Of Greatness, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby and Baz Luhrmann
The Great Gatsby, as most people know, is a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann.
It is also, as most people also know, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the foremost authors of the first half of the 20th century.
I read 'Gatsby' a long time ago, and I still have memories of the freshness of the prose (though I was reading from a well-worn book that had once belonged to my uncle), the natural-ness of the writing and how Fitzgerald could careen from the sordid to the sublime through the power of his words. For a long time to come, I could recall the imagery of the green light glimpsed through the fog at the end of Daisy's dock, the fantastic parties at the Gatsby mansion, and the spooky eyes of TJ Eckleberg overlooking the Valley of Ashes.
And yet, having seen at least two Luhrmann films, I had a disinclination to see this book, that I had loved so much, in its film adaptation.
The reason for this? First and foremost, ‘Moulin Rouge’, which I saw in a small theatre in Bandra with one friend whose defining characteristic is to be stoic to the point of sometimes resembling a tree, and another whose idea of high art was ‘Comedy Circus’. The former watched in silence and maintained that silence to the point of waving us good-bye after the film, while the latter kept his gimlet eye fixed upon the acres of cleavage on display on the screen and seemed to remember nothing else after. That film, a regurgitation of colour and hamming onto the screen in a way that tries so hard to be beautiful that it could only fail, stands as a reflection of how an otherwise ordinary film can be uplifted by a brilliant performance. I am referring, of course, to Nicole Kidman, who played Satine with such sensitivity and skill that the fact that she wasted that performance on this film was a bigger tragedy than what was depicted on-screen.
Secondly, of course, ‘Australia’, in which even Kidman’s talent and Hugh Jackman’s charm cannot deflect for long from the tiresome mish-mash of tropes and stereotypes that it is.
But Netflix, in its infinite wisdom, decided that Gatsby was the sort of film I’d like to see, and since DiCaprio’s visage, holding up that champagne bottle, had some sort of psychic hold over me, I ended up clicking through, and seeing the film in three or four instalments over a week.
It begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a nursing home, on a typewriter, writing out the events that will constitute the film, and one quickly realises that not only does this give Luhrmann the ability to insert passages from the book verbatim into his film by having Carraway narrate them, but is also the exact same framing device he used for Moulin Rouge. We are introduced to Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan). Daisy is Nick’s cousin, Tom is a wealthy old-money heir, and they live across the bay from Nick’s little outhouse-cottage. Nick himself is not quite as rich and has to make his living working in the bond markets on Wall Street, while the Buchanans appear to live off their inherited wealth in a gorgeous life of ennui. Nick is also introduced to Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a friend of Daisy’s and a well-known golfer.
All the while, a great mystery is kept up about Nick’s neighbour, however, a fabulously wealthy young man named Jay Gatsby who has never been seen in person, but whose mansion hosts the most incredible parties, attended by all of New York’s bold and beautiful. It is at one of these parties, to which Nick seems to be the only man with a proper invitation, that he meets Jordan Baker again and then, his host, played with typical earnestness by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Nick quickly becomes friends with Gatsby, who takes him to the City to meet his friends in a speakeasy behind a barbershop, introducing him to his friend Wolfsheim (a cameo from Amitabh Bachhan). It’s the first hint Nick gets that Gatsby might not have made his money through strictly legal means, and also that some parts of the story he tells about himself may be untrue. Tom Buchanan also seems keen to befriend Nick and even takes him along on a romp with his mistress Myrtle(Isla Fisher), a car mechanic’s wife who lives above the garage in the ‘Valley of Ashes’, a stretch of sordid, slovenly land between the elegance of where the Buchanans and Gatsby live and the glitzy, looming skyscrapers of the city; a town marked by the tall billboard advertising the services of TJ Eckleberg, Oculist (optometrist), which shows a pair of bespectacled eyes looking down over the whole expanse.
The crux of the film is Gatsby—his past, his wealth and his feelings for Daisy—but it is also the relationship between Tom and Daisy, with Tom’s infidelity and Daisy’s unhappiness being like an open secret, a chasm between them as wide as the bay that separates the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock from the one that extends from Gatsby’s estate.
In portraying the tragedy that unfolds, the film never rises above the glitz and glamour of Gatsby’s parties. For a book that is often interpreted as a stinging critique of both classism and conspicuous consumption, all that this adaptation achieves is to seemingly celebrate those exact values. Scratch the surface of Luhrmann’s exquisite costumes and hairdo’s, the sets and the lighting and what you have is something of a ham-fisted morality play or an un-ironic love story, neither of which is really what The Great Gatsby, as Fitzgerald wrote it, was trying to be.
DiCaprio and Edgerton, nevertheless, act well and are convincing as the hopeful upstart and the pampered boor respectively. Edgerton in particular, hams magnificently in a role that demands hamming. Carey Mulligan is disappointing as Daisy though, capturing but little of the character’s Southern charm and less of her conflicted carelessness. Tobey Maguire’s Nick is sadly forgettable and Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan even more so. Indeed, by jettisoning much of Baker’s role (as in the book) in the adaptation, it can be said that Debicki was dealt a harsh hand.
With one exception, Jay-Z’s soundtrack is forgettable and incongruous, though that exception—Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful” fits perfectly into the film like the book sleeve on that old copy of the book on my shelf. Sung with a lingering sorrow permeating every note, Del Ray’s smoky, nasal voice embodies Daisy’s pathetic existence better than Mulligan’s dialogue or expressions do as she utters her plaintive plea:
“Will you still love me, when I am no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me, when I got nothing but my aching soul?”
With all this said though, I still find myself thinking that it is a film worth watching. If for no other reason, than that the book is not widely-read enough outside the US, and within that country, being taught in schools has ruined it for generations who might see in Luhrmann’s colour-laden, excess-laced version, a reason to visit and re-visit it, and find something to love, hate, or fear.
For me, the images Fitzgerald’s words conjured will continue to outweigh the images that the film depicted, whether it was that light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the hollow sham that was Gatsby’s wealth or those ever-judging eyes of TJ Eckleberg.