The Great Gatsby
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Elizabeth Debicki
US theatrical: 10 May 2013
Last fall, it was announced that Warner Bros. would be postponing the release of its new production of The Great Gatsby from Christmas of 2012 until summer of 2013. It is hard not to worry that this means the film is deeply flawed, and probably won’t benefit from being positioned as a potential Oscar winner. Of course I hope I’m wrong. I want this to be a good movie. I have been following its production for awhile now, and I think that the casting is absolutely perfect. I am not a huge Baz Luhrmann fan, and his decision to shoot the film in 3D left me with a feeling of foreboding. As we wait for this new production to finally open, it should be noted that there have been four filmed versions of The Great Gatsby that precede this one, and while each told the story of Gatsby, they were also heavily influenced by the time which they were released—again, note the use of 3D—oftentimes to the detriment of the film. One of the main reasons the film has been adapted and readapted is that the reputation of the novel has evolved significantly since it was initially released, and the lenses through which society looks back on the Jazz Age has changed.
The first filmed version of The Great Gatsby was a silent film released in 1926. There are no known prints of the film left in existence, and all that remains is a trailer which shows that the film was a melodrama punctuated by scenes of gaudy glamour. Among the more noteworthy moments in the trailer are a hyperventilating Myrtle, the discovery of a body under a tree (probably George Wilson), and a static camera filming a daytime party at Gatsby’s estate. The cast included Neil Hamilton as Nick Carroway, who would later go on to play Commissioner Gordon on the television show Batman in the 1960s. Not much is known of this film, but from the trailer there seems to be an emphasis on spectacle. This version of the film was released just a few years following the publication of the novel, and the novel’s reputation was a Jazz Age love story with an emphasis on the “Jazz Age”.
Fitzgerald was famous at the time for his short stories concerning flappers, and the shot of the party suggests that the imagery associated with the flapper was heavily featured in the film. In 1949 Paramount Pictures released The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby. This version is very much a product of the time, and as an adaptation it is fairly unimpressive. One major problem is that when the film was made the novel had not yet reached the status of vaunted literary masterpiece, and was instead best remembered as a jazz age story with a major character who has mob connections. Despite the fact that the gangland elements in the novel were mostly only hinted at, this film version winds up as a gangster movie. Unfortunately the bones of the story do not really lend themselves well to this mutation.
Ladd’s Gatsby is introduced as a tough guy, more Al Capone than any Gatsby seen before or since. He is clipped and abrupt. In an opening montage of Jazz Age stock footage (groups of people dancing in speakeasies, close ups of liquor being poured into shot glasses, gangsters hauling barrels of booze under the cover of darkness) we see Gatsby shoot two rival gangsters to death in a car chase. Later, when he meets Nick the exchange they have is pleasant, but oddly punctuated by Gatsby excusing himself to cold cock a drunken party guest that has slurred his real name, Jimmy Gatz.
The film is also incredibly literal with symbolism that Fitzgerald took great pains to present with a degree of sophistication. For instance, take this exchange when Gatsby and his hoods see the sign for Dr. TJ Eckleburg:
Hood 1: Them eyes, they getcha.
Hood 2: See’s all, knows all.
Hood 1: Like God bought himself a pair of eyeglasses so he can watch us better.
Gatsby: Painted that way. It’s what’s called an optical illusion.
Hood 1: I don’t like this place, nothing but ashes, junk, ashes.
In the novel, the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg are an important symbol, stand ins for the eyes of God watching all of the proceedings. The “Valley of Ashes” represents the moral wasteland that is the Jazz Age. Simply blurting out these lines kind of blunts their significance, and the scene has an odd feeling of giving the viewer subtextual exposition. This is a recurring problem. In a later scene a realtor is showing Gatsby his new home.
Gatsby: I wanted something on East Egg.
Realtor: Impossible, there isn’t anybody can buy there. But West Egg looks out onto East Egg. Look at this map. This is you, and over here is the Buchanan’s old place. At night you can see the green light on their dock.
Any high school English teacher worth his salt will be all over the blinking green light, and I suppose a black and white movie by necessity has to have a line of dialogue explaining that the light is green, but to let the audience know not only what the light is as well as its significance before we even see Gatsby looking at it with yearning severely undercuts any emotional currency that image has.
