Spoiler alert: Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is full of surprises, and a few major narrative devices you won’t find in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you don’t want to know about them, save this review until you’ve seen the movie! Otherwise, party on!
Modern Times: Baz Luhrmann remodels The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the best-known American novel of the 20th century. Now, Baz Luhrmann has finally made a movie version that approaches the original in its epic sweep and poetic feel. By Anne Margaret Daniel.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald began The Great Gatsby in 1922, he told his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Max Perkins, that he wanted to “write something new – something extraordinarily beautiful and simple & intricately patterned.” Living between a Minnesota yacht club, St. Paul, New York hotels, and Great Neck, Long Island in the early 1920s, Fitzgerald was physically scattered but mentally remarkably focused. He worked hard on the first draft of this new novel, despite recent fatherhood and a wild life of celebrity and excess.
He couldn’t get it done in Great Neck, though, amidst the Broadway producers and literary stars and constant parties. As Zelda wrote to a friend in the summer of 1923, Great Neck was razzle-dazzling in the hot summertime, with all the swimming pools and even the Sound reeking of gin, whiskey and beer. In 1924, Fitzgerald packed up his family – Zelda and their baby daughter Scottie – and headed for a place he thought, pretty ironically, would be quiet enough to get work done, the Riviera. As had been his method for This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald was already setting his new novel in the place and time he had just left. As he put it, he wanted to “take the Long Island atmosphere that I had familiarly breathed and materialize it beneath unfamiliar skies.”
In the past 40 years, The Great Gatsby has become the best-known American novel in the world, along with Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind, though, has been helped by its lone movie version as much as Gatsby has been, so far, hurt by its movie versions. The Great American Novel now has a Great American – well, Australian-American – Movie to translate it for today, and keep it good company.
Now, Fitzgerald’s prose is extremely attractive, and particularly to anyone with a visual imagination. His writing, and particularly in Gatsby, is, quite literally colorful – full of palpable colors, making unforgettable images: golden shoulders and yellowy hair and golden and silver slippers shuffling to the “Beale Street Blues”; Daisy Buchanan’s white dresses; Gatsby’s “gorgeous pink rag” of a suit; the “blue and gigantic” eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg; a woman “like an angry diamond”; a “dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.” Not surprisingly, then, films were made of Fitzgerald's own books and short stories from the early 1920s to today. However, the movies have all failed, and for the same reason.
Fitzgerald’s so hard to film – and I think this is what made it hard for him to write workable screenplays in Hollywood in the late 1930s, too – because his words already have done all the cinematic work. Fitzgerald’s words evoke things that film is not readily fitted to evoke – mental states, for instance – and also they do, at their best, very many things at once: manage to evoke both visual and physical states, a current event and a moment in the past. Fitzgerald’s prose is emphatically NOT utilitarian – he’s not interested in just words that work, but in things considerably more complex and intricate, aesthetically and intellectually. Fitzgerald’s novels are visually stunning, colorful and laden with light, told in language hard to translate onto film. Gatsby is centrally concerned with thoughts and feelings the characters neither articulate openly, nor, most of the time, are able or willing to be fully conscious of, or to investigate directly themselves within their own minds. Fitzgerald’s words give these psychological and emotional circumstances shape and power, and it’s near-impossible to represent a narrative like this visually. The interior resists being made exterior. Could Baz Luhrmann surmount this paramount difficulty with Gatsby? If so, how?
I knew that a tremendous amount of research had gone into Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” before I saw it. A confession: in May 2012, I was contacted by the makers of this movie with literary questions about Fitzgerald and Gatsby. I was more than happy to help and gave my time freely and for free, when asked, for I wanted the movie to be as true as possible to a book I love. I understood that telling the story of a novel, and making a movie, are not the same and may indeed be mutually exclusive, but hoped they could complement each other instead. I can vouch for the immense amount of reading of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries, listening to Jazz Age music, reviewing newspapers of the 1920s, and truly academic work, as well as admiration for Fitzgerald as a writer, that’s gone into “Gatsby,” the movie.
But how would all this inform the filming? Or would it? That I did not know. Until I sat down in a screening room last week, I had seen only what anyone could have seen, the trailers. They had all showed to me pounding contemporary music; vivid bold colors applied to a novel that I’d always thought of as drawn in pastels; and above all an initially effervescent and seductive, but ultimately darker, brooding and above all angry Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Apart from DiCaprio’s intriguing glimpses as Gatsby, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate.
The sepia color tones and old-fashioned newsreely music at the movie’s beginning put you in an earlier time, a time when movies were silent except for the live orchestra music accompanying them. Jay-Z is the producer of the movie’s music, and he wrote the song that will easily be the movie’s smash hit from the soundtrack, the rollicking, raunchy “100$ Bill.” However, Craig Armstrong, the gifted Scottish musician who worked with Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has composed original music for the movie. Bryan Ferry’s hand is in far more than his two numbers on the official soundtrack, an update of his classic ‘Love Is the Drug’ and a swoony, lush ‘Crazy in Love’ with Emeli Sande. I feel Ferry’s jazz bridges in the connections of this movie – connections between the new songs, contemporary music, and many classic jazz and blues numbers used in Gatsby. Luhrmann’s already taking a beating in some quarters for not including the music of the Jazz Age in his movie of a novel that’s laced with its songs. But calm yourselves. His movie revels in the sound of the period. Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, and many more old friends are here for the party.
