The work of Jazz-Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald has been adapted to film time and time again. Still, casual fans might be surprised to know that the author of The Great Gatsby actually did write a tale specifically about the film industry. Called The Last Tycoon, it was published as an unfinished novel after Fizgerald’s death in 1940. Now the book is serving as the basis for a new Amazon series premiering July 28, starring Matt Bomer as a young film producer at the end of Hollywood’s golden age. But is Matt Bomer’s character in The Last Tycoon a real person?
Although there are plenty of great real-life stories to tell about the history of the film industry, The Last Tycoon is undoubtedly fiction and no person named Monroe Stahr ever existed in reality (which makes a lot of sense, because a film tycoon named “Stahr” would be just a bit on the nose). In a 1941 book review of the posthumously published work, The New York Times said that The Last Tycoon "would have been Fitzgerald's best novel” and that the author had "created a memorable figure in [Monroe] Stahr, Hollywood's ‘last tycoon.’”
However, although Monroe Stahr was not a real film producer living in Los Angeles in the 1930s, the character did originally have his roots in real industry history. Publisher’s Weekly notes that Fitzgerald's Stahr was modeled after MGM producer Irving Thalberg, and that his rival and mentor in the book, Pat Brady, was intended to resemble MGM head Louis B. Mayer. The real Thalberg worked under Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1923; at that time, according to Slate’s You Must Remember This podcast, Thalberg was a 23-year-old film executive already known within the industry as a “boy genius." He died at the early age of 37, and is the only film executive to have an honorary Oscar award named after him, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for producing.
But the creators of the Amazon series wanted to try something very different with their interpretation of the book. They added Thalberg in as a character (played by Seth Fisher) so that they could differentiate him from their leading man.
Talking with Bustle and other journalists at a press event for the series, co-showrunner Billy Ray says, "We felt that it was really important to hang a lantern on the fact that Monroe Stahr is Monroe Stahr — that Monroe Stahr is not Irving Thalberg. And the best way to do that was to actually put Irving Thalberg in the piece."
"I think it was actually a really smart call from them, because we were able to sort of part ways and not be tied to just Irving’s story, incredible and parallel as it was," says Bomer. He goes on to explain that he based his performance in the pilot on Thalberg and only realized later that the real-life tycoon would be a part of the script. "I read that huge tome on him and watched a lot of his films in the pilot specifically," the actor says. "Then it really just became about Billy’s vision and the discussions we were having and where he wanted the character to go and the internalized experience he wanted the person to have."
Despite his legacy, Thalberg’s is no longer a household name for anyone but the truly film-obsessed. But The Last Tycoon’s premiere season may inspire audiences to go digging into his story just as Bomer did. Either way, the show’s gorgeous ‘30s aesthetic is a fitting tribute to a bygone era of classic film, and I, for one, can't wait to see where Monroe Stahr's journey goes.