible. But like so many illusions created by this industry, the show actually pushes us to identify with the requirements of capital and the owner class, against our own best interests.
The series is an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. Amazon’s abridged title, in the spirit of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, redirects this love from an external object toward the tycoon himself. The opening credit roll ends with the actress in the silver dress, onstage under the harsh lights, as our view pans to show the camera filming her and behind it the tycoon, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), watching. A generous interpretation would see the woman as the missing object of his love, appearing to be the same woman (Jessica De Gouw) who in flashback scenes plays the fictional actress Minna Davis, Stahr’s dead wife. Or the film being shot and by extension the artistry of film, or us, the audience, could be the object of the tycoon’s love. But this is a highly mediated love; one must remember Davis and the finished film are commodities for sale, contractually owned by Stahr.
A closer reading of the gaze and subject positions will note that we are not seeing this hypothetical film, but rather we are on stage behind Davis and under the same controlling gaze of Stahr. As with so much streaming content today, viewers are both consumer and commodity. We are the paying audience, but as an audience demographic and increasingly as individual viewers, we are packaged and sold to advertisers or other interests. The Last Tycoon itself, too, is not offered solely as an art object, but as a lure for other Amazon Prime services. Appropriate, then, that we find ourselves bound up here with the commodity and its production.
Like any Hollywood procedural, normally hidden aspects of film production often drive the plot. What’s interesting about The Last Tycoon, with respect to our contemporary moment and Amazon specifically, is the overt treatment of labor relations, union organizing, and the interests of the ownership class at the height of the Great Depression.
The series centers on the fictional Hollywood studio Brady America, a small underdog relative to its giant nemesis MGM. Patrick Brady (Kelsey Grammer) owns and operates the studio as a mogul would run any business. In Fitzgerald’s words, he “was in the picture business as another man might be in cotton or steel.” In contrast, Stahr is the creative genius, the messianic artist entrepreneur, charismatic and obsessed with creating the one perfect film that will mean something, last forever, and secure his legacy.
The film we see Stahr producing in Episode One is the biographical story of his late wife, titled The American Dream: The Minna Davis Story. The title is apt, for the ways the narrative of this film and The Last Tycoon itself reinforce the American Dream myth are too numerous to list. To quickly summarize: Minna Davis and her brother emigrate from Ireland as children, travelling in steerage of course, and find themselves penniless in Brooklyn until the day Minna is discovered by a talent scout. She becomes an instant sensation and her brother is then also hired by Brady as a screenwriter. The heavy handed message being simply that anyone can make it, which is true: any ne can make it in our system, but out of the millions of starving poor it will be only one, two, a few dozen who rise to accumulate any wealth at all.
Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode, we find ourselves in a conversation about union organizing, again suggesting that labor power and solidarity will be important themes. Brady’s daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), wanders the studio lot collecting donations for the Spanish resistance to Franco, marking her instantly as a naïve young leftist. She stops in the writers’ room and when she notices a union flyer, one of the series’ main writer-characters, Aubrey Hackett (Enzo Cilenti), asks her: “Do you believe in them?”
Celia: “Unions? Of course, I talk to my father about it all the time.”
Aubrey: “So why is he about to build his Park Avenue set—”
Celia: “Non-union? I don’t know. Guess I’m kind of a joke to you.”
Aubrey: “No. Jokes are funny.”
Indeed, unionization was no joke in 1930s America, and The Last Tycoon does not shy away from the violent suppression of union organizing. Celia and Hackett meet again in Episode Two, and they go together to a secret meeting of workers interested in joining a union, which gets interrupted by union-busters smashing the cars parked outside. A fistfight breaks out between Hackett and one of the thugs.