Gatsby begins in black and white, but swiftly the ubiquitous JG monogram sharpens and springs to life in black and gold. The JG is everywhere – on Gatsby’s signet ring, in the bottom of his pool, all over his mansion. The stylized, jazzy JG is reminiscent of Superman’s S and The Empire State Building’s ES, both coined not long after Fitzgerald’s novel appeared. Gatsby isn’t a hero, to me – but a superhero? I can see that. After all, he’s a cipher of a character who’s become, arguably, the most famous mythic man in American literature. Blue soon supplants the JG, flooding the screen with the same bright mood-indigo blue of Francis Cugat’s famous dust-jacket painting for the first edition of Gatsby; one’s 3D glasses become necessary; and the green light heaves into view.
That green light is inescapable. What a masterstroke on Scott Fitzgerald’s part to have hardly used it in his first drafts of Gatsby, and then to have amplified it as he revised. The green light originally figured merely in passing – as two green lights Gatsby describes to Daisy as being visible from his shorefront, on her dock, when she makes her first visit to his house. Fitzgerald would eventually make this green dock light the icing on the symbolic cake, colorwise, in a novel awash in colors. It’s become one of the most iconic moments in American literature, and is the touchstone of this movie.
Colors drive the movie just as they do the book. In the novel, the colors are often pastels – subdued, with their shades softened perhaps by Daisy’s eternal whites. Bright colors stand out in the book when they’re noted: the green light, Gatsby’s shirts, Catherine’s sticky bob of red hair, the yellow twins, that gorgeous pink rag of a suit. In the movie, with its 3D vision, color entirely dominates: the confetti flutter of butterflies stuck to Jordan’s wide shoulders at Gatsby’s first party; the improbable greens of Nick’s overgrown gardens and the Buchanans’ groomed lawns; exploding fireworks and dancing showgirls shaking their ribbons of fringes; a cacophony of cars and clothing.
There’s no doubt about the 1920s being colorful. Just look at the advertisements in any popular magazine. Clothing, even men’s clothing, came in bright peacock shades and mad Modern patterns of zig-zags, paisleys, and geometrics. Henry Ford had agreed to sell America a car in any color people wanted, as long as that color was black. But the old Model T had given way by Gatsby’s time to wild non-primary shades. Myrtle Wilson, in the novel, lets a string of taxis go on until she finds a lavender one that suits her vivid fancy. In the car showroom of New York’s Hotel Commodore in 1925, Caprice Rose, Pigeon Egg Blue, and Sea-Fog Green were among the colors of the cars on display.
My favorite color moments in the movie? Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), in hot Helena-Rubinstein “It”-girl red, from her hair to her high heels. And DiCaprio’s improbable blue eyes against the midnight-blue sky when we, and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), first meet him, while ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ soars and crashes all roundabout him. When I walked out into a rush-hour New York after the screening, it was like walking into that sepia, washed-out world that begins, and ends, the movie – and that’s used, most notably, for the flashbacks to Louisville. The sidewalks, the sky, the buildings were all pigeon-grey; people in their dull work clothing hurrying to plunge into the darker grey subways that smelled of drains. I wanted Luhrmann’s New York back again, with the man in the neon Arrow shirt advertisement overseeing the kaleidoscope of Times Square. New York, 2013 was more like the Valley of Ashes as seen through the faded eyes of Dr. Eckleburg on that late afternoon.
It’s perfect that neither Daisy (Carey Mulligan) nor Tom (Joel Edgerton) have so much as noticed the green dock light. “What light?” Daisy asks, without much interest, when Gatsby tells her he can see it from his house. When Tom echoes that “what light?” late in the movie, Gatsby winces; the repetition of the words from both these careless people really does seem to bite physically into him. For young Jimmy Gatz, the sailor, knowing green lights from red sets your course. On any boat, the green light is your starboard light, the light by which you steer. It’s important, though, to know what you’re sailing toward, and where your home-port really is.
The first line of the novel is also the first line of the movie. It’s spoken in an old man’s voice; can this be Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book, who’s barely over thirty? Or is it right, in a decade made by and for the young, for a man over thirty to be old? As another great young writer from Minnesota once said, never trust anyone over thirty. Bob Dylan was right: trusting Nick Carraway, even when he’s still 29, is a problem – and all the more so when you find that it’s now December 1, 1929, and Nick has seen-in The Crash in rehab.
Luhrmann’s framing device for the movie is to have Nick tell the novel’s story from this place. He writes the novel as part of his cure. Does this sort out the problem of how to capture the story told, on film, by Fitzgerald’s self-avowedly honest, sad, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic narrator?
