A theme-park film of ‘The Great Gatsby’ for a phony America
Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy 3D version of F Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel looks like Jay Gatsby made it
When I started out in journalism I spent five long years as a reporter in Montgomery County, Maryland, a cosseted suburb of Washington.
I felt suffocated, as though I’d never escape to the blazing, gritty larger world I dreamed of covering.
Driving to work every day, I passed a small cemetery connected to St Mary’s Catholic church in Rockville. I would always look up and give a silent salute to F Scott Fitzgerald, who was buried there in the Fitzgerald family plot. His modest headstone features the indelible final line of The Great Gatsby : “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
There was something both incongruous and congruous in the final resting spot of the shimmering American chronicler of corrosive glamour and crushed dreams: next to a busy highway peppered with tacky strip malls.
When Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44 after a failed stint as a screenwriter, a losing struggle with alcoholism and a relationship with the Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham, his Hollywood funeral attracted only 30 people, including his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and required hired pallbearers. For 35 years Fitzgerald was buried in a Protestant cemetery two miles from St Mary’s, until the Catholic Church got over the idea that his decadence precluded a Catholic burial and let him and Zelda in.
No second acts
Surveying his own crushed dreams once, Fitzgerald — who sold the movie rights to The Great Gatsby for $16,666 in the 1920s, sparking a long succession of green lights for his enchanted green-light saga — famously said that there are no second acts in American life. For someone who wrote an iconic American novel (as Lionel Trilling observed, “Gatsby, divided between power and dream, comes inevitably to stand for America itself“) it was a bad miscalculation. Americans love sin and redemption and reinvention almost as much as they love stuff.
Fitzgerald is not only having a glittering second act, he’s having it in the third dimension.
All over Manhattan, in anticipation of the opening of Baz Luhrmann’s $104.5 million 3D theme-park ride of The Great Gatsby , with its hip-hop-studded soundtrack and gorgeous Prada dresses, Fitzgerald is being celebrated with starry parties; Tiffany’s jazz-baby windows; Brooks Brothers boaters, bow ties and canes; and a Vogue cover of the latest Daisy Buchanan, Carey Mulligan, gleaming in diamonds and pearls.
“She’s in her own TV show,” Mulligan said of her character. “She’s like a Kardashian.”
In this gaudy, blingy, frenzied version that puts the roaring in Roaring Twenties, gin bottles, bits of the novel’s text and Gatsby’s passel of pastel shirts come flying off the screen right at you.
“It will be interesting,” Robert Redford wryly told me, “to see how many in the audience grab for a shirt.”
The 3D glasses, though, just get in the way of seeing the more subtle elements of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece: the decay of souls, the crumbling mythology and the dark side of social mobility.
Some at screenings last week muttered at how appalled they were that Gatsby was being treated like a Disney pirate movie. One woman said the dizzying kaleidoscope made her long to see a small black-and-white version of the film. But the Australian director argues that Fitzgerald was a modernist fascinated with new cinematic techniques and jazz when it was dangerous, so he would have been intrigued by 3D and rap.
Luhrmann told t he Wall Street Journal that when he met Jay-Z about scoring the soundtrack and showed him a rough cut, Jay, who started as Shawn Carter, immediately connected with the other Jay, who started as James Gatz: “Jay turns to me and goes, ‘It’s an aspirational film. You know, the thing about this story is that it’s not a question of how Gatsby made his money, it’s is he a good person or not? Is there meaning in his life? And all these characters, do they have a moral compass?”
Robert Evans, the legendary producer, was running Paramount when the studio made the 1974 Gatsby for $6.4 million with Redford and Mia Farrow, a commercial success despite being pronounced “as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool” by Vincent Canby in the New York Times . Evans said he spent some time with Luhrmann before Baz started the film and warned him (in vain) not to overcommercialise and overpublicise the movie.
“The trouble we had with our Gatsby was that everything was Gatsbyised from your toes to your hats, from your stockings to your pants,” Evans told me. “It took it away from a work of art to a work of commerce.”
He believes the movie was damaged by a 1974 Time cover on the hype involved in selling Gatsby , a story that started with this Evans quote: “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.”
The most successful rendering of the novel was the most literal, unadorned one: Gatz , the Public Theatre’s seven-hour reading of the novel by actors.
John Collins, the director of Gatz , who says he has listened to the novel read more than 200 times, was generous about the “contemporary sensibilities” of the latest iteration, even big changes like having the narrator, Nick Carraway, end up in a sanitarium because of his “morbid alcoholism”. That’s where Luhrmann’s Nick writes the novel and narrates the movie.
“The movie is almost kind of a comic-book idea of The Great Gatsby , Collins said. “I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. It’s an imaginative project.”
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic , understands that we’re drawn back to Gatsby because we keep seeing modern buccaneers of banking and hedge funds, swathed in carelessness and opulence. “But what most people don’t understand is that the adjective ‘great’ in the title was meant laconically,” he said. “There’s nothing genuinely great about Gatsby. He’s a poignant phony. Owing to the money-addled society we live in, people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticise.”
He noted that Gatsby movies are usually just moving versions of Town and Country magazine, and that filmmakers “get seduced by the seductions that the book itself is warning about”.
A really great movie of the novel, he argues, would “show a dissenting streak of austerity”. He thinks it’s time for a black Gatsby, noting that Jay-Z might be an inspirational starting point – “a young man of talents with an unsavoury past consumed by status anxiety and ascending unstoppably through tireless self-promotion and increasingly conspicuous wealth”.
The problem with the Gatsby movies, he said, “is that they look like they were made by Gatsby. The trick is to make a Gatsby movie that couldn’t have been made by Gatsby — an unglossy portrait of gloss”.