The workers’ scene is juxtaposed with another late-night meeting, one between Brady, Stahr & the chair of Brady American’s board of directors, in which the studio’s financial solvency is thrown into question. In short, the board plans to oust Brady and assume direct control of the studio. Stahr says to the chairman: “Tomorrow you might decide this lot would be worth more as an airfield, or a factory, and you’d do it, wouldn’t you?” The implication obviously being that the financial security of the studio is the only thing keeping the employees from the penury of the Hooverville across from the lot, seen in the first episode. This magnanimity of the owner class is a recurring theme in the nine episodes of the season, with the owner class portrayed, to use a contemporary phrase, as the job creators.
So we have the threat of the entire studio going under on one hand, the unfair conditions of the working class on the other & a mass of surplus labor just outside the gates. Unmentioned is the fact that this pool of surplus labor is a feature of capitalism, not a bug & that the specter of unemployment perpetuates both downward wage pressure and the myth of the owner as savior. This is even made explicit in two scenes of financial rescue, first when Brady’s nemesis Louis B. Mayer (the Mayer in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) bails him out with a loan, after which Mayer says: “Do you freely accept that I am your personal Lord and Savior?” Later, Brady steals this line and repeats it verbatim to Max Miner (Mark O’Brien), one of the underclass from the Hooverville and a major character in his own right, whom he has hired as an errand boy.
The inherent goodness of the owner class that The Last Tycoon would like us to see is personified in Celia, the progressive daughter who demonstrates for us that greed is a function of personality, rather than wealth and the systemic needs of capital. Celia desires a life in film along the lines of Stahr, the lone genius who holds the disparate elements of film production together. For Celia, as for Stahr, cinema is an art and a social good; when Stahr hires her to produce a new film she successfully pitched to him, she feels the need to learn first-hand the studio trades. To start at the bottom, as it were.
Toward the end of Episode Two, then, she approaches the head seamstress in the wardrobe department to start there. This cliché of the boss’s daughter rolling up her sleeves is interesting not for the way it portrays Celia, but the way it encourages us to think about work as an individual rather than collective endeavor. Celia finds the wardrobe manager in the shop alone, , and she asks: “Why do you have to come in so early?”
The woman, aging and slower than the others, responds: “It takes me a couple extra hours. I like to keep up.”
“Can I help you?” Celia asks.
“It’s not yours to do, honey.”
“Can I help? I think I should work here for a while. Not for pay, I wouldn’t want to take a job from anyone, I just, I just need the education.”
At first, Celia appears to be good-natured and selfless. She doesn’t need work to support herself, but wants to apprentice in the trades, so she offers her labor for free. But she delivers this as a directive instead of a request, and the manager is correct: this work is not hers to do. Any work she performs is work not needed from the paid employees. From the perspective of Celia’s capitalist father, it would be ideal to have five, ten, a thousand such daughters toiling away for the free education. Again, we are firmly on the side of the ownership class, sympathizing with the eager young girl, toiling away beneath her station in miserable conditions, conditions described multiple times by Brady himself when he learns of Celia’s decision as “a sweatshop.”
The disingenuousness of The Last Tycoon’s focus on and apparent sympathy for the labor struggle is on full display in Episode Seven, “A More Perfect Union.” In the wake of ongoing cash flow problems, Brady unilaterally, without warning, slashes employee salaries 30% across the board with a boilerplate letter. Imagine reporting to work one morning and finding a note in your mailbox informing you your pay will be nearly a third less than it was yesterday. When Stahr learns, he demands to know if Brady has cut his salary. Brady answers: “I had to, it would have looked awful.” Though it still looks awful, because while a larger dollar amount, a 30% cut is felt much less by the highest earners than the lowest.
Furious, Stahr responds: “Take all of it, I’ll work without pay until this is resolved.” Must be nice to have the luxury of foregoing your entire salary indefinitely. Reminiscent of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple, when he worked for a salary of a single dollar a year (we tend to forget his stock options and personal use of a private jet), Stahr is clearly the compassionate capitalist as opposed to Brady’s predatory approach. Naturally Brady’s arbitrary cruelty outrages the viewer, and we should be firmly on the side of labor throughout the episode. But The Last Tycoon uses Stahr to divert sympathy toward the studio and the owners, as does Brady—and this is a crucial point to which we will return. In his disgust with Brady’s decision, Stahr says: “You can’t treat people this way and expect them to do good work, Pat.”