I wasn’t, and am not, sure about Nick in the sanitarium, or Nick standing in for Fitzgerald as author so thoroughly – but I do know that, at the end of the novel, Nick Carraway needs help, and a lot of it. One doesn’t feel he’s going to get it, heading back to search for what he already knows to be the vanished Middle West of a time before Gatsby, a time before the Great War. In some ways it’s rather generous of Luhrmann (who, with Craig Pearce, wrote the screenplay) to give Nick a space of solace and possibility. In the world of the movie, it works. At the end, we see Nick packing up to leave, looking much healthier, with a completed typescript in his valise.
“The Perkins Sanitarium” uses the name of Max Perkins in an interesting way if you think of the creation of fiction by Fitzgerald and Perkins’s other writers, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, as a sort of “talking cure.” Originally the “D’Invilliers Sanitarium”, in an early trailer for the movie, Nick has come, or been sent, here after the summer of 1922 smashes to an end. His diagnosis we see written out: morbidly alcoholic; insomniac; depression; anxiety; fits of anger. This diagnosis – except for the first point, to which he never publicly admitted – is what Scott Fitzgerald gave himself in The Crack-Up. Unavoidably, Maguire embodies both Carraway and Fitzgerald. The use of a sanitarium, in which poor Zelda Fitzgerald spent so much of her life and met her terrible death, makes you inevitably feel the presence of both Fitzgeralds at the movie’s beginning. That’s perhaps as it should be. So much of their young lives went into the novel, after all.
The kindly old doctor at this expensive hospital, who to my relief looks nothing like Max Perkins, suggests that his broken patient soothe himself by writing down the events he remembers about this friend of his, Gatsby. Nick takes up a silver pencil, but soon switches to a typewriter – as in the novel, modern technologies from the typewriter to the stock ticker to the telephone to the automobile shape and shift the plot.
The cut from Nick in hospital, 1929, to Nick arriving in New York, 1922, is dazzling. Yes, later the cars from Long Island will appropriately cross the Queensboro Bridge. But, repeatedly, the movie relishes approaching Manhattan from the open sea, as those Dutch sailors once did. The juxtaposition of sails and early 20th-century craft on the water with the skyline you already know forming in the background – there’s a lovely shot of the Empire State Building, among many skyscrapers, under construction – is grand.
It’s also still jarring to see a tip-of-Manhattan skyline without its twin towers – not there in 1922, and, horribly, not there any more today. There’s a sharp recognition of both the coming Crash, and our more contemporary disaster, in the recurrence of a little red stunt monoplane happily performing its tricks, which include a steep dive, over the crowded streets where Nick looks up, amazed. In a scene nearly at the movie’s end, white typewritten letters blow like ash, like all the office paper strewn over lower Manhattan after the big buildings were destroyed, across the screen and down the streets. Nick’s stock-ticker-tape world, and his personal world alike, have gone from party and parade to disaster and death; it’s a fine stroke for the movie to acknowledge past and present, fact and fiction, so gracefully and powerfully.
I was expecting to be overwhelmed by pounding music from the start of Gatsby. Not so. The loud music is reserved for parties, and bad driving. This is a relief and a pleasure. When the decibel level rises, it’s because characters are drinking and dancing – just like us, just like parties we go to and give. The principal soundtrack of the film, as ubiquitous as that of an old Hollywood movie, is subtle and symphonic, jazzy and bluesy, fitting entirely with the world of Fitzgerald’s novel.
The soundtrack listing, and most of the movie’s new songs, have been released in the past few weeks, but this isn’t all the music in the movie by a long shot. As Myrtle Wilson sashay-struts down the winding stair in Wilson’s Garage, her bright-red heels step in time to ‘Let’s Misbehave’. Fitzgerald has Daisy Fay, still an unmarried girl in Louisville, shuffling in her silver-or-gold slippers to W.C. Handy’s ‘Beale Street Blues’. Luhrmann and Jay-Z include it. The most notable use of Jazz-Age music in Gatsby is George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. The Australian musician iOTA, playing Trimalchio, the leader of Gatsby’s party orchestra, announces ‘The Jazz History of the World’ at the first party. In the book, it’s described as a piece of music that’s just premiered at Carnegie Hall; says Nick wryly, “The nature of … [it] eluded me.” Gershwin didn’t elude Fitzgerald. He had given Gershwin’s ‘You Don’t Know the Half of It, Dearie, Blues’ a shout-out in his short story ‘May Day’ (1920), and was living in Great Neck, working on Gatsby, when ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ had its premiere at Aeolian Hall in February 1924. Maybe he and Zelda went. Certainly they heard and read about it. Luhrmann uses this magnificent Modern music for the first time we – and Nick – ever get a good look at Jay Gatsby.
Nick has settled into Long Island life before he meets Gatsby. We are given to understand he’s a writer – as he unpacks his things in his little house on the water, there are many books. Nick picks up with a grin a big blue copy of Ulysses (just published in February, 1922, and banned in America at the time, like many things we see in Gatsby’s world). Of contemporary writers, Fitzgerald admired James Joyce, particularly his Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. At the supper party in Paris where, thanks to the publisher and bookseller Sylvia Beach, Fitzgerald first met Joyce, he impetuously offered to prove his devotion to Joyce by throwing himself out of a window. In the copy of Gatsby he gave to Joyce after the party, Fitzgerald drew Joyce with a halo and himself on his knees, worshipping. It’s perfect to think of Nick, who “was rather erudite in college,” curling up with Ulysses on his little front porch in the sea breeze.