The structure of the film is also significantly different than the novel. The film opens with Nick and Jordan visiting Gatsby’s grave 20 years after his death. Instead of the rather famous literary opening where Nick recalls what his father had told him and all his Midwestern sense of right and wrong, Nick begins by setting the stage of what prohibition era New York was like. What he essentially does is remove himself from most of the narrative. Which is good, since the character of Nick doesn’t really fit into the narrative that the film presents. The two characters are friends, but it is never really clear why. The Gatsby in this film is not Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, but someone else, someone a person like Nick could never truly admire. He serves as a witness, there for a few key moments (oddly enough, in this version Nick is present when Gatsby is gunned down by George Wilson). It is more like the character of Nick accidentally walked onto the set of a Howard Hawks gangster film. Indeed, the whole movie feels like when a television show decides to do its Christmas Carol episode. The characters are all familiar, but they are being asked to play out a story that is awkward and doesn’t quite fit.
In the early 1960s the number of essays and criticisms of The Great Gatsby increased exponentially, and the novel’s status rose from fondly remembered book about the Jazz Age to The Great American Novel. This basically meant that any filmed version of the novel would be a prestige picture. Robert Evans, the head of Paramount Pictures from the late ‘60s to mid-‘70s was convinced to make a film adaptation by his then wife Ali McGraw, who would play Daisy. Evans hired Truman Capote to write a script, which according to Evans’ memoire The Kid Stays in the Picture was a mess. It was filled with flashbacks, dream sequences, and some of the characters had been radically changed. According to some accounts Jordan was written as a lesbian, which would dramatically alter the relationship she had with Nick. Evans deemed that script to be unfilmable. As a quick aside, an early handwritten draft of the film was sold at auction in 2007 for $18,000.
Casting changes were also made when Ali McGraw left Evans for Steve McQueen after the two fell in love while filming The Getaway. During casting Evans began to date actress Lois Chiles, who is most famous for playing James Bond’s love interest in the movie Moonraker. According to Evan’s memoir, Chiles believed that this relationship meant that she would be playing Daisy. When it was revealed that she would be playing Jordan, the two stopped seeing each other.
Evans turned to Mia Farrow, an actress he had helped to become a star with the film Rosemary’s Baby. Gatsby was ,of course, played by Robert Redford. As Gatsby, there are moments when Redford perfectly captures the elusive romantic earnestness and subtle menace that the character needs, and if this sounds like rather faint praise that’s because it is.
Redford’s casting was perfect, but his performance was not. I would like to be very clear that I think Robert Redford is a great actor, and that he has turned in a wonderful performance playing a man with a mysterious past who reconnects with an old lover from that murky time, but that wonderful performance was in The Natural and not as Gatsby. The wrong Redford showed up. He seemed disengaged throughout. Mia Farrow claims that he was aloof during the filming, that he was obsessed with the Watergate trial, and that he spent hours in his trailer watching that unfold. Nevertheless, there are some key scenes that Redford absolutely nails. The morning after the party where Gatsby and Daisy have snuck off to be alone Nick tells Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” Redford’s line delivery here spells out the dreamlike quality of Gatsby’s quest, and his solemn denial that time only moves in one direction is pitch perfect.
Evans then turned to Francis Ford Coppola to write the script. Coppola’s method was to paste each page of the novel into a notebook and write in the margins all of the action of each page. This technique ensured that the story of the novel would be faithfully followed, and not become, like the 1949 version, a story that was mangled to fit a specific genre. Coppola did make some changes, but they are mostly tonal. The character of Nick is difficult in a movie since he is present for most of the story, and is for all intents and purposes the protagonist of the novel, but most of the action of the film centers around Gatsby.
Coppola solved this problem by making Nick come off as mostly ineffectual. In the opening scene Nick is shown fishing his hat out of the water, while he fumbles with a boat. While one reading of that scene would be that Nick is learning to navigate new social waters and he is not entirely successful, it also seems to suggest to the audience that he is a clumsy narrator. Instead, the camera acts as the narrator. Sam Waterston, who plays Nick, provides a voiceover early in the film to establish the setting. Much of this narration is word for word from the novel. However, soon after Nick meets Gatsby the voiceover narration drops out for a significant portion of the film. Additionally, Coppola wrote several scenes that establish the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy that do not appear in the novel.
