In my younger and more vulnerable years, I first crossed paths with the haunted Jazz Age fantasia that is The Great Gatsby. As so many had before me (and as so many have after me), I first read Gatsby during my sophomore year of high school, in that most dreaded teenage academic playground that is American Literature. The book was firmly nestled in the spring of my 16th year, removed just enough from the autumnal reading of The Catcher in the Rye and winter’s excursion with The Old Man and the Sea; it served as almost a gateway into the world of short fiction and poetry that would close the year. I still have vivid memories of staring deep into the Francis Cugat painting that adorns the classic version of the cover, the nocturnal landscape it portrayed both enticing and forboding.
It was a great year in my life for book covers and mystery. I knew almost nothing about Catcher in the Rye, save for its notorious reputation, so when I first cracked open its pages, I became preoccupied with that spartan magenta cover. It immediately brought to mind the ethos of the brown paper wrapper, of illicit objects clandestinely sent in the mail, objects whose true nature was not to be seen by the eyes of the young. For me, Catcher held the promise of the most explosive and titillating obscenities; even though I was reading it in the confines of a fairly straight Catholic school, I convinced myself that someone had slipped up and inadvertently allowed transgressive smut to be added to the curriculum (I had experienced a similar occurrence in 7th grade, while attending a conservative Lutheran grade school, when, in the school’s library, I happened upon a dust jacket-deprived hardback copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories That Scared Even Me, a nasty short story collection which dealt in matters such as demonic temptresses, graphically violent mutated fish-men and homicidal children. Subsequently, I became its most ardent borrower; it was a seminal literary experience and my own little secret in that morally strict microcosmos.)
So it was that in the span of three days, I dashed through Salinger’s bindungsroman, waiting for an orgy to break out deep within its pages, or for Holden Caulfield to begin his inevitable killing spree. The fact that neither of these events occurred was mildly disappointing. Still, my immersion in Holden’s mind was thrilling. I had lived most of my formative years hewing close to the rules (of school, of home, of society), so to have a character give such profane voice to my latent anti-social desires was a moment of clarity and revelation.
But the heart on a sleeve existence of Catcher and its seemingly smutty cover were merely a preamble for the deep mysteries which lay within Cugat’s Gatsby cover. Once again embracing the possibilities of mystery, I knew almost nothing of the inhabitants of East Egg, West Egg, old Manhattan and the Valley of the Ashes before I embarked on my literary journey to meet their denizens, so that iconic cover image served as a possible harbinger of glamor and danger. My parents had raised me in a rich literary heritage, always providing me with a diverse and often preternaturally advanced slate of books and magazines, so without knowing it, I shared with Nick Carraway the sense of existing in two worlds at once. I loved the classics, but I also thrilled to reading of the kayfabed exploits of professional wrestlers; subsequently, the best of my friends were blood brothers, but I often related better to adults. The intimate revelations of young men (or at least the terms in which they express them) may, indeed, be usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions, but the intimate recesses of the heart of a young man raised in such disparate worlds are also fantastic breeding grounds for a love of the unknown, a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, a susceptibility to maudlin idealism. So though I knew little of the contents within Gatsby, that Cugat cover beckoned to me from my desk, those penetrating, ghostly eyes floating in the night like the romantic visions that passed through my dreams.
But wait, we’re here to talk about Baz Lurhmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, right? Well, yes. But as the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed from the previous paragraph, Gatsby has never just been a book to me. True, on that first teenage reading, it was the tragic romantic odyssey that I was so accustomed to from the pulps…and from the world of the squared circle. But it quickly mutated into a Burroughsian word virus, one that has continued to evolve throughout my life.
During my first exposure to Fitzgerald’s viral heartbreaker, I solely identified with Gatsby himself. Here, finally, was one of the great modern precursors to the romantic philosophy that been instilled in me by years of classic film, cartoons and the like. And what youthful dreamer wouldn’t find himself in the former Jimmy Gatz? Here was a good looking roughneck who literally sacrificed everything for the idealized object of his desire. Isn’t this what romance was supposed to be to a teen, let alone one whose perceptions had been so finely tuned to life’s mixture of the sacred and profane? And so, I endeavored to recreate Gatsby’s life in my own, pining after young ladies who resided just out of my reach, knowing that only those who required a Grail quest were worthy of that hazy and ultimate attainment.
At this point of the narrative, some of you will be pointing out the obvious irony of the aforementioned line about young men and their plagiaristic revelations. And to you I ask this: haven’t you ever been a teenager?
In any case, my dream of the life of Trimalchio was rudely fractured several times by females quite more pragmatic than I. These experiences, while rough, also toughened me a bit. But I still clung to Gatsby’s dreamy sense of the possibilities of the impossible. And that, in large part, was because I refused to read Gatsby as the novel it was, only as the one I wanted it to be. Indeed, it wasn’t until a sophomore level college course that I finally came around to the underbelly of Gatsby’s dream, how Fitzgerald constantly undercuts the flightiness and doomed obsession of his quest, even as he simultaneously paints it in the most dazzling of veneers. And so the virus mutated further. And then, one fine morning in the fall of my 23rd year, I realized that my Gatbsyesque romantic longings were a fool’s game, one with only heartbreak and ruin as the prize. So I hardened my resolve toward life, stopped letting others dictate the potential happiness of my flights of fancy.
Or, at least, I did for the most part.
The spring of my 28th year brought a new evolution in this virus, one which brought final realization of with which character I truly identified. For by that point, due to my tendency to reserve judgment, many curious natures had opened themselves to me, and I had become the victim of not a few veteran bores. I became aware of how I attracted such a wide cross section of friends, many times including the enemies of enemies. And with this sense of openness came the acceptance that while Gatsby’s dreams may have been the more classically gallant pursuit, I was Nick Carraway through and through: still open to the possibility for transcendence in life, but also wryly aware of the riotous, often calamitous excursions of the human heart.
Feel free dear reader, if you so wish, to insert boilerplate copy about God’s Lonely Man at this point of your perusal of these words. But also be aware that it should be saved for an excursion into the universal allure of Travis Bickle to a confused young man, one which will have to be pursued at another time.
And so, if the past is indeed prologue, then how to approach an essay on the state of nostalgia which focuses on the new version of a classic tale steeped in such nostalgic longings? Or, moreover, is it possible to approach Baz Lurhmann’s Gatsby as a work both of and apart from the pull of the past, as a realization of Fitzgerald’s prose but also a new work in and of itself? I can’t promise to fully answer these questions, dear reader…but I can try.
It’s appropriate that an adaptation of the greatest modern nostalgia narrative just west of Proust has been steeped in debate over its fidelity to the past. There is, of course, Jack Clayton’s somewhat derided, yet still respected 1974 film adaptation with which to tangle. Yes, Gatsby was twice filmed before the tastefully glittery Robert Redford vehicle, but it is this one which has resonated most (even in its limited manner) and for the longest time in the popular consciousness. My fond nostalgic narrative includes a brief chapter set in that star-crossed high school English class, during which we watched the 1974 Gatsby. My teacher was very much an older woman unstuck in time, a sage lady whose murky past served as a matter of juvenile mystery and fascination for us (Had she really been a nun? Had she left the nunnery for marriage? Was the lurid tale of her fiancée jilting her at the altar true? It couldn’t be; it was too fantastical. But still…) On that final day of the film, the end of school bell rung as the credits began to roll. Naturally, my classmates beat a hasty retreat for the exit, but I stayed behind to savor the final images. Say what you will about this version of the story, but its opening and end credits, bracketed by the strains of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” (with its invocation of the divine romance that “tis broken and cannot be mended”) and briefly mixed with the similar 20’s standard “Ain’t We Got Fun?” (the twin Sisyphean questions that lie at the heart of the narrative) offer one of the truest evocations of Fitzgerald’s spirit: the grand vista of Gatsby’s manor, now a haunted house of fetishized objects with no humanity to embrace them. Those fleeting moments at the film’s conclusion (and really, classmates of my past, was it too much to ask for two more minutes of your time?) spent with that wise, aging lady gave me a sense of kinship with whatever truth lay behind the mysteries of her existence; no matter how melodramatically troubled her past may or may not have been, these few moments in the present bonded her, if ever so briefly, with a punk kid who usually sat in the back of the room, snarkily jabbing at the imagined inferiors who sat around him.
Perhaps the main criticism of the 1974 Gatsby is that it shares too much of a kinship with its eponymous hero: it looks the part in spades, but there’s a nagging feeling that there’s not much beneath the surface. The sets are naturalistically gorgeous, the costumes period accurate. The script hews closely to Fitzgerald’s prose. I’ve always enjoyed the blank appeal of Mia Farrow as Daisy, her doe eyes peering through fog filters like those melancholic ones that peer through the night in the Cugat cover, her canned laugh an alluring replication of the hollow, money-filled one of the book. I have several friends who view Bruce Dern’s Tom Buchanan as an act of heresy against the book, what with his beanpole physique and nasally voice. But I’ve always admired the deep recesses of condescension that Dern was able to summon forth; he might not look like Fitzgerald’s Tom, but the spirit of that old-moneyed bully seems to have fully possessed him. And at the heart of the film lies Redford’s Gatsby, seemingly the perfect actor for this seemingly perfect construct of a man. In his prime, Redford’s boyish charm and smoldering good looks were his calling card, but he could also project a frozen blankness (similar to that Farrow could conjure) that could both help and hurt him. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but there have been many times when I felt as if his screen visage was holding me at a distance; I could admire his acting chops, but I’d never be privy to the delights of his Aspen nights. (Ironically enough, his classic run of collaborations with Paul Newman may have provided the truest depiction of unfettered romance in his career.) But there’s very much a feeling of suppressed tastefulness about the film. In so many ways, it’s the Gatsby of Gatsby adaptations: so beautiful to view, so easy to admire, yet so hard to passionately love.
Cue the critics of Lurhmann’s Gatsby, those who would wield the cudgel of style over substance against it. But let’s relegate them to the rear of the stage for a moment, for addressing criticism as a primary concern before addressing admiration is mostly a futile endeavor.
And also because I was primed to be a critic of the new Gatsby. It was easy to hear the words “Lurhmann” “Gatsby” and “3D” and think that mindless excess was on the way. Well, it was easy if, like me, you hadn’t actually seen a Lurhman film at that point. Subsequently, I finally watched his Romeo and Juliet, appreciating it as a kinetic and thoroughly modern take on a story that has too often become calcified in time. And then I saw that first trailer for his Gatsby, a phantasmagoric haze of iconic moments set to a Jack White cover of U2’s “Love is Blindness”, and my hope for something different was renewed.
Hope, that great and horrible concept that drives Fitzgerald’s novel, was also at the heart of his inspiration for the book. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, he stressed his hope that he could create “something new-something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” It’s this aspiration that has driven many a reader to a passionate engagement with Gatsby, as it views the Jazz Age world (and the eternal world) in terms that are so simple, yet so complex.
So it was that I (a confirmed 3D agnostic) sat front and center at the first multidimensional screening of the film, ready to take the plunge into the heart of its riotous excursions. And plunge is the most fitting term for this new Gatsby, for in its full stereoscopic version (ably abetted by Simon Duggan’s stylish lensing) it is a deep and giddy dive into all that is gaudy and extravagant and haunting and heartbreaking about the story. And it all begins with snow, the seeming antithesis of the Gatsby experience.
For if the 1974 version suffered somewhat from being so focused on all matters Gatsby, this version is truly Nick Carraway’s tale. Some have been critical of Lurhmann’s framing device, in which Nick lives up to his Fitzgeraldian influence by recovering from those tumultuous days in the East at a sanatarium, morbid alcoholism chief among the doctoral concerns surrounding our narrator. But it perfectly captures what the 1974 version struggled to: the knowledge that these are Nick’s winter dreams (to quote another Fitzgerald story) that we’re privy to, children of his subconscious that exist as both fantasy and nightmare. And so, the dynamic first hour of the film as master class in sensory overload, Gatsby’s first party in particular matching the most excessive and bling-drenched glories of modern hip hop bashes (hence the anachronistic soundtrack choices….here, I could go on and on in debate over the seeming appropriateness of Lurhmann’s musical philosophy, but you, dear reader, are fully entitled to not groove on this aspect of his craft. The 1974 Gatsby still exists for your viewing pleasure.) The late Tony Scott would have swooned over the undulating curtains in the Buchanan sitting room, virtually characters in their own right that aren’t so much beholden to photorealism as to Nick’s heady sense memories. I was particularly struck by the depiction of Ewing Klipspringer as not the eccentric pianist of the book but the mad pipe organist of Gatsby’s bacchanalia, long and stringy hair blanketing his manic features, perhaps recalling the late, great William Finley’s Phantom of the Paradise (or Guy Pearce’s pre-Extremis-infused uber-nerd Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3….quite the season for stringy haired geek geniuses we’re having, no?)
And what is Nick’s tale without Nick himself (hmmm….does that make sense? Ah, run with it, reader.) No matter what reservations I had about Lurhmann’s Gatsby, the casting of Tobey Maguire as Nick struck me as a perfect choice. It’s been Maguire’s seeming wide-eyed naivete (the reverse negative of Mia Farrow’s glacial stare) that has been his stock in trade; it’s what both blessed and eventually cursed his depiction of Peter Parker in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man cycle. Nick’s eventual disillusionment with the world of the East can’t reach its full bloom without the first flush of infatuation to precede it, and it’s this aspect of his personality that Maguire fully captures; he’s the ultimate blank slate on which the audience can project their sympathies (while also being aware that they’re projecting those sympathies onto a constructed memory.) Even though Maguire is older than Sam Waterston was when he filled the same role in the 1974 version, the former web-slinger maintains a sense of slowly fading boyishness that the future Law and Order star didn’t quite have so many years ago. And this is key, because Nick enters the world of New York as somewhat of a precocious man-child and exits as a broken adult. Indeed, Lurhmann may list morbid alcoholism as chief among Nick’s ailments, but the films overwhelmingly gives the impression (true to the source text) that the tendency to booze it up is only a surface symptom of Nick’s deeper illness: a heart and soul that have been torn at by too many suitors.
What of the central romantic triangle, though? I’ve often run hot and cold on Leo DiCaprio, his tendency to rely on the same set of actorly ticks and mannerisms in each role an intermittent source of frustration. But like his old running buddy Tobey (maybe the casting was all a bit of meta-commentary by Lurhmann), Leo maintains a distant whiff of youthful elan, which makes him well suited for a character that, in many ways, is still a kid playing dress up. His much-discussed initial reveal, in which his hypnotic, charismatic visage, backgrounded by fireworks and the climactic strains of “Rhapsody in Blue”, seduces Nick and the audience, is yet another fantasy-infused moment of Nick’s memories. By some of the best laughs of the film also come from how self-aware and awkward Gatsby can be. Much as Fitzgerald undercut his hero from the early going, so too does Lurhmann not let the audience forget the essential contradiction at the heart of this most aspirational of characters. But DiCaprio’s natural magnetism ensures that the audience never totally gives up on him, much as Nick can’t bring himself to totally abandon Gatsby (whom, in the book’s phenomenal first two pages, Nick essentially describes as both everything he loved and loathed about his time in the big city.)
Whereas Mia Farrow projected an ice queen demeanor in 1974, Carey Mulligan brings an altogether different flatness to Daisy’s affect. Mulligan has specialized in playing refined yet troubled young women, so Daisy is not too much of a creative leap for her. But her physicality also brings a subtle toughness to the role that contrasts with Farrow’s fragile beauty. You can believe that she resides “high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl”, but she also captures the earthy St. Louis upbringing that is key to Daisy’s past. Lurhmann does all he can to humanize her character, although it struck me that he may have gone a bit too far. One of the most heart-rending aspects of the book is how Fitzgerald also deconstructs Daisy from the outset. At the conclusion of his first dinner at the Buchanan’s, Nick feels as if he’s been used as a pawn by the bickering couple, and his descriptions of Daisy are fond, while still being aware of the contradictory gaps in her being. It’s all foreshadowing for his eventual realization of what drives her, so caustically evoked at the climax of the ill-fated Plaza Hotel confrontation when Daisy’s eyes fall on Nick and Jordan “with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing-and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all.” Mulligan’s Daisy goes through these motions, but the exclusion of this line (in a film that excels at referencing most of the key structural quotes from the book) gives the viewer the impression that Gatsby’s violent lashing out at Tom is the breaking point for her.