When Nick goes to dinner at his cousin Daisy Buchanan’s, across the bay, her husband Tom greets him with “Shakespeare!” and “how’s the Great American Novel coming?” Tom makes his entrance galloping up his green lawn on one of his string of polo ponies to answer a ringing telephone. In the novel, he’s “the polo player” who’s never seen to play a game, but that’s how he’s known and thought of all the same. Tom is a swaggering boor, a serial adulterer, his “glory” days of Yale football long behind him but still preserved, laughably, in a whole roomful of trophies and ribbons and banners. That Joel Edgerton, eyes always hard and intent, aggressive down to his bristling little moustache and dark hair, looks very much like Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s made Tom funny to me. His cheating enters the movie in a way Fitzgerald would love – what Fitzgerald called the “fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency,” a ringing telephone. It’s his girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson. We don’t know her name yet, though Nick will meet her soon.
Daisy looks irrevocably like a little girl in this movie. Carey Mulligan might almost play DiCaprio’s or Edgerton’s daughter – both actors look ten years older in the movie than they do in real life. Mulligan brings out richly the infantilized, needy Daisy as well as the ethereal illusion Gatsby sees when he looks at her. When, at the end, Daisy is speaking to her toddler daughter Pammy, they’re both, as she says, Daddy’s girls. The two look startlingly alike – this is true too for the two youthful versions of Gatsby, who look remarkably DiCaprian. Mulligan’s youth and frailty is appropriate for the part, though; Daisy is a character hallmarked by two paradoxical things: weakness; and manipulativeness marketing itself as innocence. Mulligan bears the first in her bright, beady, thinking eyes under their long, sad eyebrows, and the second in her delicate body and shaking hands, constantly after a cigarette.
From this first appearance to the last, Daisy is beautiful and foolish – and a sly survivor. In the novel, we don’t see the letter from Gatsby she clings to until it’s destroyed, the night before her wedding to Tom. Here, we do. Gatsby tells her “the truth,” that he is “penniless” – and this is why she marries the unbelievably wealthy Tom, letting him wrap that $350,000 strand of pearls around her neck, and hold it like reins while he draws her to him for a kiss. She’s gotten just what she bargained for, and her heartbreak, if any, is entirely self-created.
There’s no way the whole novel can be filmed, of course, and Luhrmann is smart enough not to try. To put in everything would be to perform the entire novel, as the play Gatz does, and take seven or eight hours for every word to be spoken and shown. So small, often humorous details stand in for parts of the text. Luhrmann’s a master of this – remember the crouching cats on the Cuban bootheels of Tybalt, “prince of cats,” in Romeo + Juliet? That sort of thing. Some of the bright moments in Gatsby include Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) reading Town Tattle when we first see her as Nick arrives at the Buchanans’ – an accurate comment, I think, on her shallow character (Myrtle Wilson doesn’t read, in this movie, and she doesn’t need to). Tom exhibits his racism as he tweaks the bow tie of an African-American servant while talking about keeping the “colored” races down.
The terrific opening section of Chapter III, with the crates of oranges and lemons brought from a New York fruiterer on Friday and thrown out Monday as a “pyramid of pulpless halves” becomes something Gatsby shows off to Daisy when she visits his house the first time. Klipspringer leaves those tennis shoes of his on top of the giant organ on which he plays. “The Angry Diamond,” Fitzgerald’s synecdochic description of a jealous wife whose husband is talking to a young actress at one of Gatsby’s parties, becomes the name of the speakeasy where Gatsby, Nick, and Meyer Wolfshiem lunch. Daisy’s pearls are echoed in the pearls Tom gives Myrtle Wilson – not so expensive a strand, to be sure, but ripped from their string as she dies, just as Daisy has ripped hers from her throat the afternoon before her wedding.
One of the most notable changes in the movie is that Jordan Baker loses her importance entirely. Debicki plays her with passionate intensity and lanky energy, none of which is directed at Nick. Nick’s not very interested in Jordan, either. Despite Daisy’s quip at their first meeting that she’s going to arrange for them to fall for each other by throwing them together – into social situations, into linen closets – they have no relationship in Luhrmann’s Gatsby. Jordan has almost no time on the screen, and towers over Nick frighteningly when she does. Her one big scene, in which she tells him the back-story of Daisy and Gatsby in Louisville as she knows it, takes place not over tea at the Plaza but on a noisy Times Square rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Sayre. Honestly, I was more taken by Luhrmann’s Hitchcockian cameo, as the waiter who brings Nick to her table, than I was in anything Jordan gushingly and excessively said. Nick’s interest in her is that she’s a conduit for more of Gatsby’s story. I hadn’t really realized how annoying I find Jordan in the novel until I was spared her presence in this movie as Nick’s rather contrived, half-hearted love interest.
