I risked the fate of Myrtle Wilson this morning as I walked down the street re-reading The Great Gatsby on the way to work. At 182 pages the paperback edition is an easy thing to re-read, and I periodically do so (in contrast with, say, the last novel I read, Dickens’ 900 some odd page Our Mutual Friend). We’ll return to the subject of the book’s compact spareness presently. At any rate, as I walked down the street reading the novel, I passed another man about my age, walking down the street in the opposite direction playing the ukulele. Something is in the air; has been for a long time now. People are nostalgic for the time of their great grandparents and their great-great grandparents. (At least the people I surround myself with are).
What’s remarkable I think is the extent to which Fitzgerald causes us to permanently identify decadence, glamour, wealth and so forth with the 1920s. In reality, what was notable about it in Fitzgerald’s time was that it was unprecedented. But aside from the years of the Great Depression, it’s not like the party ever really stopped. If you try to tell me there was more wealth or hedonism or senseless folly in the 1920s than there is in 2013, I’ll scream. America is a nation so rich that our poor have an obesity problem. There is a town in West Virginia (America’s fattest) in which fully 50% of the inhabitants are as large as Charles Laughton’s Nero. Here in New York, people walk down the street with the universe at their beck and call, looking at photo albums, listening to symphonies, chatting with friends on the telephone…and yes, reading novels and playing the ukulele. A fitting time then (as good or better than most others) For Baz Luhrmann to revive Gatsby. But before we get to his, let’s look at the road that leads to West Egg.
The original cinematic version of The Great Gatsby was released one year after the 1925 novel was published. It’s generally said that Fitzgerald died in 1940 feeling that Gatsby was a failure. On the other hand, it WAS turned into a Hollywood film almost immediately. And not a shabby one; it’s full of stars, stars we still know like Warner Baxter, William Powell, Georgia Hale (fresh off The Gold Rush) and Eric Blore.
Unfortunately, it is a lost film, and it’s a shame because I get the feeling that in some ways it might be the best version. Certainly the decor and atmosphere are right in a way that subsequent versions can hardly hope to compete with. But there’s also this. Fitzgerald’s novel is written in a vague, almost sketchy style. It’s fragmentary and poetic, gossamer. The 1974 and 2000 versions seem to miss the boat by being overly literal and realistic. Pantomime might be one way to get back to that quality of simplicity; another might be opera.
At any rate, here is the only known existing footage of that film, the original trailer:
23 years later came the 1949 version. This one still exists but is unavailable. The trailer below gives us clues. It seems to play up the gangster angle, even depicting Gatsby (Alan Ladd) participating in Al Capone style shoot-outs with a tommy gun. This was in keeping with the noir spirit of the movie’s own time. I think it’s hilarious that Shelley Winters played Myrtle — it’s virtually the same thankess, doomed working class “other woman” she played in A Place in the Sun a couple of years later. Since an entire generation had passed since 1925, the film also treats us to a history lesson on the Roaring Twenties, a technique Luhrmann would revive for the current version:
Then there is the best known version, the soporific, forgettable 1974 version, as sleepy as a summer day. It’s visually stunning. (A good chunk of it was shot in the mansions of Newport; one of the teachers from my high school is in it as a very prominent extra). Mostly the film suffers from gross miscasting. Robert Redford doesn’t have the depth for Gatsby. Mia Farrow doesn’t have the shallowness for Daisy. Bruce Dern is bad for Tom: though he is certainly capable of being boorish. But he doesn’t seem like an aristocrat. I’d sooner cast him as the car mechanic George Wilson (though Scott Wilson is already pretty perfect in the role). Sam Waterston is Nick and Karen Black is Myrtle, also pretty well cast.
At any rate, here’s the trailer for that one.
The 2000 A & E television version is a minor thing, as all such productions are, and completely forgettable (as in, I think I saw this, or some of it, and I struggle to remember much about it). Though this version is much better cast, at least in terms of type. Martin Donovan is an excellent Tom, with those brooding, blazing eyes, and Mira Sorvino with her frivolous prettiness is an apt Daisy. A very young Paul Rudd is a great choice for Nick (better in fact than the goofy-looking Tobey Maguire who plays him in the current version. The black hole in the middle of the tv version is Toby Stephens. An enigma? I’ll say! A phantom, who has left nothing behind! At any rate, the entirety of this version can be viewed online in chapters. Here’s the first part:
Catching wind of early criticisms, I promised the other day that I would cut Baz Luhrmann’s new Gatsby some slack. No can do! I saw what I saw and I calls ’em like I sees ’em. My pre-formed opinion going into it was, “Hey, updating the music is a valid idea. It worked great in Moulin Rouge” and also “Visual style is what he’s all about, surely that’s a good match for that glittering time period the Roaring Twenties.”
What I did not anticipate is that I would not take to even the visual style of the movie. If I were going to be doing a highly visual, CGI-drenched, subjectively-told version of The Great Gatsby I’d go right to that famous cover of the novel designed by Francis Cugat (brother of Xavier). The painting was finished before Gatsby’s last drafts; Fitzgerald was said to have loved the image so much, he wrote the book to match the COVER. Barring that…Cubism, Expressionism, Art Deco were in the air. I don’t feel like I saw any of that in the movie. Mysteriously, the sensibility reminded me like a sort of exhausted retread of ideas expended in Moulin Rouge. A fast pace, a blur of color, these are thematically appropriate. But somehow the whole thing comes off more like a Warner Brothers cartoon. This is The Great Gatsby as directed by Tex Avery.
