Beautiful and Damned: Baz Luhrmann's garish 'Great Gatsby'

Photo: Warner Brothers

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2013 – Baz Luhrmann’s recently released cinematic take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby” is a colorful, hyperkinetic, yet spectacular disappointment. To re-deploy the title of the Jazz Age novelist’s largely forgotten second novel, this expensive, directorially self-indulgent film succeeds simultaneously at being both beautiful and damned.

What’s obvious at the current film’s outset and what’s genuinely puzzling to those familiar with the 1974 take on Fitzgerald’s novel is this: not only does Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” commit nearly all the cinematic mistakes that transformed its earlier, visually striking, Robert Redford-starring predecessor into an expensive box office dud.

More party time at Gatsby’s. (Warner Bros.)

Drawing upon and crowing about his team’s access to “Gatsby” background material not available to earlier filmmakers, this new movie also marks yet another tremendous disappointment for Fitzgerald aficionados like this reviewer, all of whom expected a more enlightening and considerably more sophisticated treatment of one of this country’s landmark 20th century works of fiction.

All the Sad Young Men

Whether a novelist is prepared to acknowledge it or not, much of his or her output is grounded on the writer’s own early life experiences. So it was with Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, named conspicuously by his Anglo-Irish parents after the distant family ancestor who authored what eventually became the verses of our National Anthem.


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Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1896, young Scott wandered with his family first to upstate New York, then back again to Minnesota, eventually ending up as a Princeton student where he honed his writing talents but eventually dropped out without a degree, largely due to his pursuit of the kind of extracurriculars that still cause college dropouts today.

College hijinks aside, it was likely during this early period of life as well as his time at Princeton that Scott—which is the name he preferred his friends to use—began to feel that his social class had begun in some way to hinder his forward trajectory, particularly among his moneyed friends at Princeton.

Whatever the case, he joined the Army after leaving Princeton in 1917. But by a stroke of luck, he was never posted to the European front as what we now know as World War I was concluded shortly thereafter.

Image of original 1925 Gatsby cover, with Eckleburg’s eyes, sans spectacles, overlooking the ash pits and carnivals of life. (Scribners)


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Sent by the Army to an initial posting in Alabama, Fitzgerald instead met and fell madly in love with a sprightly Southern belle named Zelda Sayre. Their rocky courtship and even rockier subsequent marriage has since become the stuff of legend. Seemingly overnight, Scott, at the age of 23, became a best-selling novelist and the acknowledged chronicler of the Jazz Age, that money- and bootleg gin-infused, decades-long party of the young we’ve come to know as the Roaring ‘20s.

Fitzgerald made plenty of money from that initial novel, entitled “This Side of Paradise.” But none of his successive novels, including what most regard as his classic, “The Great Gatsby,” ever scored as big a hit. That, plus the young couple’s increasingly dissolute and impecunious lifestyle forced Fitzgerald to spend much of the rest of his life cranking out short stories by the boatload. They were published with great regularity in what was then a surprisingly lucrative universe of popular magazines.

Chief among his magazine markets was “The Saturday Evening Post” which paid handsomely for his stories. He eventually published elsewhere as well, placing stories occasionally in “Redbook” and even in the brash start-up, “Esquire,” which survives to this day. But even these sources of regular income failed to keep up with Scott and Zelda’s bills.

Carl Van Vechten’s famous photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald, circa 1937. (Double click to enlarge.)

Fitzgerald’s primary problem throughout his life was the bottle. He was a self-acknowledged drunk, and drunks are not particularly good at achieving and maintaining successful careers, whatever their chosen professions. His highly intelligent but unstable and equally dissolute wife, Zelda was not much help either in this regard, becoming more and more mentally unbalanced as her marriage slowly and painfully unraveled.

Whatever the motivation for his decline and fall, Fitzgerald, and his literary output remained obsessed throughout his life with persistent yet elusive visions of the glamor and excitement that money could buy. But, in spite of his early novelistic success, neither Fitzgerald nor his wife were admitted to the realm of the wealthy, old money, East Coast Elect. In some ways, “The Great Gatsby” was Fitzgerald’s first and most earnest attempt to work through this dilemma.