It always felt to me like the set-up Myrtle Wilson suggests to Nick with her sister Catherine (who’s said to be beautiful by people who know) was more fitting for a summer fling. Luhrmann makes it just that, during the drunken – and drugged – afternoon and night Nick spends in Tom and Myrtle’s love nest on the edges of Harlem. Tom and Nick rush off the train in the strikingly, grimly filmed Valley of Ashes, which is approximately under today’s Citi Field and its parking lots, to collect Myrtle at her pitiful, angry husband’s garage.
George Wilson (Jason Clarke) is an angry man, not at all who Edith Wharton called the limp Wilson of the novel. As he approaches Tom and Nick in his undershirt and grubby trousers, he moves like a young Marlon Brando. You’re not surprised at all to find him a man of action in the end. Gatsby, too, is an angry man in this movie – but, as in the book, he keeps his rage tamped down except for one blistering moment, the scene at the Plaza. Surely he has plenty at which to be enraged: his own poverty; the loss of Dan Cody’s legacy; his debt to Wolfshiem (in the movie, Wolfshiem owns and operates him); and most of all the fact that, while he was away at war, his girl married a rich man who despite his physical capability managed to evade the fighting. DiCaprio plays him cool, so cool, that his loss of cool is tremendous. In their momentary rages, Gatsby and his nemesis, Wilson, are well matched.
Wilson suspects nothing of Myrtle as she heads to town with her lover and his inadvertent friend. Nick is distressed by his cousin’s husband’s adultery. In a very funny scene, Nick and the little dog Myrtle has bought sit in the over-decorated red living room while Tom and Myrtle have very noisy sex in the bedroom. The dog, perhaps the cutest movie dog ever, is not the pathetic creature from the novel – I pity that poor little dog among the oblivious, drunken people more than any other animal in literature, including Old Yeller. This alert little Airedale, a direct descendant of Nick and Nora Charles’s Asta, is munching his dog-biscuit in a bowl of milk and looking at Nick in alarmed kinship as Tom and Myrtle yell and moan, as flesh slaps flesh, as furniture smashes into the walls. Nick, hat in hand, is finally running for the door – after having already been as much of an aural voyeur as he always is a visual one – when Myrtle’s sister Catherine (Adelaide Clemens) stops him in his tracks.
The movie’s most intimate party, and first orgy, ensues. Drink, pills, and hot loud music fill the afternoon and night. Will.i.am’s ‘Bang Bang’ thumps under the scene and then swells, swingy, peppy jazz giving way to the title’s drumbeat. “I love her, I need her /Forever, I always need her /She lie, but I believe her/ Love sick, I got that fever.” Nick is thoroughly occupied, for some stray mad hours, with smoldering-eyed, sexy Catherine, her jangling pottery bracelets, and her flapper freedom. In his underwear, Nick finally breaks away to look out at the windows adjacent, full of families and jazz musicians, hopeful women, and an African-American prostitute approaching her elderly white john. It’s Rear Window. What goes on? If you can see them, remember they can see you, too. When he wakes the next morning in lipstick-marked underwear on his porch at home, without a clue as to how he’s gotten there, Nick is being watched by Gatsby from the lonely tower next door.
Finally, we get to meet Gatsby at a party to which Nick appears to be the only person with a formal, written invitation. What an entrance Jay Gatsby makes. Klipspringer (Brendan Maclean), a “dubious descendant of Beethoven,” plays a comic-book gold organ larger than any in a cathedral; it’s custom-made by Wurlitzer, says Gatsby. He’s accompanied by a mad orchestra serenading us with Fergie and Q-Tip (with GoonRock) and ‘A Little Party Never Killed Nobody’, the hot, light horns giving way to synth percussion snapping along with Fergie’s challenging voice: “Either you’re mine, or you’re not / Make up your mind, sweet baby / Right here, right now’s all we’ve got / A little party never killed nobody / Right here, right now’s all we’ve got.” The “it don’t mean a thing” refrain later in the song begs for its rhyme, “if it ain’t got that swing” – a nice borrowing, here, from the great Duke Ellington. The helium-voice speedups in the song and incessant triumph of the percussion wrecked this one for me, though.
Prohibition, like most laws, is a joke in the novel, and a parody in the movie: you’ve never seen bigger Nebuchadnezzars of Champagne, more bootleg booze in electric colors, with glasses, as Fitzgerald says, the size of finger-bowls. Taking a glass from a passing tray as he’s bedazzled by showering fireworks and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Nick doesn’t notice the “JG” ring on the hand of the man he believes to be a waiter. But in response to his semi-intoxicated gabble about the man named Gatsby and who is this guy anyway, Gatsby turns around. Introducing Jay Gatsby, outlined against the sky, and against the fireworks he’s set off to attract the attention of the woman living right across the water, behind that green light. It’s a real keeper of a movie moment.
Now that Nick, and we, have met “this Gatsby” comes the set-up, the sting – good 1920s words for Gatsby’s intense, long-term plan to repeat the past. He knows from Jordan that Nick is Daisy’s cousin. The way Gatsby operates is Godfatherly – to offer something, and then to ask for what he wants. He invites Nick to lunch in town, and drives him there badly, and nervously, in his big yellow car. DiCaprio makes it much of it a joy-ride, though, as he tells Nick his part-lie, part-true life story with a sheepish proud grin. The words from the novel occupy Nick’s mind in an unobtrusive voice-over: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world….’Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all….’ Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.”
