If you’re still waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (and aren’t we all?), consider a different Amazon series about Jews in entertainment: The Last Tycoon. The show premiered its pilot on Amazon over a year ago, and now, in a week, the rest of the season debuts at once, in bingeable glory.
The series is an adaptation of an unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about the life and tribulations of Monroe Stahr (born Milton Sternberg, played by Matt Bomer), a Jewish Hollywood producer in the 1930s. The most common association with Fitzgerald and the Jews is the unfortunate stereotype Meyer Wolfsheim, and Fitzgerald was unarguably both racist and anti-Semitic specifically. But he was at turns also fascinated with the Chosen People, his relationship with them sometimes complex. Stahr, while a trope of the Jewish Hollywood producer (he was based on MGM’s wunderkind, Irving Thalberg), is by no means a stereotype in the vein of Wolfsheim. He is instead a flawed, but complex and compelling, ultimately well-intentioned individual—“the kind of protagonist that handily holds together ambitious multi-plot TV shows like this.
And boy, are there a lot of plots. As a movie mogul, Stahr is constantly spinning plates, delivering just the right pithy statement to set the production for a film back on track (Paint the backside of the set piece! Give the child actor a dog!). Picture Hail, Caesar!, but without the Coen Brothers’ Jewish humor, and with a Jewish protagonist.
Beyond actually getting movies made, Stahr has constant power struggles with his boss, with employees grumblings about unions, and of course, with countless women who sadden and disinterest him.You see, Stahr is still mourning for his wife, an actor who died in a fire two years prior, and is trying to get a movie made about her life. The Nazi government is demanding that the studio does not make movies with Aryan villains or with Jewish heroes. And Stahr, with disgust, must also fire Jews in the Berlin office, or lose the huge German foreign market. And to top it all off, the end of the pilot reveals that our hero has a congenital heart defect, and his days are numbered. His incipient mortality may sound melodramatic, but the ailment is based on reality; Thalberg only made it to 37.
Throw in a plot about Okies making camp in a Hooverville outside the studio, the boss’s daughter raising money for Spanish Loyalists, and a plan to make a subversive anti-Nazi film, and the hour-long episode is so jam-packed with 1930s history it has cultural touchstones oozing out of its ears. For better or worse, it has enough distance from Fitzgerald’s time to emphasize certain issues, like creating the plot line about Nazi influence on Hollywood, and emphasizing Stahr’s struggle with anti-Semitism.
Matt Bomer is a generically attractive Stahr (as contrast, Robert De Niro once played the role in a flop movie adaptation), and nothing about him reads “raised in a tenement.” His Stahr is fully assimilated, and blends seamlessly, giving away no overt clues as to his background in mannerism, or accent. In a twist that confounds the likes of What Makes Sammy Run? narratives, this studio executive emphasizes his own Jewishness, and has no desire to hide it, even though he might well be able to do so.
“It’s impossible, if you’re Jewish, not to at least engage in the fantasy of what life would be like if you weren’t Jewish, good or bad,” Billy Ray, the show’s writer and director told the Jewish Chronicle. “Monroe is balancing the reality of being Milton Sternberg with the perks of being Monroe Stahr, and I identify with that struggle.”
You can watch Stahr struggle (and smolder) in The Last Tycoon, streaming on Amazon, one episode for now, and the rest beginning on Friday, July 28.