Amazon's lush '30s period piece is far from a documentary. The Last Tycoon premieres July 28 and looks like a beautiful but sometimes terrible dream of what it must have been like to be in Hollywood in that era. Through the course of Season 1, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) tries to immortalize his deceased wife with a film. Is American Dream based on a real movie?
No, while the life and death of Minna Davis, the wife of youthful studio head, is certainly the type of tragedy that would be found on a Golden Age of Hollywood marquee — glitz and glamour mixed with outsized emotions were a specialty of the time. But American Dream, the film-within-a-TV-show about silent film star Minna Davis' life is entirely fictional.
Regardless, The Last Tycoon is inspired, in many ways, by the real history behind Hollywood. The original The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, was explicitly based on the real studio head Irving Thalberg and his boss, Louis B. Mayer. In the series, Monroe will be a more unique figure. The Fitzgerald biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur claims that Thalberg's real wife — early film star Norma Shearer — believed Monroe to be nothing like her husband. Monroe is young, talented, and was married to Minna Davis, an film star like Shearer, but the similarities to Thalberg basically stop there.
American Dream, Monroe's epic retelling of his wife's life, is one of the major differences between the novel and the show. With the project, "Monroe is trying to fill an un-fillable hole in a lot of ways," showrunner Billy Ray says at a press event attended by Bustle. The audience learns early on that Monroe has a serious heart condition. "On a professional level, because he feels he’s going to die young, he has to make this one perfect piece of art and somehow success or adulation or legacy will fill that hole that’s going to be left by dying young," Ray adds.
In real life, Thalberg died from pneumonia at only 37-years-old. "Irving Thalberg was beyond any question the greatest individual force for fine pictures that we have ever known," David O. Selznik said to The Los Angeles Times in 1936. Shearer (perhaps the model for Minna Davis) outlived her husband for many decades, and continued acting until the early 1940s, when she retired.
But here's one last similarity between the real Thalberg and his fictional counterpart. According to Thalberg: Life & Legend, Observer film critic C.J. Lejeune said, "If [Thalberg] believed in a man, or a project, or a story, he would stake everything on his conviction." That obsessive quality characterizes both Thalberg's quest to make epics like the original Ben-Hur, and Monroe Stahr's desire to make American Dream both the perfect film and the perfect tribute to his late wife.
Additional reporting by Sage Young.