The speakeasy where Gatsby and Nick meet Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan) is cleverly conceived. And the song playing for much of the scene is, for my money, the best new one on the soundtrack: Jay-Z’s rollicking, raunchy ‘100$ Bill’. The club, The Angry Diamond, has a barbershop as its front, and lobster lunches and cabaret inside. The women, led by an African-American woman who looks like Josephine Baker, shimmy and shake while rich white men enjoy lobster and Champagne, and watch them.
Race is keenly drawn in this movie, as in the book. Tom Buchanan’s rants about the dangerous rise of the “colored empires” are coupled by his gestures that mock the African-American waiters at his supper table, to Nick’s visible embarrassment. They serve to make of him an even more rephrensible character than we already think he is. The lead shimmy dancer at The Angry Diamond appears later at a party of Gatsby’s – not as entertainment, but as a guest. There, then, is a major difference between Buchanan and Gatsby. In the scene where a car full of wealthy African-Americans with a white chauffeur crosses the bridge next to Nick and Gatsby, they’re drinking the same Champagne that Gatsby serves at his parties, Moet. It may be marketing, but it’s also a nice egalitarian touch.
Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfshiem makes for an interesting commentary on both race and ethnicity. His skin is lighter than that of the dancers, darker than Nick’s or Gatsby’s. His eyes are more mesmerizing even than DiCaprio’s. This movie does right to call attention to the eyes of its actors and actresses; vision and seeing, under the omniscient Eckleburgian gaze, are a major theme of the novel. Wolfshiem’s time on the screen is brief, but his presence is felt ever after. “My boy,” he greets Gatsby in his first words, and his boy is the truth of who Gatsby is. His people run the enormous house, and run Gatsby, too. The one time Gatsby’s goon of a guard fails to protect him, at the swimming pool at the end, you must wonder if it’s intentional, especially when you hear soon after that “Wolfshiem’s people” have come and stripped the house of everything. Unfortunately, one of the book’s best lines is lost here: Wolfshiem has a tie tack, instead of cuff links, made of a human molar. Instead of asking Gatsby dryly if he’s a dentist, Nick meekly asks only if Wolfshiem’s an actor.
Nick is not going to do business with this man, nor with Gatsby. After he’s set up by his lunch with Gatsby, and tea with Jordan Baker, to invite Daisy to his house so Gatsby can meet her again, Nick feels bound to assert his doing so on his terms. What he’s doing is playing pander – bringing his married cousin back together with a man who still loves her, to see what might happen. His guilt about this is never well explored; he takes in the secret of Tom’s adultery, and then Daisy’s, without any visible effect.
As Nick’s little cottage is being cleaned up for Daisy’s arrival, in a very funny scene of overdone gardening and tea preparations ensuing in the rain, Fats Waller’s ‘I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby’ keeps time in the background. I was horrified that “the secret of Castle Rackrent” becomes “the secret of Carraway Castle.” Had the book’s line stayed unchanged, it might have spurred moviegoers to go out and read Maria Edgeworth’s satire of mismanaged estates and brutal husbands, which, by the way, you should do. Thank heavens, though, that Luhrmann has Gatsby come in from the rain to meet Daisy – not just come in from the rain, but come in drenched, his white suit stuck to him, the pockets and dark handkerchief showing through, “glaring tragically” and dripping water from his chin. Earlier movie versions fail this important moment in the book entirely; Luhrmann, and DiCaprio, nail it.
From this scene on, you understand that both Daisy and Gatsby have theme music. Two songs in this movie recur like litanies when the characters are onscreen. For Daisy, it’s Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young + Beautiful’, and for Gatsby, Jack White’s version of ‘Love is Blindness’. Remember when movies used to have themes for their characters? My favorite example of this will always be Gone With the Wind. ‘Tara’s Theme’ for the movie itself, ‘Katie Bell’ for Scarlett. This used to be such a staple of movies that we have themes we know as well as the characters: Shaft, James Bond. It gets parodied, of course, as in There’s Something About Mary.
Jack White’s raw, spare cover of the U2 song ‘Love is Blindness’, which originally appeared on Achtung Baby in 1991, was released in 2011 as part of Achtung Baby Covered. Both this and “Young + Beautiful” have taglines repeated over and over again, litanies appropriate to the characters. “Love is blindness” sums up Gatsby’s inability to see anything but his romantic illusions of Daisy – he can’t see the sad married woman she’s become, nor himself through the eyes of others, nor most aspects of what we everyday people call reality.
“I’ve seen the world, done it all,” laments Del Rey, on Daisy’s behalf. “Hot summer nights, mid-July, when you and I were forever one” are over now. It’s hard to believe Daisy Buchanan has an “aching soul,” or ever will. “Pretty face and electric soul” is a good description of what Daisy sees in Jay. “Please let me bring my man”? Which man? With Daisy, you’re never sure. “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful,” the refrain, is an insecure, fading woman’s plaintive, possibly vexing question. Of course Gatsby will still love her, always and ever – hasn’t Daisy read the book?! Yet it’s exactly this question that haunts her. It’s a theme just like the character: catchy and vapid, Del Rey’s pretty, flutey voice crooning out a question that only a beautiful little fool would ask a man.