Brady replies: “No, but you can. They love you, they trust you, you’re a sun god around here. Now go out there and explain it to them until they understand.”
Stahr’s personal charisma, and the higher mission of art, of “good work,” allows him to demand sacrifices from the employees that Brady on his own never could. The emotional attachment to the charismatic leader and the work itself are supposed to compensate for wage theft, in the same way it is viewed as unseemly for teachers to ask for pay raises. Money is always a bit dirty in these contexts because passion for teaching and love for the students should be their own reward; if they are not you are in the wrong career.
Even so, the writers stage a one-day walkout, then bring in Mark Brimmer (Joseph Lyle Taylor), a fictional Executive Director of the Screenwriters Guild of America, to meet with Stahr. This scene and its aftermath are worth unpacking in detail, as they lay out the core unrealistic relationship between owner and worker that The Last Tycoon would like us to believe.
The union boss is portrayed as more of a fat cat insider than the capitalists themselves, especially relative to Stahr, who states his view plainly: “My problem with you [Brimmer] is a walkout wouldn’t cost you a dime, but it would hurt their careers immeasurably and shut down this lot. And for what?” In other words, we are to see the union as the parasitic entity—not the studio extracting profit from the workers’ labor. The union stands between the collective, creative mission of the writers and Stahr.
Brimmer has no uninterrupted lines in the exchange with Stahr and Brady, who walks in uninvited on the meeting. Stahr is the focus of the scene, and talks around Brimmer more than to him even when Brimmer addresses him directly. When Brimmer mentions fair compensation, Stahr replies: “We compensate our writers better than any other shop in town.” Hackett concedes this. Once again, we’re shown the benevolence of individual capitalists and the tired neoliberal line that unions bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator.
To Hackett, Stahr says: “You’re jeopardizing the jobs of people who can’t afford to be out of work like you can. The grips, costumers, drivers.” Think of the less privileged employees, Stahr is saying, yet those lower-paid employees are also now making 30% less than they were. A job, any job, even for scraps is better than the alternative, according to The Last Tycoon. Strikes and walkouts do hurt workers, it’s true, but the short-term suffering is often necessary for long-term gains—or at least to halt the slide of continual wage suppression. The Last Tycoon would have us think the workers and owners are all in this together. Hackett rightly accuses Stahr: “You just robbed your entire workforce of a living wage. What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to make pictures,” Stahr says. “And they’re going to make money, and then everyone will be restored to their rightful salary and all this will be forgotten. Until then, we’ll just have to weather this, like every other struggling corporation in America.”
The Royal We. We will have to weather this… the poor, struggling corporation. Who determines the “rightful” salaries is left unaddressed, of course. In retaliation, the writers organize a studio-wide work stoppage, timed to coincide with a visit by the full board of directors. They design the stoppage to inflict maximum humiliation on Brady while minimally interrupting production, and it achieves the intended effect. The studio is a ghost town when Brady leads the board on a tour of the facilities. Brady describes the employees as “just children, throwing a tantrum to embarrass me.” But the board gives Brady an ultimatum: “Get your house in order or we’ll find someone who will.” Brady relents, and restores salaries to previous levels.
Afterward, Stahr confronts Hackett, who is drinking in a diner with Brimmer. “Congratulations, Aubrey,” he begins. Hackett offers him a drink, to the wage restoration and to solidarity. Stahr refuses both explicitly, then continues: “I know you think you won something today. But you don’t see what you lost.”
“Where did he find the money,” Hackett asks. “Under a mattress?”