Joel Edgerton’s Tom shares much the same qualities as Mulligan’s Daisy. Here, finally, is a hulking, physically intimidating brute to match Fitzgerald’s bullying antagonist. But here, also, is an actor (and a script) capable of expressing the confused humanity of the character. Gatsby may be the primary quixotic figure of the book, but Tom is as much a doomed a dreamer as his romantic rival, haunted by his past collegiate glories, grasping at stale and racist ideas in an attempt to hold onto something in his advancing middle years, suffering from the hot whips of panic as he drives to New York, his mistress and his wife potentially fading away from him. Throughout these developments, Edgerton maintains the delicate balance between brooding aggression and wounded emotional groping, a tough act to pull off for anyone filling this role. But as with Daisy, Lurhmann seems to want to push the audience’s sympathies for Tom a hair too far. In particular, the galvanizing moment when Tom brutally strikes his mistress Myrtle in their Manhattan apartment is undercut by Lurhmann immediately pulling the camera outside, where Nick is taking in the tragic allure of the city. Nick’s ultimate indictment of Tom and Daisy as scheming children, “careless people (who) smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” remains in the script, but the couple never quite come across as the semi-monstrous beings that they are at the book’s conclusion (a depiction that rings as somewhat ironic in the confines of Nick’s larger than life memories.) But then again, Nick’s final indictment in the text is also preceded by an admission that he couldn’t forgive or like Tom, but that everything he did was entirely justified to him. Perhaps pity ultimately fills Nick’s heart more than contempt, and perhaps that’s what the film is aiming for in the ambiguity it injects into this storyline.
There is one more Gatsby character who has long intrigued me, and that is the hard, jaunty golf-cheat Jordan Baker. Nick’s relationship with Jordan is ostensibly at the heart of the book, but it’s also painted in deep shades of ambiguity. He’s deeply attracted to and repulsed by her, so it’s often hard to figure how the blankness she brings to the narrative figures into the grand scheme of things (aside from serving to as a quasi-Ariadne in the midst of Gatbsy’s labyrinth…and to provide key plot details heretofore unavailable to the reader and Nick.) Elizabeth Debecki ably fills this role, her sculpted features alluring, her serpentine physicality and sly, winking visage a source of great and sexy amusement. But any romance with Nick is mostly left up to the audience’s imagination (patrons of the “Nick is gay” school of thought will be disappointed to know that although an effete McKee does, in fact, materialize in the orgastic atmosphere of Tom’s apartment, the inebriated Nick wakes up the next morning not by the photographer’s bed but on his own front porch.) And because of this, Nick’s ultimate rebuke of her, his admonition that “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor” is reduced to him brushing her off at Tom’s door the night of Myrtles death with a more open ended “I’m done with this.” Perhaps my slight disappointment with this omission is once again due to the novel’s mutating viral effect on me. For though I abandoned chasing after the Daisys of the world in my mid-twenties, I’ve since been romantically enthralled by more than my share of Jordans. I've sometimes stared into the night, haunted by the icy remove of their natures, gazing for their eyes up in that deep, inky beyond.
But alas, dear reader, I’ve prattled on too long. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself if you’d have been better off devoting your time to just seeing the damn movie. And perhaps I’m just in my boat, beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly into my past, and the book’s past, and our collective past in this fever dream review of a fever dream of a film about a fever dream of an existence. But maybe, in the end, dreams are the only solid buoys we have in this sea of life. Or maybe, to dip once again into youthful plagiarism, life is but a dream, sweetheart. So good night, dear reader. Pleasant living.