In some ways, the novel moves directly downhill from the moment Daisy and Jay are face to face once more. The movie recognizes this, and light, funny moments occur no more. The lovers’ reunion is played out that one afternoon as if it lasts a whole summer: Daisy and Jay, in different outfits, swimming and golfing (badly) and dancing while Nick, our observer and voyeur, mans the camera.
One of the best-known moments in the novel comes when Daisy, in Jay’s bedroom, looks at his shirts. Daisy’s downright assaulted by the shirts in the movie. She laughs at first, grabbing at them, playing among them – but they keep coming. They begin to bury her. They overwhelm her; they might crush her. Gatsby doesn’t get it – he just keeps on throwing until she collapses, petulant and whimpery. Five years trembling on her lips (Nick ventriloquizes cynically for every frustrated reader of Gatsby that’s ever been), and all she can come up with is: “It makes me sad (giggle) because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.” There’s no stormy sobbing from this Daisy – she doesn’t have that much emotion, ever. What does Gatsby see in this silly person? Love is blindness.
There’s another party at Gatsby’s, but this one is no fun for anyone. Daisy and Gatsby head away into the garden, and from Nick’s look, you can tell he’s wondering if they’re going to his house. They don’t. Business matters ensue, and separate them, while Tom’s unsurprisingly off with a famous actress (Daisy’s gesture of giving him her silver pencil for other women’s addresses is perfectly done). The sight of Gatsby amidst the ruins, as servants around him clean up following yet another orgy, lets you know that all parties are soon to be over. As Nick’s confusion and discomfort, increasing in this scene, continue to grow, so do the movie’s. Small moments stand out, but basically, we’re rushing to the Plaza, and thence “toward death through the cooling twilight.”
For Tom and Gatsby to be drag-racing across the Queensboro Bridge sums up the action-movie aspect of Gatsby that I disliked. When it’s done jokingly, the comic-bookish action – like the whirling, sexy slapstick of the party at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment – is brilliant. But when it’s serious, it fails. The men are in competition. We get it. The testosterone parody of Tom in Gatsby’s car and Gatsby in Tom’s, pushing for the limit, doesn’t do anything to direct us toward Myrtle’s coming death. The one redeeming moment in this scene is Daisy, smiling radiantly and entirely unconcerned about the speed or the men. This is a woman who could get behind the wheel and run over her husband’s mistress like a dog, then let her lover die for it while she makes her getaway.
The Plaza Hotel scene is full of intense details – like the Plaza napkin, monogrammed in blood-red, with which Tom wipes his thick sweating neck. Gatsby has repeated many times, to himself, to Nick, that Daisy must say she’s never loved Tom. When finally put to the test, she fails. Gatsby’s world shatters with Daisy’s confession that “I loved you, too,” and when he snaps he’s responding to this “too,” not to Tom’s baiting him about his not having been well-born. Gatsby’s shattering fit of anger is the only realistic action moment in the movie. DiCaprio plays it excellently, from the yelling to the trembling apology, as does Edgerton, who for all his physicality throughout the movie doesn’t lift a finger against his attacker. Tom’s the one who’s cool, now. Gatsby’s cool is forever lost, and, by tomorrow, it’ll be his life that’s lost, too.
Jack White’s rough voice soars, reminding us yet again that love is blindness, and Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s blank bespectacled eyes watch as Myrtle, hit by Gatsby’s car, spins against the backdrop of the billboard as her broker pearls hail down. Myrtle Wilson’s death is so awful that we get to see it twice, with different detail each time. In one of the grimmest lines of the novel, “her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen to the heart beneath.” That line gets realized here, along with Wilson’s having thrown her down and beaten her first – Myrtle’s face is bloodied already as she runs toward the big yellow car, calling “Tom! Stop!”
Does Daisy hear those words, in the open car? Is this why, suddenly realizing Tom’s “woman” is running toward her, she accelerates? It’s ambiguous. It’s not ambiguous, though, that Daisy is indeed driving, and that Gatsby tries to turn the car away from Myrtle. The two lovers cower in the front seat as the dying body ricochets off the headlight and hood, and shatters the windscreen in front of them. When Gatsby is later washing the car at his garage, he casually tosses out a bucketful of water as he speaks to Nick, and we wince to see the blood in it.
It’s also not ambiguous that Tom directs George Wilson to kill Gatsby. Fitzgerald layers Tom’s engineering of the murder more delicately, but in the movie it’s a blunt demand for revenge and execution. Tom thinks Gatsby has killed Myrtle. Too crafty, and cowardly, to kill Gatsby himself, he uses George Wilson just as he’s used Myrtle. “Something oughta be done about a man like that,” are the words with which he leaves Wilson. Those, and the name: Gatsby.