To be fair, this may be a work for people who like Baz Luhrrman, but for lovers of Fitzgerald and his writing, not so much. Which is ironic because Luhrmann seems to love writers. He adapted Shakespeare. A writer was the hero of his last movie. And in this one, he makes Nick Carraway into a stand-in for Fitzgerald. But for someone who seems to love writers so much, he doesn’t seem to trust them or their craft a great deal. In Gatsby, he does everything in his power to undermine, drown, overwhelm, dump salad dressing on, and compete with Fitzgerald’s language. The experience is like sitting in an auditorium listening to Fitzgerald read aloud from his novel, while Luhrmann sits next to him playing a trombone solo. Luhrmann’s sensibility is graphic and aural, as though he were pre-lingual. So much so that he can’t resist the temptation to send graphic representations of Fitzgerald’s text crawling across the screen, much like musical notes in a cheesey bio-pic about a composer. I feel like I have seen something that was inspired by, is in dialogue with, is a noisy, adolescent love poem to, The Great Gatsby. But not quite an adaptation of the thing itself.
Futhermore, every moment in the film is dialed up to eleven. Yes, it is a movie about excess. Even so, he hits every note too hard, there is too much of everything. If you take scenes and characters and moments from the novel and inject it with steroids it is NOT the same story. A gentle summer breeze wafting in the window in Fitzgerald’s book becomes a virtual hurricane in Luhrmann’s hands. A forlorn stretch of road between West Egg and New York becomes a bizarre Martian landscape of smoldering mountains of coke and refuse, dotted with smokestacks as if we were in the coalfields of Western Pennsylvania. (Where the hell did he get that from?). Gatsby’s house looks like the Enchanted Castle at Disneyland. His big yellow car zooms through the streets of Gotham City like the Batmobile. The same with the people. Gatsby’s fake accent is too fake. Nervous upon seeing Daisy again, he is a Jerry Lewis level of nervous. And Tom, who ought to be sort of inscrutable (to the best he is able with his limited intelligence), becomes as obvious as a melodrama villain.
Luhrmann doesn’t understand the value of negative space, a pause, a rest. He can’t leave any moment alone. Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss was ruined for me; I was distracted because it was staged in front of a green-screen tree. “What is this,” I thought to myself, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks? ” The climactic moment where Myrtle gets hit by Gatsby’s car is spoiled with cheesy pop music on the soundtrack. Just leave it alone! It’s mostly a shame because there are some fine performances buried underneath all the garbage and tinsel. If I were DiCaprio I would be beside myself with anger. He turns in a really great performance. He’s so well cast, and you can see it in his best scene, the best scene in the movie, because Luhrmann leaves it alone. The crucial scene in the Plaza where he and Tom (Joel Edgerton) have their climactic showdown. DiCaprio loses his shit and you see the murderer that Gatsby is capable of being. Some of the best acting he’s ever done. This contrasts with his apparent coolness throughout. He deserves an Oscar nomination, if anyone can find his performance under the gaudy curtain that obscures it. Also impressive was newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as the ice cool golf-pro Jordan Baker, the superficial spirit of the age.
As I said above, Tobey Maguire is wrong for Nick Carraway. Looking at the book this morning, it’s clear in the character’s voice that he is of the same class as Tom and Daisy, he shares a lot of the same attitudes and assumptions. He is man enough to take some interest in, to see some worth in, Gatsby, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t come off as privileged and glib and so forth. In fact, he absolutely MUST in order for his self-loathing to make any sense. And THIS is the quality that has been lacking in all of the existing adaptations of Gatsby I have seen so far. It is palpable in ALL of Fitzgerald’s writing, and I’ve never seen any director put it across. That is to say, the identity crisis such a non-stop party would cause to an essentially Puritan people. Few moderns perceive that psychic trauma because the big party in effect hasn’t stopped since then; we’re used to it. But in the twenties, this was a people just coming off Victorianism. Yes, there was an excitement, a release. But that was accompanied by constant doubt and guilt and turmoil, a feeling of sickness and corruption. Read The Rise of Silas Lapham. Conspicuous consumption was once thought to be un-American, even among the wealthy.
Thus, Luhrmann gets the crucial party scenes all wrong as well. He seems to be trying to recapture Moulin Rouge. But American decadence and excess was and is not the Parisian sort, although it attempted to emulate it in the early twentieth century. Jazz Age America was characterized by the wildness of an essentially conservative people, tempered by ancient Puritanical reservations and qualms, by such speed bumps as “taste” and “style” . Tuxedos, gowns, potted palms, yes. Drunkenness and adulterous sex in corners, yes. But the Limelight circa 1980s with a pulsing, throbbing techno beat–no. That’s the wrong vibe. So I think the haters in large part were right. This movie needs to drastically slow down, open up, take a breather, because though it does take place during modernism’s first heated flush, that era happened NINETY YEARS AGO. And if you say to me, like Nick Carraway, that you cannot re-live the past, my reply will be Gatsby’s: “Why, Old Sport! Of COURSE you can!”
ADDENDUM (2018): I recently moved to Great Neck, the setting of the novel, and now live quite close to the house where Fitzgerald wrote portions of it. I recently walked over and snapped this:
For learn more about film in the 1920s, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc