Born to play Monroe Stahr

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Tuesday August 8, 2017
Share this Post:

F. Scott Fitzgerald died before he finished his final novel, "The Last Tycoon." The book was published by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, after Fitzgerald's untimely death at 44. The timing for a story about Hollywood, anti-Semitism, misogyny and the rise of Fascism certainly feels perfect, what with our reality-TV-star president who surrounds himself with white nationalists.

Amazon's new series based on the novel debuted Aug. 4. It is beautiful, lush and very good. It is also replete with several searing portrayals, among them the two leads, Matt Bomer as Monroe Stahr, a Jewish widower and film producer rising through the ranks under the tutelage of Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), head of Brady American Pictures. The series is set at the height of 1930s filmmaking, when men were men and moving pictures stood between America and the grim realities of the Great Depression and the lurking menace of Hitler's Germany.

Grammer's Brady is genius. In recent years, the Emmy-winning Grammer has broadened his métier to include a wider range of roles than the classic comedy that made him a star on "Cheers" and "Frasier." In 2010 he was nominated for a Tony for his role in Harvey Fierstein's "La Cage Aux Folles," and he had Tony nods for several other musicals. In 2011-12, Grammer starred in the Starz series "Boss," playing a fictional mayor of Chicago similar to Richard J. Daley. Brady, whom Fitzgerald based on Louis B. Mayer, is a tyrant, a womanizer and a man at emotional and professional sea. He's both mentoring the young and handsome Monroe Stahr, whom Fitzgerald based on Irving Thalberg, and trying to keep him under his control. Brady wants credit for creating Stahr, but Stahr is very much his own creation.

Bomer, who began his acting career on "Guiding Light" 15 years ago, has been broadening his own oeuvre. A perennial pretty face and perfect body starring in mainstream fluff like "Magic Mike," Bomer added a wry insouciance in his five years as Neal Caffrey on "White Collar." His roles in "The Normal Heart" and "American Horror Story" proved he's more than a comedian and his classic good looks. As "The Last Tycoon" opens, one sees Bomer was made to play Monroe Stahr. Not only does he look the part of a handsome 1930s Hollywood icon falling in with the glitterati, but the same nuanced portrayal he gave in "Normal Heart" is on display here.

Stahr's still distraught over the sudden death of his actress wife. So when Brady's daughter Celia (archly played by Lily Collins) throws herself at him, we see the wash of emotions that overtakes him. Bomer is superb at showing us the guises Stahr has to adopt as he navigates through the cutthroat studio system legendary for annihilating the weak and demonizing the strong. It's an Emmy-worthy performance and the best of Bomer's career to date.

Fitzgerald was fixated on this world of the rich and famous, and that world is brought vividly to life in "Last Tycoon." Brady is struggling to keep his studio afloat in the midst of a disastrous economy and personal life. Stahr is aware of his Jewishness as Hitler rises across the pond. He's equally aware of the void left by the death of his wife and his own ambition.

There are some stellar roles for women in this series as well, which is heartening. In addition to Collins, Rosemarie DeWitt is extraordinary as Brady's disillusioned wife; Jennifer Beals, an underrated actress, gives a great performance as Margo Taft. Jessica DeGouw plays Minna Davis, Stahr's wife; and Dominique McElligott is pitch-perfect as Kathleen Moore, the woman with whom Stahr becomes obsessed. Amazon is doing some fabulous series: "House of Cards," "Transparent," "One Mississippi," which returns in Sept. "The Last Tycoon" is one of them.


Mist trap

The gay storyline embedded in "The Mist" took a complicated turn in the Aug. 3 episode (spoilers ahead). Adrian (Russell Posner) and Tyler (Christopher Gray) are lying on a bed together in the hospital where they are trapped by the mist. Adrian asks Tyler, "What is the worst thing you've ever done?"

Tyler tells Adrian a story from his dark closet, the place where he must attack every boy who sees the gay in him, the way we saw him attack Adrian in the bathroom at the hospital. It's an ugly, violent tale of a boy whom he bullied, who then smiled at him one day, cutting him to the quick. Tyler tells Adrian he twisted the boy's arm so hard he broke it, then pissed on him. Still the boy wouldn't give up. Is that boy Adrian? Is this a story of what came before the mist or the party? Tyler rolls over on the bed and gets on top of Adrian and we fear for Adrian, but he just kisses him, lightly, then lays behind him, holding him. They fall asleep together, spooning.

When Tyler wakes up, Adrian is missing. He searches for him in a panic. Kevin (Morgan Spector) doesn't know where he is. Together they search, only to find the man in the psych ward where they are hiding has Adrian bound and gagged, planning to torture him to death as he has several other people, whose bodies have been stacked in a utility closet. He tells Kevin he can see the evil in Adrian and must get it out. He tells a story of being in Catholic school and being taught by a nun to flagellate her. There's a lot of religion vs. nature in this series. Religion doesn't fare well.

Several heart-pounding scenes later, Adrian is saved by Kevin. Tyler grabs him and takes him to sit in the hallway. Adrian tells Tyler that when he was afraid he would die he was thinking of the things he hadn't yet done, and that all he wants to do is hold hands with another boy in public.

"I never held a guy's hand. I promised myself if I survived I would hold a guy's hand. Hold it. Walk down the street, not give a shit. Who cares," Adrian says. He takes Tyler's hand, and they hold hands, briefly. Tyler is suffering from the intimacy. His pain is palpable. He's never going to survive coming out. We can see it so plainly, it's heartbreaking.

