Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann attempts to finesse anti-Semitic nuances in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel

Mon, May 6, 2013, 21:01


Embargoes still prohibit me from commentating at length on Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming The Great Gatsby. But a glance at the trailer will alert you to one of many odd aspects to the production. Readers of F Scott Fitzgerald’s book will remember the shady gangster — a close associate of the protagonist — who went by the unambiguous name of Meyer Wolfsheim. The character was, of course, modelled on Arnold Rothstein, the hoodlum who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. In the years since the book was published, there has been much muttering about Fitzgerald’s faintly anti-Semitic caricaturing of that character. It’s a tricky one. Many readers have come to the conclusion that Gatsby — a great faker, of course — may himself have been Jewish. This does not let Fitzgerald off the hook. Accept that notion and you allow the suspicion that the author views his hero’s past as a class of “secret shame”. There was a lot of ugly thinking concerning Jews during the inter-war years.

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At any rate, the role obviously posed certain problems for our our Baz. Whatever else you might say about that director, he has always come across as an inclusive, all-embracing sort of fellow. He wouldn’t want to give off any bigoted vapours. He acknowledged as much in a recent interview. “I was trying to solve the issue of Meyer Wolfsheim because there’s a big question there,” he said. “Fitzgerald draws the character in what some might say is a very broad, anti-Semitic manner.”

Baz’s solution does, however, strange things to an already strange production. He decided to cast the great Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role (see him at “33 above). Hang on! Now, you risk offending both Indian viewers and Jewish ones (and those neutrals who pay attention to dubious racial attitudes in the movies). Aside from anything else, he is taking work away from Jewish actors. Isn’t that sort of flexible racial casting regarded with some suspicion now? Baz’s point seems to be that, by having an Indian actor play a character with a Jewish name, he is rendering any racial or religious associations null and void. It’s not that Meyer is both Jewish and Indian. It’s that he’s neither of those things.

My head is spinning. Well, at least he has shown that he cares. Decide for yourself when Gatsby opens on May 16th. We’ll be warbling about its arrival at the Cannes Film Festival two days before that.