The film is a Roman à clef - it draws inspiration from the life of the famed MGM film producer Irving Thalberg. The monochrome first scene – a 1920s classic beauty in the arms of a cigar puffing mafia boss, the characteristic bloodied shootout in the diner which leaves him dead- and an authoritative voice stating “The end is too gory, cut out one role of the tape.” Monroe Stahr (Robert de Niro) - charismatic production chief and creative executive at one of the biggest studios in Hollywood. A hard taskmaster, he is used to having his say in every stage of the film making process. Whilst the rest of Hollywood feels fettered in the wake of the creation of the Writers Guild of America, Monroe continues to be authoritarian and controlling. His personal life spiraled downward after the death of his wife, an actress - after which he melted into self exile, isolating himself.
Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum) plays Stahr’s loyal supporter – "I love him. He’s a genius. I’ve always wanted him to get every credit... I’m the strong base upon which Monroe Stahr rests. I’m loyal to him …". However, Brady does wonder what will happen to him? He is torn between his fondness for Stahr and his desire for the realization of his personal ambition - “All I want is recognition.” Brady’s character draws inspiration from the life of studio head Louis B. Mayer.
When an earthquake partially throws a spanner in the works destroying sets, Monroe, in the midst of the chaos notices Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), a beautiful woman, albeit engaged to someone else - who reminds him of his late wife. Most of his waking hours are spent trying to track down the elusive woman with the silver belt(though that wasn’t Katherine). Meanwhile Cecilia, Pat Brady’s daughter (Theresa Russell) flaunts her affection for Monroe and tries to win him over.
Brimmer (Jack Nicholson) is the thorn in Monroe’s side: a union organizer from New York. The controlling Stahr is confronted with an equally pushy Brimmer - a ‘communist’. To have a writer’s strike with sixteen pictures under production is daunting in the middle of the Depression. On the internal front, Monroe has to go head-to-head with the others regarding budgets and endings - he wants to make a meaningful picture that for once doesn’t make money - an idea that doesn’t go down well with Brady and the boys. As the film progresses, one thing is clear, love clouds Monroe’s once clear vision and finally, the life he gave to his work slips away gradually - in the end, he leaves the studio where he spent all his creative potential and life, making pictures.