Like many a fictional or real-life tragic hero, Fitzgerald ultimately figured out his unavoidable fatal flaw only after he’d begun his irreversible downward spiral. He encapsulated the reason why he could never be admitted to the club he longed to join in perhaps his most famous declaration: “The rich are different from you and me.”

Flappers and Philosophers

Except that’s not exactly what Fitzgerald wrote. His famous alleged quip, was somehow manufactured over the years from the much more perceptive passage Fitzgerald actually wrote in his 1924 short story, “The Rich Boy:”

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”

By “the rich,” Fitzgerald really meant the kind of “old rich” families that were effortlessly able to send their sons to Princeton and the other Ivy League schools where they were essentially “finished” to become whatever it was they chose to be, whether that involved become the successor CEOs in daddy’s business or a wealthy, dissolute nonentities whose lives rarely achieved prominence in any meaningful way.

Fitzgerald longed to gain the same set of silver keys that the old money set seemed to have been gifted with from the day of their birth, a very real sense of entitlement that enabled them to scoff at and overcome any kind of opposition to whatever it was that they wanted. At once, he hated them and wanted to be them. Yet he also seems to have genuinely mourned the fact that so many of the youth in this elite social class ended up simply their advantages and opportunities away, spectacularly dissipating all the considerable advantages they’d inherited.

Perhaps for Fitzgerald the life he witnessed and lived in the 1920s was symbolically a lifestyle choice between flappers and philosophers. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald wanted both.

Tales of the Jazz Age

“The Great Gatsby” was, arguably, Fitzgerald’s first truly mature novel, a realistic fairy tale explicating in almost obsessive detail precisely why the rich are different from you and me.

Although he remains a shadowy figure throughout much of Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby is in some sense the author’s doppelgänger. Gatsby rose from obscurity, held for a brief time his place in the sun, and then disappeared without a trace or memory.

Robert Redford as Gatsby, old sport, in the 1974 film. (Paramount Pictures)

Born into a life of utter poverty, James Gatz, as we gradually learn through recollections in the novel, meets young debutante Daisy Fey as a young GI when a group of young soldiers is invited to a party at the mansion of Daisy’s father. Despite the economic gulf between them, the two young people begin a brief but intense relationship until James is shipped off to the European front.

Years later, although the two have lost contact with one another, Gatz is able to amass considerable wealth, albeit by shady means. Having re-christened himself “Jay Gatsby,” he tries to reconnect with Daisy—now married to a brutish but incredibly wealthy ex-Yale athlete named Tom Buchanan. To accomplish this, he buys a mansion near the Buchanans and, for lack of a better term, starts showing off to attract Daisy’s attention.

In both film ‘Gatsbys,’ Daisy (Carey Mulligan here) is a vision of porcelain perfection. (Warner Bros.)

Gatsby commences to throw a never-ending series of extravagant parties, all meant to rekindle his romance with Daisy. But his attempt proves disastrous, finessed in part by Daisy’s wily, amoral husband Tom, whose illicit romance with Myrtle Wilson, the loose wife of his mechanic, indirectly seals Gatsby’s fate.

“Gatsby, both the novel and the film, is narrated by young Nick Carraway, a not-too-successful Yalie who becomes a New York bond salesman and rents a cottage on Gatsby’s estate. Nick is thus strategically placed to serve as a liaison between Gatsby and Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin once removed.

Nick also becomes romantically involved with Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker, an assertive professional female golfer and their liaison conveniently helps keep him around to relate all the key points of Gatsby’s story.

Cover of Cambridge University’s 2000 edition of “Trimalchio.”

While “Gatsby” is the novel we’re familiar with today, Fitzgerald initially wanted to title his book “Trimalchio,” an allusion to the eponymous character in the “Satyricon” of Petronius, known for his rags-to-riches backstory and his propensity to throw wild, extravagant parties.

Perkins thought the allusion too vague and uninteresting for a title, eventually steering the author toward accepting “The Great Gatsby.” He also cleaned up some passages that were more explicit in dealing with Gatsby’s sometimes-violent road to financial success.

As Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio (Warner Bros. image) can be suave and gracious. But…

At the turn of the current century, the “Trimalchio” material resurfaced in a scholarly re-creation of that earlier version of the novel. Edited by James L. W. West III and published in 2000 by Cambridge University Press, this version proved an inspiration to both Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio himself when it came to portraying the more volatile, interesting Gatsby we see in the present film.

DiCaprio’s Gatsby has a nasty streak. (Warner Bros.)

Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is, of course, not the first attempt to get Fitzgerald’s novel on film. There was a 1926 silent movie treatment that’s now been lost. Hollywood gave it a shot again, with mixed results, in a 1949 film starring Alan Ladd as Gatsby. And as we’ve already mentioned, La-La Land gave the novel yet another go in 1974 with its expensive, romantically beautiful, and yet lifeless take starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and a delicate, dreamy-eyed Mia Farrow as Daisy.

The following trailer, although a trifle fuzzy, gives you a good idea of the romantic approach this film took toward Fitzgerald’s subject matter.

One would think that, given the failure of this 1974 film, Luhrmann could have done considerably better, particularly in light of the “Trimalchio” material’s ready availability. But unexpectedly, Luhrmann has simply recast the same 1974 failure, only with a bigger budget.

True, there’s a dollop more violence and realism in Luhrmann’s current effort. And Gatsby’s parties are bigger, better, and more outrageous. But in the end, Luhrmann’s pageantry gets in the way of the story, precisely the fatal error committed in the 1974 film.

All That Baz

Though largely filmed in Australia, the major problem with Luhrmann’s film is one that’s not uncommon in the narcissistic Hollywood of today. His “Gatsby” is not all about Jay Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald, and the tragedy of the Jazz Age and what was to follow. Instead, it’s all about Baz. We first get a clue in the credits, as we often do, learning that the film is “based on” Fitzgerald’s novel. While this terminology is not unusual in movie land, it’s an indication that the original material has been “improved upon” by a director who obviously knows better what the author meant.

For nearly half of its considerable length, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” indulges itself in massive party scene after massive party scene. Only the briefest of interludes of plot and character development occur before the film’s second half gets underway. By then, the opportunity become involved with its characters has largely been lost. The film starts coming off like “Animal House” on steroids. Here’s one of the film’s trailers to give you a sample of how this works:

The excesses of All That Baz are really unfortunate. That’s because the acting in the film is actually quite good once Luhrmann lets his cast do their thing. For example, Tobey Maguire is a pleasant surprise, perfectly cast as an initially naïve but good-natured Nick Carraway, who gradually becomes more disillusioned as time passes.

In a significant switch from the novel, Luhrmann alters Nick’s character in the film. Becoming, in effect, Fitzgerald’s alter ego, Maguire’s Nick is drying out in a sanitarium and narrates the story of Gatsby from his therapist’s couch even as he begins to write it out in novel form. Some critics have had had a problem with this alteration, but we didn’t find it much of a problem, given that, in many ways, Nick is Fitzgerald’s stand-in anyway.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is much more well rounded and believable than Redford’s was in 1974. While DiCaprio strikes us as looking a bit too youthful for almost any character he portrays, he actually makes a compelling Gatsby in this film. Poised, self confident, and ruthless, he still falls apart at the seams bungling repeated attempts to re-capture his youthful dream with Daisy, showing that even the toughest of bootleggers can still have an Achilles heel when it comes to romance.

As Daisy, Carey Mulligan very much reminds us of Mia Farrow’s enigmatic 1974 performance. Both actresses seem to have relied on their fragile, porcelain-like beauty to convey deeper emotions and the camera loves them both. Yet in both films, we find ourselves wondering why Gatsby still finds the superficially stunning yet brainless Daisy to be worth the price of life itself.

Joel Edgarton’s Tom Buchanan is a nasty piece of work, with his snarling sense of entitlement providing the perfect explanation of just why it is that the rich—particularly the old rich—were and still are different from you and me.

Joel Edgarton’s Tom is one amoral dude, and looks the part. (Warner Bros.)

Self-possessed, supremely amoral, and supremely selfish, Edgarton’s bitter yet imperious Tom possesses Daisy in a literal sense, treating her as the trophy wife that she is. At the same time, he brutalizes his mistress, the low-class Myrtle, as a medieval lord of the manor might casually abuse a local strumpet for his amusement. Tom is thoroughly reprehensible. But he will never change because he is winning and he always will.

In smaller but key roles, Elizabeth Debicki’s impossibly tall, self-assured Jordan Baker is a perfect early feminist role model. And the odd choice of casting Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the shady Jewish mobster Meyer Wolfshiem proves wickedly inspired, again adding a measure of menace that Max Perkins excised from “Gatsby” nearly a century ago.

Nice cinematic touches also abound, assuming moviegoers aren’t succumbing to brain death around the film’s halfway mark. Gatsby’s pivotal yellow Duesenberg is, if anything, prettier than the version presented in the 1974 film. Better yet, it also possesses the disrespectful, rumbling bass notes of a recent-vintage Dodge Viper and proves capable of navigating busy New York area highways like a top NASCAR contestant.

The Valley of Ashes, where the unfortunate Myrtle and her hapless husband George reside, is at its symbolic, visual best in this film as well. The Valley, a slagheap dumpsite for the ugly byproducts of American industry serves not only as Luhrmann’s convenient anti-capitalist hat tip to Hollywood’s reigning liberal pieties in the film. It also illustrates the ugly backside of what the pursuit of wealth can actually leave behind.

About to have a close encounter with Gatsby’s Duesenberg, Myrtle is, for some reason, the apple of Tom’s eye, not Daisy. (Warner Bros.)

Perched amidst the Valley’s slag heaps, the all-seeing billboard eyes and eyeglasses advertising the services of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an optometrist—a mysterious but key feature of the novel “Gatsby’s” original 1925 cover—carry more symbolic weight in this film than in the 1974 “Gatsby” where they seemed to wink but never see. In the current film, glasses and eyes seem spookily omniscient, casting an almost Delphic prophecy of doom over this dumping ground for failed human dreams.

In the end, however, directorial vanity conspires to ruin what could have been a truly classic film. Mesmerized by the visual possibilities of Gatsby’s parties and indulged by a generous budget, Luhrmann simply let his material and his ego transform Fitzgerald’s tragic novel into a tawdry carnival filled to the brim with topical vaudeville Florenz Ziegfield, and, yes, Elton John-style excess.

Those Eckleburg eyes. From the 1974 film. (Paramount Pictures)

The entire mess is made worse by a willfully disastrous musical score that joins rapper Jay-Z and contemporary hip-hop to strains of Gershwin and everything else in between, including brief splashes of what appears to be break-dancing in the midst of the Charleston as Gatsby’s endless parties drone on.

Ironically, Luhrmann succeeded magnificently with much the same approach in his wild, justly acclaimed “Moulin Rouge” roughly a decade ago. “Moulin Rouge” was on some levels a fantasy, however, and we all understood that going into the movie theater. But “Gatsby” is a classic work of American literature. Conflating it with balloons, chorus lines, and fantasy fireworks displays conveys none of the novel’s gravitas at all. After leaving the theater, one feels visually hung over and intellectually cheated.

Unknown to many in the DC area, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s final resting place is in Rockville, Maryland’s St. Mary’s cemetery. They’d originally wound up in Rockville Union Cemetery due to the Catholic Church’s discomfort with aspects of Fitzgerald’s life. That changed in the mid-1970s, and both caskets were moved here. (Double click to enlarge.)

And so it is that yet another “Gatsby” goes down the drain.

Postscript: While “Gatsby” fascinated the stargazers at the Cannes Film Festival last week, gaining some attention in Europe as a result, the film’s box office sank rapidly on this side of the pond. According to Box Office Mojo, “on lukewarm word-of-mouth, The Great Gatsby plummeted 52 percent to $23.9 million.”

Silver lining: Luhrmann’s ludicrous “Gatsby” soundtrack hit Number Two on last week’s “Billboard” charts, likely proving that the Decline of the West is now irreversible.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  

 

 

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