I must say I came to the new version of The Great Gatsby with a good deal of trepidation — when I saw one of the commercials for it on TV I thought, “Oh, no,” when I heard a contemporary rap song in the middle of one of the snazzy visuals designed to represent Gatsby’s legendary parties — and how I was ready to feel about this movie went something along the lines of this: Baz Luhrmann had made a razzle-dazzle musical, Moulin Rouge!, which shoehorned 1970’s and 1980’s pop-rock songs into a movie about the 1890’s which ripped off its basic plot from Camille and had been an enormous worldwide hit. Then he followed it up with Australia, a beautiful film that showed off his love for classic Hollywood and his ability to emulate its style — it was essentially Red River grafted onto Gone with the Wind and all set against the backdrop of Australia’s rather peripheral role in World War II, but I thought it was a far superior film to Moulin Rouge! with a great performance by Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! star, Nicole Kidman, as well as Hugh Jackman proving once and for all that he’s a versatile actor who can do a lot more than just play a guy with very, very long fingernails. Alas, most of the moviegoing audience disagreed with me; Australia was a crashing box-office bomb, so it seemed like Luhrmann was going back to the Moulin Rouge! formula, ripping off his story from a literary classic (an acknowledged masterpiece of literature rather than a high-quality romantic potboiler like Camille) and plugging in modern music, spectacular color, razzle-dazzle visuals and the all too common quick-cutting style of today, which assumes that the average modern movie-watcher, whose consciousness has been shaped first by music videos and then by the Internet, has an attention span of about three seconds and if you hold a shot on screen for any longer than that, they’ll get bored. Baz Luhrmann made rap — excuse me, “hip-hop” (the euphemism for rap used by people who like it) — such an integral part of the movie he not only hired Jay-Z to produce his soundtrack but named him as one of the producers of the overall film as well.
He and his co-screenwriter, Craig Pearce, also decided to have the entire film narrated by Nick Carraway, the admiring sidekick F. Scott Fitzgerald created to tell the story of his “great” friend (sort of like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with Watson narrating the Sherlock Holmes stories), from a sanitarium where he’s being treated in the 1930’s for “morbid alcoholism” — in other words, pretty much turning Nick into F. Scott Fitzgerald himself and drawing on Fitzgerald’s post-Gatsby life (all 15 years of it) to add a context for the story. (The institution is called “Perkins Sanitarium,” an in-joke reference to Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s publishing house.) The plot of The Great Gatsby is probably familiar to anyone who had to read it in high school (where I first encountered it and absolutely fell in love with it!), but just in case you need a summary, here goes: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is the son of a Midwestern family which lost all its money (like Amory Blaine, the central character of Fitzgerald’s first novel This Side of Paradise, he’s yet another Fitzgerald channeling of George Amberson Minafer from Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons — Tarkington was Fitzgerald’s first and strongest influence as an up-and-coming writer and I’ve long felt Paradise could be read as an “interquel” to Ambersons, with Fitzgerald filling in the part of George Amberson Minafer’s story Tarkington didn’t write: his years at college). He looks up his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), née Daisy Fay, in East Egg, Long Island. She’s married to his old college buddy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a man from an old moneyed family that, unlike Nick’s, has kept its money. Long Island is divided into two villages, East Egg and West Egg; East Egg is where the aristocratic families who’ve been rich for generations live, while West Egg is the locale of strivers and parvenus. Nick lives in a small cottage on West Egg next door to the huge mansion built by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s become known for throwing spectacular parties attended by hundreds of guests, many of whom never actually meet him even while enjoying his sumptuous hospitality. Indeed, his parties have become so legendary he never formally invites anyone — except Nick — people just show up. (There’s a marvelous scene towards the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, after the whole situation has ended in tragedy, when Nick laconically says that every so often a car full of would-be revelers pulls up to the door of Gatsby’s old estate, not realizing that the parties are long since over.)
