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F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One have similar messages about Tinseltown: It will chew you up and spit you out.
Both authors were Hollywood outsiders, intellectuals unimpressed by the industry's culture who were nonetheless drawn to it by the promise of financial gain. Waugh, the English novelist and critic, came to town for a short stay in 1947, not long after the publication of his most enduring work, Brideshead Revisited, which a studio was interested in turning into a film. (Though for all the wrong reasons, in Waugh's opinion.)
St. Paul native Fitzgerald, however, was near-destitute, and arrived in 1937 with the intention of reviving his career. He died there while writing The Last Tycoon; for him, Hollywood was a tragedy.
For Waugh, however, Hollywood was a comedy, and many of the negative characteristics we associate with inhabitants of the film industry today — ruthlessness, cowardice, vapidness — are embodied in Waugh's 1948 work. English ex-pat Sir Francis Hinsley is a studio script-writer who, after an absence from his office, returns to work to find that his desk has been reassigned.
“I've spent half the morning clearing junk out of this room,” says the man who has taken his place. “Seems it belonged to some old Britisher who just kicked off.”
“I am that Britisher and I have not kicked off.”
“Mighty glad to hear it. Hope there wasn't anything you valued in the junk.”
It slowly dawns on Hinsley that he has been fired, although no one will admit to him as much. It's the type of sleazy industry machinations that would be depicted in Entourage 60 years later.
But Waugh doesn't just skewer Hollywood; he also sets his sites on Los Angelenos, who in the story give their pets elaborate funerals at cheekily-named funeral parlor Happier Hunting Ground. This establishment employs the main character, an aspiring British poet called Dennis Barlow who shares a house with Hinsley. Upon the latter's suicide, Barlow makes arrangements at an even more posh funeral home called Whispering Glades, this one for humans. There he meets his love interest, corpse cosmetician to the stars Aimée Thanatogenos, whom Waugh uses to mock Americans generally: Though cute and ambitious, she is utterly uncultured, unable to recognize the famous works of poetry that Barlow passes off as his own in seduction attempts.
If it sounds hilarious, it is, a quick, gag-filled read featuring many, many jokes about embalming. All these decades later its depiction of the local landscape and culture feels familiar. We remain a well-meaning lot but one with comically misaligned priorities, cheerfully chasing our silly dreams.
The terrain of The Last Tycoon, however, feels more alien. Fitzgerald's posthumously-released 1941 novel goes into great detail about how movies were made in the 1930s, a mess of vast, bizarrely-constructed sets of jungles and swamps, all-consuming labor struggles, and strange social mores.
The title character Monroe Stahr, however, is a vivid, immediately recognizable archetype, the charismatic leader who makes things happen through strong vision and loads of self-confidence. His first scenes see him stalking about studio lots, micromanaging films and trying to get stressed-out, overpaid underlings to, literally, see the big picture. It's not so much that he has a passion for his work as that he can't imagine life any other way, and his health and sanity hang in the balance.
The work evolves into a love story that unfolds, naturally, like a Hollywood film. After a fleeting encounter with a woman who looks like his dead wife, Stahr tracks her down and spends a magical day with her, before learning that she's to be married the next day. Though he could have his pick of starlets, her appeal is that she lives in a world outside of Hollywood. She represents his last chance to escape intact.
No spoilers here, but of course Fitzgerald himself didn't make it out of Hollywood alive. Intended to be a fat novel — more Tender Is the Night than The Great Gatsby — only about half the book, it seems, was completed, and the rest of Fitzgerald's intended story is revealed in a Cliffs Notes-like narrative at the end.
Both The Loved One and The Last Tycoon are tremendous works that hold up well, and were Fitzgerald's story seen through to the end it might have the edge. But Waugh's mid-century comedy of manners is so uproarious that it's our choice here.
Winner: The Loved One
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