“No. We’ll just have less operating capital, so we’ll make two less movies next year, or develop a few less scripts. Or Enemy gets a few less shooting days, or less money for sets, or maybe all of it. Hard to say.”
It is crucial to point out here that Stahr truly believes these are all important. For the studio, for the workers, for art. Maybe even for society as a whole, if we accept that commercial cinema can be a public good on par with more classically acknowledged arts and literature. But the writers and other workers will not benefit from increased operating capital. So long as the studio stays afloat and they retain their jobs, their salaries remain the same. Expansion would be nice, more jobs would be nice, but this is not a profit-sharing enterprise. Stahr expects everyone to sacrifice together while weathering the storm, but increased revenues are distributed only to the top.
The next person to speak is Brimmer, who finally has a chance to deliver an uninterrupted line: “Doesn’t matter where he found the money, Mr. Stahr, just that he adequately pays his workforce. News of this will spread. To other studios, across the city, the whole nation, maybe the world. Until people see that it’s the working men and women who ought to be in charge.”
“You really believe that?” Stahr asks. “You think you can start a revolution?”
“No. But I think someone like you very well might.” Brimmer is the only one to see Stahr clearly here for what he is and for his role in the exploitation of the working class, but this line rings hollow. Had it been delivered to Brady it would be obvious, or had Brimmer not been undercut via characterization and contrast with Stahr throughout the episode. But every tool at The Last Tycoon’s disposal is marshalled in service of Stahr as the protagonist. And here we return to the relationship between Brady and Stahr, with a spoiler alert regarding a very small detail in Stahr’s backstory that is delivered in a throwaway line, as well the disposition of their relationship at season’s end.
Brady discovered Monroe Stahr, born Sternberg in the show, while Stahr was working in a circus. The backstory serves no plot function in the first season but does add an air of mystery and reinforces Stahr as a type, the self-made man. In this case, though, self-made is supplemented by Brady. In Episode Eight, Stahr tells Brady: “You invented me, remember.”
“How could I forget, probably be the first line in my obituary,” Brady says with a chuckle. This appears self-deprecating, and throughout the season being eclipsed by Stahr has been a source of intense resentment, but in truth the ruthless capitalist wants and in fact needs the congenial face of Stahr. Just look at what is happening to the system right now, with perfectly normal corruption, exploitation, and wealth extraction nakedly exposed by the coarseness of Donald Trump and his cabinet appointments.
During a confrontation in Episode Nine, the season finale, Stahr tells Brady: “I got you everything you wanted. I got you respect,” and in a later scene at the end of the episode, he says: “I would have stayed loyal to you until the end.” The dynamics are clear, in that Stahr is a prop, a pretty face to cover the vicious requirements of capital. It is Stahr who is making possible everything Brady achieved. As long as we are in thrall to Stahr’s charisma, we direct our frustrations and hatred toward Brady as a loathsome individual and ignore the systemic reality that both Brady and Stahr represent. And as Malcolm X said in response to the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson: “The shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf. So they created an alternative.” In The Last Tycoon Stahr is that alternative, and in our day to day lives the media idolatry of so-called genius entrepreneurs like Bezos and Elon Musk are that alternative.
Brimmer, the union boss, was the only one to see that the capitalists, whether ruthless in the mold of Brady or charismatic like Stahr, might eventually force a workers’ revolution if left unchecked. It remains an open question if viewers will agree, in the face of so many ideological tools working ceaselessly to convince us otherwise.
Ultimately The Last Tycoon’s labor message is little more than Ayn Randian propaganda in the service of Amazon and other corporate entitles: Great Men must be free to do Great Things. But the relationship dynamics between Brady and Stahr illustrate the means by which the charming, charismatic neoliberal supposedly benefits those whom he exploits and leaves us grateful for the opportunity to be thus exploited. Because the wolf always looks worse.
Update: The Last Tycoon was cancelled on Sep. 9, before this article was written.