DAVID STRATTON REVIEWS THE GREAT GATSBY
THE Great Gatsby, which many think is the great American novel, was published in 1925. Almost immediately, Paramount produced a film based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. Released in 1926, it starred Warner Baxter — a heart-throb in the silent era — but, like many late silent films, it is now lost, though a trailer for it that includes the inevitable wild party scene still can be seen.
It wasn’t until 1949 that Paramount tried again. Elliott Nugent, who directed the second version, was mainly a director of comedies, and this was one of his few attempts to make something more substantial. Despite the fine performance of the very popular Alan Ladd as Gatsby, the film was not a success but, interestingly, it made no bones about elements of the story only hinted at in the book and the other film versions: in Nugent’s film Gatsby is a gangster. We even see him, machinegun in hand, shooting down unseen enemies from a moving car like a scene out of Scarface. Nugent was never considered a major director, so the failure of his version came as no real surprise, though it should be better known if only for the performances of Ladd and Shelley Winters, whose Myrtle Wilson was genuinely moving.
By the time Paramount tried for a third time it was 1974 and movies had changed. Censorship was more relaxed, American cinema was going through an outstanding period ( Chinatown was also made in 1974) and the film had an accomplished director: Englishman Jack Clayton was highly regarded for Room at
the Top and The Innocents. Plus the film starred Robert Redford as Gatsby and this was not long after Redford’s role in Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid and The Sting had made him a big star.
Yet something didn’t work. Clayton was faithful to the book but it is a difficult one to film, some would suggest impossible, relying so much as it does on the narration of the Nick Carraway character, an observer through whose somewhat bemused eyes we meet all the main characters of the drama. Sam Waterston played the role in Clayton’s film and he was perfectly acceptable — but the result was strangely inert; a long, careful, decent and frankly rather boring love story accompanied by the melancholy strains of the song What’ll
Baz Luhrmann was never going to be boring. Showmanship is his stock in trade. He’s an old-fashioned three-ring circus kind of entertainer and highly effective at what he does. He brought a fresh vision to Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet that worked well in its
own terms and if Moulin Rouge! turned out to be a musical for people who don’t much like
musicals and Australia was a spectacularly alarming throwback to spectacle films of another era, at least he was setting out to entertain on a large scale.
He does so again with The Great Gatsby. Purists may cry that this is not the book that Fitzgerald wrote, but Luhrmann is true to the book’s spirit. It’s just that where Fitzgerald chose to be ambiguous and enigmatic, Luhrmann takes the opposite approach. He spells everything out in large letters. Subtlety is not in his vocabulary. You can accuse him of a lot of things but I doubt that anyone watching his new film will be bored.
In the adaptation he wrote with his regular collaborator, Craig Pearce, the story is bookended by a visit Carraway (Tobey Maguire, well cast as a self-effacing observer) pays to a doctor (Jack Thompson), who tells him to write everything down. As he starts to do so, words and letters spin out of the screen towards the audience and the story, set in 1922, begins with Nick renting a small cottage at West Egg on Long Island Sound and visiting his cousin, ravishingly beautiful Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), an assertive, wealthy braggart and bigot, and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), a golf champion and a haughty member of this privileged group of people.
The Buchanans live in a grand house opposite, across the water, that of Nick and his next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby. The name of Gatsby is on the lips of many people. He’s immensely rich and he’s extremely mysterious; where did he come from and where did he make his money? Is he from a wealthy background, was he really educated at Oxford and if so is that where he picked up the affected phrase ‘‘ Old sport’’ that he uses so regularly? Did he really win a heap of medals for bravery during the war, including one from Macedonia? Has he killed anyone? Is he, perhaps, a bootlegger?
Before any of this can be resolved, the quiet plodding Nick, who has an office job nearby in the city, is made privy to a secret involving Tom. Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), a brassy woman whose husband, George (Jason Clarke), runs a garage in a wasteland of refuse and decrepit chaos between the luxury of Long Island and the sophistication of New York City. There, beneath a decaying poster for an oculist featuring a pair of staring bespectacled eyes, Myrtle lives unhappily with George and, whenever possible, meets Tom in the city in the hideously over-decorated apartment he rents for her.
It’s here that the diffident Nick takes part, albeit unwillingly, in a sort of orgy. And it’s because he knows about Myrtle that he’s more willing to be compliant when Gatsby, who has invited him to one of his sumptuously lavish parties, asks him a favour concerning Daisy.
It’s easy to see that the staging of the legendary parties at Gatsby’s mansion was in no small part what attracted Luhrmann to the project. With the vital assistance of his partner and collaborator, Catherine Martin, who designed the sets and costumes, Luhrmann has a ball with the excesses of the Jazz Age, creating a wild singin’, dancin’ party to end them all. If at times The Great Gatsby feels like a wannabe musical, the party scenes contribute most to this impression.
And it’s at the party that Nick attends that we first meet Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), bronzed, blue-eyed, handsome, charming — as we (and Nick) see him for the first time fireworks explode behind him and the climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue explodes on the soundtrack. Again, it’s an indulgent, way over-the-top moment, almost laughable in its excess — yet, for Luhrmann, this is why Gatsby is great, and this is what it’s all about.
And so Nick discovers that Gatsby and Daisy knew each other before she married Tom and that he acquired this house across the sound just to be close to her, to stand on the dock and look across the water at the pale green light blinking at the end of the Buchanan pier.
In this often exhausting film, it’s the intimate moments that count most. At first they’re few and far between. Luhrmann and his editing team seem to believe that no individual image should last longer than a nano-second, and as a result the over-edited early scenes flash by with annoying speed. In the second half of the film Luhrmann thankfully allows more time, time for his film to breathe — and in the end his Gatsby is surprisingly moving.
Unexpectedly, given the deliberate anachronisms (Beyonce and Jay Z numbers alongside vintage songs of the 1920s), the overall film works better than you might expect. The 3-D is used with style and skill, allowing the depth and the space of the scenes to impose themselves. And the cast is pretty good, with Edgerton a standout as the bombastic Tom.
For Australian audiences there are special treats: a gallery of local acting talent, some seen in minor roles (Heather Mitchell as Daisy’s mother, Max Cullen as an elderly guest at a Gatsby party, Felix Williamson as a butler) while others have the smallest cameos (Steve Bisley, Barry Otto, Luhrmann himself).
There’s no point in wishing Luhrmann wouldn’t be so excessive; excessive is in his DNA. Accept that and there’s much to enjoy in his Gatsby. What Fitzgerald would make of it is anyone’s guess.
Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby; below, Tobey Maguire, left, Elizabeth Debicki and Joel Edgerton