The last retrospective Nick and Gatsby share, at Gatsby’s house late that night, includes Gatsby at the very end of his dock – where he’s as close to Daisy as he can be – and a flashback to Louisville that’s played in the clouds. In the clouds, oh, no, you think, as the scene begins, in its sepia monochromes. Yet Gatsby’s whole illusion and delusion of Daisy is as insubstantial as a cloud. Remember the pink clouds from the novel, in which Daisy says she wants to put Gatsby and push him around? It’s perhaps her most manipulative line, playing straight to his romantic sensibilities – push him around she surely does. For the Louisville scene to be projected into the clouds reminds us that the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, are all about to disappear.
I was baffled as to why the monograms in the windows at Daisy’s house in Louisville read “JB” and “MB.” Her parents’ or grandparents’ initials? Daisy’s maiden name is Fay. This is a weird, big error. The moment, though, when Gatsby tells Nick that he waited before kissing Daisy that night years ago, because he knows that it will change his life forever, is movingly done. In the novel she’s “the first ‘nice’ girl he’d ever known.” In the movie, she has sex with him upstairs in her parents’ house moments, apparently, after meeting him. Upon this, he feels married to her. These last moments with Gatsby are, though inevitably all round and about Daisy, well played.
Nick, in his frantic noisy Wall Street office the next day, sells no bonds. He stares at the telephone. In her house, Daisy stares at the telephone (a white princess phone, of course). Gatsby has his phone carried down to the pool with him so it can be standing by for Daisy’s call that never comes. When Gatsby’s phone begins to ring, it’s Nick calling, not Daisy, and Gatsby is shot as the call comes in.
As he dies, Gatsby says “Daisy.” I heard moans in the theater. Perhaps it’s the fact of the word being audible, in what’s so supremely a visual scene: DiCaprio in a black superhero bodysuit-bathing suit, the eyes, the hair, the bluegreen of the pool. It might have been better if he’d just mouthed the word. But it’s not wrong that the man dies with that name on his lips. Really, if Jay Gatsby has a last word, what else could it ever be? Robert Redford’s reiteration of “Daisy” in the 1974 movie was parodic; this single word is something of a resolution, in the unresolved and irresolute world of this story. James Rennie, the first actor to play Gatsby (on Broadway in 1926), was shot onstage in front of his Daisy, Florence Eldredge. Rennie told a newspaper interviewer that it was his choice to walk toward Daisy as he was dying, smiling because her face was going to be the last thing he’d ever see – and that was as Gatsby would want it.
As Gatsby’s body floats in the pool, tabloid photographers shoot it from above. With his hair floating free, DiCaprio seems moored in a Titanic moment, at first, and then I thought of William Holden, floating in that pool on Sunset Boulevard. Luhrmann even uses the line “are you ready for your close-up?” while Nick’s filming Daisy and Gatsby on the afternoon they first meet again. It’s a great reference, particularly when you think that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett based much of Sunset Boulevard on Fitzgerald’s own Hollywood stories, and tales of the Jazz Age.
The last time you see Daisy and Jay, the scene is doubled: they’re filmed in the same space, beneath the grand staircases, of their respective houses. Gatsby lies in his coffin, still radiant, alone amid the banks of flowers under the staircase where the parties had swirled, up which he’d watched Daisy ascending, cozied against which he and Daisy surrounded by a conflagration of candles listened to Klipspringer play the outrageous golden Wurlitzer. And Tom and Daisy, with Tom silent for once and Daisy cooing over her lookalike little girl, stand at the foot of their staircase. Behind them the stream of luggage, all their wealth and trappings, pours down the stairs and out the door.
There’s only wreckage to come. Old Mr. Gatz never comes to Jimmy’s funeral – Gatsby doesn’t have one, in the movie. How do your bury a superhero? You don’t. The house is left a broken shambles, and Nick revisits it once more before his own crack-up. Long Island, that “slender riotous island,” vanishes, and the focus is on Manhattan, with those white typewriter letters forming Fitzgerald’s prose poetry blowing through the streets. Oscar Wilde, who Fitzgerald read at Princeton, coined the term “prose poem.” I’ve always thought it eminently applicable to Fitzgerald’s own writing, and nowhere more so than at the end of Gatsby.
Fade out into that same kaleidoscopic lifting-off, above the landscape and its history that Fitzgerald engages in on the last page of the novel. The words move any reader powerfully, and always will. The movie doesn’t try to take them on head-on, and shifts instead to Nick, now cured, leaving the Perkins Sanitarium. Like the Buchanans – with whom he has no final encounter – like Gatsby’s incoherent failure of a house, Nick’s packing up to go, now, too. Clean and scrubbed, but still looking like an older man, he tucks into his bag a box of typescript called Gatsby. With a fountain pen, he adds “The Great” to the title page, and smiles contentedly. As happy as I am, I guess, with the idea of Nick no longer in hospital and having succeeded in becoming The Great American Novelist while institutionalized, I’d rather have had the movie end with him standing on the shore, reciting that last magnificent last page by heart
Anne Margaret Daniel
Hot Press 2013
Quotations from the novel are from F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Scribners, 1925). From Fitzgerald’s letters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret Duggan (Random House, 1980); and A Life in Letters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, A New Collection, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Touchstone, 1995).