While the 1974 version of Gatsby is arguably the best, it is hard to watch it and not think of it as a sort of lingering testament to Robert Evans’ personal life. Most of the key players in the production were there in no small part because of or in spite of Evans’ personal ire. Francis Ford Coppola was known to have a difficult relationship with Evans during the post production of The Godfather, and years after Gatsby, Coppola and Evans would face off in court over The Cotton Club. Redford got the part of Gatsby partly because another leading candidate for the part, Steve McQueen, cuckolded Evans. But probably the largest problem with the film is the way the entire production was marketed. The film was highly publicized, and that publicity all focused on the fashions and the materialism of the characters. The problem with this is that the moral of the novel is in direct opposition to these values. Nick comes to the realization that Gatsby had embarked on a fool’s errand, and that his search for fulfillment would only set him up for a fall. There is a great discussion of gadgets and expensive accoutrements in the novel, but divorced from Nick’s observations, Gatsby’s possessions just make him seem like a criminal Willy Wonka.
In 2000 the A&E network produced a for-television version of Gatsby. This version was directed by Robert Markowitz, a man who as of now has around 35 credits for directing television movies. I should preempt all of what will be a fairly scathing review of the film by saying it looks like the film had a fairly limited budget, and this should definitely be taken into consideration. Indeed, after a fairly nifty underwater shot of Wilson approaching Gatsby and shooting him, the opening credits begin using a font that suggests the movie might’ve been financed by pan-handling. The budgetary problems are very apparent during scenes that should convey a level of spectacle. I have thrown livelier parties than the Gatsby of this version.
A big deal was made at the time of the movie’s release that Mira Sorvino was all wrong as Daisy. Watching the movie though, the problem is not Sorvino (who may not be the best choice as Daisy but is at the very least a professional actor), but the relatively unknown actor Toby Stephens who plays Gatsby. Stephens, who played the villain in the truly awful Bond film Die Another Day, plays Gatsby like an affable frat brother. He makes the words “old sport” sound ludicrous, and considering this is something Gatsby should feel comfortable saying to anyone, his way of disarming them, this is a fatal flaw. He seemed painfully self-conscious throughout the movie, constantly grinning as if to placate everyone around him.
Worst of all though, he has no chemistry with Sorvino. When onscreen together the two look like they are in a high school play. The movie invents several flashback scenes to show how theymet and fell in love, but these scenes wind up looking like a replay of a horrible blind date.
The movie does have a few saving graces, however. Paul Rudd as Nick is fine. Like Sam Waterston he provides voiceover narration, but in this version the narration continues long after it is needed. He spends a good deal of the film looking as if he is a bemused third wheel. The real ace though is Martin Donovan as Tom. Donovan plays Tom as unsympathetic, impulsive, but most importantly authoritarian. He is completely in control of every situation he is in, to the point where Toby Stephens really should not be able to walk out of the Plaza with Daisy. What is mostly absent from this version is a sense of purpose. The film does not seem to have a thesis statement other than being the filmed version of a classic which will be shown to bored high school seniors.
Due to the nature of Fitzgerald’s novel, the character of Gatsby is sometimes difficult to nail down. What we have as readers are Nick’s observations and memory of him, and we are left to interpret what that memory means. But when the novel becomes a film the ethereal Gatsby has to be made manifest. How a film production chooses to handle this Gatsby is heavily informed by the time in which the film is made. In chapter seven of the novel Daisy tells Gatsby, “You’re so cool.” Is there anything more open to interpretation than what is “cool?” In 1949, when gangster films were all the rage, Alan Ladd’s Gatsby would definitely be thought of as cool, but as the years have passed and the Bogart-like character has fallen out of favor, it is natural that later productions would define cool in a different way. Redford’s Gatsby was fashionable, and he had all of the accoutrements of the newly rich. He was a romantic hero with a mysterious past where the threat of malice could be seen beneath a slick and affable exterior. He dressed in the high fashion of the early 20s, and that sort of new money playboy attitude was very en vogue in the mid-‘70s.
DiCaprio appears to be taking the Gatsby character in a similar direction, although the film around him seems to be focusing on the waste and decadence inherent in his version of the American Dream. And of course I’d be disappointed if this were the last Gatsby we get to see. Hopefully some future director will again choose to beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.