Kevin comes and tells the boys they have to leave. Tyler says he's going to stay there in the hospital. "After this is over I can go back home, back to normal," he says. After Kevin and Adrian leave, he slides lower on the floor, sobbing. It's one of the most realistic gay moments we've seen on TV and the most gutting because we know there are thousands of boys like Tyler trying to beat the gay out of themselves by attacking other queers. What a tragedy. Bravo to "The Mist" for showing it in such emotive detail.

"We're only nine missed meals from anarchy." So says Eve (Alyssa Sutherland) about how long it will be before those trapped in the mall by "The Mist" will go "Lord of the Flies." Eve is referencing Alfred Henry Lewis, an American journalist who said it in 1906. We wonder if there's an extrapolation from Stephen King's dystopian small-town Maine to the larger sphere of American politics. Watching Trump ginning up a rally in West Virginia on Aug. 3, which not coincidentally was the same date in 1934 that Adolf Hitler declared himself Fuehrer, we heard Trump again declare he had won votes he did not win, and that the free press was fake news. He barely skirted calls for anarchy against the majority of voters, people who didn't vote for him. That rally should have scared the bejeesus out of anyone sentient watching it replay on every network. It could have been filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, it was so "Triumph of the Will."

Even though Fox News has become State TV (it's the only network allowed on the monitors in the White House, according to sources), Shepard Smith, Fox's token voice of sanity (who is, naturally, openly gay), regularly takes Trump to task. Smith said on his Aug. 3 broadcast that the leaked transcripts of Trump's embarrassing phone calls to Nieto and Turnbull proved Trump's Feb. 3 Twitter rant asserting "Fake News lied!" about the phone calls was itself a lie.

"The media did not lie. We reported the truth," Smith said. "Then Trump misrepresented the truth, not for the first time. Now the White House is focusing on the leaks that let the world know the truth." Smith was excoriated. Calls for his firing were rampant. "Why is it lie after lie after lie? There are still people out there who believe we're making it up," Smith said. "And one day they're gonna realize we're not and look around and go, 'Where are we, and why are we getting told all these lies?'"

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), one of the faces of Resistance, was on "The View" Aug. 4 talking politics. Her amazing "reclaiming my time" exchange with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has gone viral and become a mantra for the Resistance. Waters was asked, "Any truth to rumors you'll run for president?" Waters replied, "I am not running for anything except the impeachment of Trump." Yas queen.


Whitney be

Speaking of queens we love, Showtime has shifted the premiere date of its Whitney Houston documentary "Whitney: Can I Be Me?" to Fri., Aug. 25. It was scheduled for Aug, 26, but that's now the date for the Floyd Mayweather Jr./Conor McGregor fight that will air on Showtime PPV live from Las Vegas. We know you want to see Whitney and not two men beat the crap out of each other for money. The Whitney doc by noted and controversial filmmaker Nick Broomfield debuted in April at the Tribeca film festival. Broomfield narrates the film.

Will we ever tire of Whitney? Not those of us who were living in the clubs in the 80s when she was part of the soundtrack of our gay lives. There are several trailers for Broomfield's documentary (which did not get approval from her estate) available on YouTube. It's clear the documentary encapsulates the drama that was her life, from choir girl to club queen to addict whose voice was killed by cocaine, the woman who "was paying for their cars, their houses" of everyone around her who was broke at the end of her life, forced to go on tour to keep others living in the style to which they'd become accustomed. Clive Davis, who discovered her and adored her, tried to keep her from the embarrassment of singing live when she no longer could carry a tune.

One aspect of the film that wouldn't have been approved by the estate is Whitney's bisexuality. Although she was enmeshed in her complicated and, what seemed from the outside, abusive relationship with Bobby Brown, she also had a longtime relationship with her friend Robyn Crawford, which Broomfield details through interviews with others close to Whitney.

"I don't think she was gay, I think she was bisexual," says her stylist Ellin Levar. But Bloomfield asserts that Whitney's relationship with Crawford was covered up by the singer's family and estate after her death. In a 2013 interview, Houston's mother, Cissy Houston, told Oprah she would not have condoned a relationship between Whitney and Crawford. Was that another source of conflict for Whitney, driving her to addiction?

Broomfield told Newsweek, "I think a lot of people were cruel to her toward the end of her life, so it seemed like a good opportunity to look at her life again and celebrate what was so amazing. And maybe look at the harshness with which she was treated at the end."

Broomfield also said, "We have 14 songs in the film which were her main hits, we have incredible live performances of the songs, the most unusual behind-the-scenes footage that anyone has ever seen. The estate completely disapproved of Robyn Crawford and wanted to obliterate the memory of Robyn from their version of Whitney Houston. I would have enormous problems [with that], because I make these films to be real and true."

That remarkable, iconic voice is the fundament for the documentary; it can't be silenced. But the sadness of what became of Whitney is gutting, from her descent into the hell of addiction to her tragic death in 2012. We know we'll be watching, because we can't look away. Whitney was a soundtrack to our gay lives.

Our fast five shows you should be watching as the summer winds down include "Comrade Detective," another Amazon series that debuted Aug. 4, starring Channing Tatum; USA's superb psychological thriller "The Sinner" that debuted Aug. 2, starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman; Freeform's "The Bold Type," with a spectacular lesbian storyline; TLC's "Growing Up Evancho," a reality series that runs the gamut from Jackie Evancho's life as a child prodigy opera singer to her much-maligned performance at Trump's inaugural to her sibling Juliet coming out trans; and another season of Masterpiece Mystery, "Endeavor" on PBS.

So for last tycoons and lost gay boys, for the rise and fall of stars we hate and love, and that house of cards in Washington, you know you must stay tuned.