At this past week’s Ebertfest many filmgoers experienced Robert De Niro’s 1993 A Bronx Tale, which was his directorial debut. In the early 1970s, when the film world first discovered De Niro, shortly after he won the Oscar in The Godfather II, and just after making Martin Scorsese’s The Taxi Driver, De Niro collaborated with legendary director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire) on The Last Tycoon. This 1976 hidden gem, which is based on the last unfinished novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was adapted by the famed playwright Harold Pinter.
This tale of Monroe Stahr, the fictionalized version of the studio head/producer Irving Thalberg who died at the age of 37, became one of De Niro’s greater challenges. He plays totally against his type of the streetwise tough guy. The story not only concerns the high powered world of the Hollywood executive, it concerns Stahr’s mourning of his late beloved wife and his quest for ideal love. Like Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, Stahr is in love with a beautiful, green eyed woman he meets on a set one day. This character, Kathleen Moore, would be played by English actress Ingrid Boulting.
Kazan, who was known for his work with some of Hollywood’s finest “method actors”, was overjoyed to work with De Niro, as was De Niro to work with a master who respected the craft of the actor. Shawn Levy’s notes in his 2014 biography, De Niro, A Life, reflecting on his previous works, De Niro felt clearly up to the challenge and immediate relief. “It was like going from the darkest depths to light and inspiration, from black to white, from total angst to being with Kazan and Sam Spiegel (the producer).” They treated Pinter’s screenplay like a stage play, with no changes permitted, without his approval. That left De Niro “to dive into the psychological and emotional subtleties (of his character) in almost a theoretical way…But he loved that sort of thing and Kazan encouraged it, inspiring him to dig in.”
Kazan also knew he would mold De Niro into the character of Stahr. “Bobby never played an executive, he’s never played an intellectual; he’s never played a lover. I had to find that side of him, it was unexplored territory.” Kazan further recalls in his autobiography, A Life, how hard De Niro worked at creating the workaholic Stahr. “Bobby was the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.” Unlike De Niro’s immense weight gain for the lead role in Raging Bull, Kazan remembers “he would do almost anything to succeed, in this case cutting down his weight from almost 170 to 128 pounds. By the time we began to photograph him in the scenes he actually looked frail.”
Pinter rewrote and creatively reimagined a new ending from the sketched notes of Fitzgerald’s. He cut the narration of a secondary character, Cecilia Brady, but maintained and remained faithful to a lot of Fitzgerald’s language verbatim.
Kazan selected a remarkable ensemble of supporting characters to enhance this story. Robert Mitchum plays Pat Brady, a veteran studio head who is uneasy playing second fiddle to Stahr. Tony Curtis is an aging matinee idol, named Rodriguez, and French star Jeanne Moreau is his bitchy counterpart, Didi. Donald Pleasence is an alcoholic screenwriter, named Boxley. Oscar winner Ray Milland is Mr. Fleishacker, a studio lawyer and Dana Andrews is Red Ridingwood, a has-been director. Teresa Russell is Cecilia Brady, Pat’s daughter. Jack Nicholson plays Brimmer, a New York City labor organizer and John Carradine, a simple studio guide. There is even an unbilled guest cameo by Lew Ayres, the star of the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.
Oddly enough this quality film failed to find an audience at the box office, apparently audiences loved the tougher, less gentle De Niro and it turned out to be Kazan’s cinematic swan song.