Nick befriends Gatsby and eventually learns that the entire setup was merely to get the attention of Daisy, whom Gatsby loved before he had money, back when he was just poor James Gatz, a servicemember in World War I stationed in Louisville (Daisy’s home town) on his way to the front. They had a relationship of sorts but she got tired of waiting for him after the war and married Tom instead. Meanwhile, he lucked into a fortune, becoming the protégé of yachtsman Dan Cody (Steve Bisley) and traveling the world with him. Dan taught him to act like a gentleman and promised to set him up for life, but when Dan died his family swooped in and grabbed everything, so Gatsby was left with the manners of a gentleman but without the affluence to pull it off. That came to him when he hooked up with Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan) and ultimately made a super-fortune in the illegal businesses made available by the 1920’s, bootleg alcohol and stock swindling. Midway through the story (whether we’re reading it or viewing it) we learn that Gatsby’s passion for Daisy has lasted his whole life and is, in fact, the motivation for everything he’s done, including building that huge house in West Egg and throwing those lavish parties. Once he finally gets Nick to arrange a meeting between them and gets her to resume their bygone affair, the parties cease and the mood of the story becomes considerably darker. Gatsby is determined to get Daisy to leave Tom and marry him; Tom is equally determined to keep her — not that he’s still in love with her (he’s got a mistress on the side, a proletarian woman, Myrtle Wilson, played by Isla Fisher) but she’s a possession and it would hurt his male ego to lose her. It all ends tragically as Gatsby’s trademark yellow car runs down Myrtle and kills her, and Myrtle’s husband George (Jason Clarke) kills Gatsby for revenge — not knowing that at the time the accident occurred it was Daisy who was driving — and Gatsby’s funeral is a lonely affair with Nick virtually the only one attending. (In the novel Gatsby’s father turns up as a character after Gatsby’s death and buries him with Nick present.)
The only previous Gatsby I’ve actually seen is the 1974 version — and that I haven’t seen since it was new, though I have a DVD of it in the backlog — which struck me then as an overly respectful Masterpiece Theatre version, bringing utterly no sense of cinematic style to the story and completely failing to find a visual equivalent to the glories of Fitzgerald’s prose style, In fact, I was so disappointed in the 1974 film I wondered if the book was actually as great as I’d thought it was reading it in high school five years earlier, since Clayton’s respectful-to-a-fault adaptation stripped Gatsby of the eloquence of Fitzgerald’s prose and showed the bare bones of a pretty ordinary and even hackneyed plot underneath. (I do remember thinking at the time that the film would have been better if Coppola had directed it as well as writing the script.) Well, no one ever accused Baz Luhrmann of not having a sense of style, even if his stylistics sometimes end up at cross-purposes with his material — as they did through most of Moulin Rouge!, though not when Nicole Kidman was front and center, impressing me with her portrayal of a doomed woman and making me wish she would get to do a film of Camille come scritto. And as they do through most of the first part of Gatsby, too; watching those interminable party scenes, with Gatsby himself making a spectacular entrance in the middle of a fireworks display set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (premiered in 1924, two years after The Great Gatsby supposedly takes place, and standing in for Fitzgerald’s fictitious Jazz History of the World by “Vladimir Tostoff” — Fitzgerald was probably thinking of Darius Milhaud’s jazz-influenced La Création du Monde) and so many dancers (including the real-life figure Gilda Gray, the first white person to dance the shimmy and a major star of Fitzgerald’s time) they had a separate section on the cast list, is like watching a slow-motion train wreck, especially when the music abruptly cuts from authentic 1920’s to modern-day rock and rap. Then — surprise, surprise! — as the mood of the story darkens and the parties (literal and figurative) cease, the director of Moulin Rouge! cedes control of the film to the director of Australia.
Though Luhrmann still can’t shake his music video-bred habit (both by his history making them and his audiences’ history watching them) of cutting to a different camera angle every three to five seconds — a classic-era director would have cut more slowly and done more of his transitions with a camera crane instead (as it is, even when Luhrmann sets up a crane shot he cuts before it’s over, ruining the effect) — he calms down the visual razzle-dazzle and lets his very fine actors take over and give us real emotions. And the cast is uniformly superior to the 1974 version — at least as I remember it; Leonardo DiCaprio is charismatic but not so charismatic as to be unbelievable (Robert Redford’s problem in the role was he was not only drop-dead gorgeous but he was utterly unable to play insincerity; one could readily believe him as the charismatic Gatsby of the party scenes but he could not project the darker, more obsessive, more driven aspects of the character), and his scratchy voice, sounding oddly like Marlon Brando when he played Brits, sounds utterly believable as the sort of thing a man of working-class origins would adopt thinking it made him sound like a refined gentleman to the manor born. Joel Edgerton is, if anything, even more actively unpleasant as Tom Buchanan than Bruce Dern was; Carey Milligan is a far more nuanced actress than Mia Farrow and she nails the scene in which this rather superficial woman finds herself squeezed between the obsessions of two powerful men; and Tobey Maguire is more sincere and open-hearted as Nick than Sam Waterston even though the framing device rather blunts the island-of-sanity aspect of his character in the novel. Luhrmann’s direction is imaginative, sometimes wrong-headedly but sometimes triumphantly right; in the sequence in which Gatsby shows his collection of shirts, Jack Clayton simply panned down the racks of folded shirts while Luhrmann literally made them dance in mid-air — Gatsby not only displayed them but threw them around — making the scene live on the screen the way I’d always imagined it from the book. The more The Great Gatsby went on, the better I liked it — even Luhrmann’s tricks, like having the words from the journal Nick is keeping (which supposedly supplies the text of his narration, virtually all of which was really written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and taken almost verbatim from the book) literally appear on screen (first in handwriting and then in typescript as he gets more comfortable with the act of writing), recede in the background and become merely minor annoyances instead of off-putting gestures from a director who in Moulin Rouge! and the first half of Gatsby was far more interested in dazzling the audience than emotionally moving it.
Gatsby the film has problems rooted in Gatsby the novel, including Fitzgerald’s disinterest in anyone who had to work for a living (one critic noted that it wasn’t until the very end of his life, with his unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon, that Fitzgerald wrote a book in which the central male protagonist actually had a job); Gatsby is a class struggle, but it’s a class struggle between the 1 percent and the 0.01 percent. (When we see the few scenes that actually feature proletarians, we almost heave a sigh of relief.) Specifically, it’s a struggle between three sets of characters with a very different relationship to money: the Buchanans, who’ve had it for generations and take it for granted as their due; Gatsby, the self-made man who hopes that money in and of itself will break down the social barriers and get the aristocrats (Daisy in particular) to accept him as an equal; and Nick, the man from an aristocratic family (or at least a family with aristocratic pretensions) who’s lost his money and been forced (like George Amberson Minafer) into the workplace. The clash between old and new money was a live issue for Fitzgerald himself; like Gatsby, he was a man from a modest background who had fallen in love with an aristocratic beauty (there’s even a family resemblance in the names: Daisy Fay and Zelda Sayre), and while unlike Gatsby he actually got to marry his high-born girlfriend, the Sayres thought of him as a money- and status-grabbing parvenu and never let him forget it. (At the same time Zelda was also at least in part an invention of F. Scott Fitzgerald; when he was asked by interviewers why he had married a woman so much like the heroines of his stories, he answered that that was the only sort of woman he was interested in, either on paper or in real life.) Gatsby is dated now not only because it’s so much an historical artifact of its time — it’s hard to imagine the basic story taking place in any era other than the 1920’s — but because the distinction between old and new money, East and West Egg, Gatsby and the Buchanans, has virtually ceased to matter. We’ve become a society where money in and of itself, no matter how obtained, has become the defining measure of social worth; it’s interesting to note that the recent film The Social Network, based on a true story, also deals with the conflict between old and new money — only in that story new money kicks old money’s ass. The sense that no matter how successful he became, both in income and in fame, he was still the outsider looking in on Zelda’s aristocratic world was very real for Fitzgerald but it’s hard to reproduce in a way that makes sense to an audience today.
As a movie property The Great Gatsby has suffered from directors who were utterly unable to bring to it a visual style that would evoke Fitzgerald’s prose — Orson Welles’ film of The Magnificent Ambersons, a book I regard as “Fitzgeraldian” even though Fitzgerald didn’t write it, because the person who did, Booth Tarkington, was the writer Fitzgerald most blatantly imitated when he was starting out; and also because it touches on so many themes Fitzgerald would use and its central plot line is the “comeuppance” of a spoiled rich man, would be the model I’d want to see directors use in how to film Fitzgerald — and it also suffered from being made in the wrong decades. Frankly, the perfect actor to play Jay Gatsby would have been Cary Grant c. 1940 — not only because he could play both debonair and driven but because his own rise from penniless beginnings as a London Cockney named Archie Leach to Cary Grant, well-paid international star epitomizing sophistication and grace, so strikingly parallels Gatsby’s character arc. (I have a similar feeling about Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: the perfect actor to play Willy Wonka would have been Robin Williams in the 1980’s — but, unfortunately, it wasn’t made then.) Baz Luhrmann is undoubtedly the most stylish director ever to have made a film of The Great Gatsby — at least since Herbert Brenon (a virtually forgotten director today who had a major rep in the silent era — and is it too much to hope for that his version of Gatsby will be rediscovered? After all, Brenon’s 1924 film of Peter Pan was also thought lost for years until it turned up, and it turned out to be a great movie, deeper, richer and darker than any of the subsequent adaptations of James M. Barrie’s play) — and even though his stylistics don’t always work, this is still a major film of a major novel and a formidable, if flawed, work of art in its own right. The critics have mostly savaged it — though Stuart Klawans of The Nation, who generally doesn’t like anything unless it’s a foreign film, a documentary or cost less than $100,000 to make, loved it and brought out the Orson Welles connections, saying that Gatsby’s home reminded him of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu (actually it looked more like Michael Jackson’s Neverland to me — and indeed that might be one way to update the Gatsby plot line: make Gatsby a newly “hot” entertainer throwing huge parties with himself as the star) and that some of DiCaprio’s close-ups reminded him of the young Welles (they did, too), and though I think he overstated the case comparing Kane and Gatsby as self-made figures who rose and fell, his review was interesting and far from the blanket dismissals the film got from most of the critics.