Will Baz do to Gatsby what he did to Australia?
Just across from Manhattan, on Long Island, two small peninsulas lean out and give shelter to a shallow dagger of water known as Manhasset Bay. According to one of the greatest stories ever told, Jay Gatsby would stare from his mansion on the west to another palace across this bay, where the woman he loved lived beyond his reach.
Even though at its narrowest the bay is only a few hundred metres across, the distance proved too great for Gatsby, a new-money millionaire crook who could have anything he wanted. Except for Daisy, the old-money society girl across the water.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book, The Great Gatsby, is set for another revival when Baz Luhrmann releases his film in December, the sixth since the first silent movie 1926.
Publishers are pumping the book into stores while others, who have their own copy, may decide it is time to waste a few pleasurable hours reviewing its easily skimmed pages.
Luhrmann has wrapped shooting in Sydney and the film is in final production, but not everyone is looking forward to it. The question doing the rounds in America is: will Baz wreck Gatsby?
The fear is that Luhrmann’s films have, to date, represented style ahead of substance. Therefore, he may be precisely the wrong director to make Gatsby. The book, though set in the wild-partying Jazz Age days of the 1920s, at its heart argues that substance beats style any day.
“The people who are making it called me,” says Ruth Prigozy, retired Professor of English from Long Island’s Hofstra University, regarded as one of the world’s most renowned Fitzgerald experts.
“What they tend to do is focus on the parties and the exterior and they don’t seem to be able to get at the meaning. I think they are excited because you can do so much with the clothing and the parties. For Luhrmann, that’s what he wants. It worries me.”
American author Jay McInerney has vowed not to see Luhrmann’s $120 million production, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway, and Isla Fisher as the tragic lover who ends up as roadkill, Myrtle Wilson.
McInerney wrote of Gatsby, the widely loved but selfishly guarded book: “It’s more than an American classic; it’s become a defining document of the national psyche, a creation myth, the Rosetta Stone of the American dream. And yet all the attempts to adapt it to stage and screen have only served to illustrate its fragility and its flaws.”
Robert Redford had a go at Gatsby in 1974. The film was a constant search for his best angle. DiCaprio is certainly a better actor, which should give the purists some hope.
But McInerney argues the book is too good to toy with. This is perhaps an overly precious view, but Australians will understand where he’s coming from, especially after Luhrmann attempted to reimagine another beloved magnificent work of art, which happened to be their very own country.
Luhrmann’s Australia left people with very mixed feelings. Some went along for the ride while others sunk beneath their cinema seats in cringing despair. It is easy imagine that Americans are anxious that this interloper is taking on what for many is the Great American Novel.
So far, all that has been revealed of the film is a short trailer. It certainly looks to be classic Luhrmann: over-the-top sets with smug, careless, fashionable people dancing and drinking their way to tragedy.
Normally, it might be considered an advantage for an outsider to tell another culture’s story. Not so in this case: the Gatsby era is as dead to Americans as anyone else; therefore, anyone who revives it does so with new eyes.
Fitzgerald’s setting for Gatsby’s mansion is these days a narrow, overgrown strip of bitumen called Gatsby Lane, on Kings Point, the peninsula he called the “West Egg” in his book. Most of the estates appear locked up or rarely used.
A barricade of mansions denies the visitor bayside access to the place where the author imagined Gatsby lived in a “colossal affair”, being a sprawling French palace that he threw open to parties during the hedonistic years of post-World War I.
These were the days of Prohibition, yet Americans partied harder than ever to forget the savagery of the war. They also tried to outdrink the rise of nationalism in Europe and the incoming financial clouds on their own near horizon and, in the meantime, participated in a sexual permissiveness that would not be seen again till the 1960s.
Luhrmann has chosen his target well. He reportedly implied that the contemporary rich deserve a fresh critical eye, to bring new relevance to Fitzgerald’s 90 year old themes. But can Baz withstand drowning it in costume ahead of story?
To get a sense of where Gatsby stood pining for Daisy, you’ll need to leave Gatsby Lane, and creep down a nearby track, closer to the tip of the “Egg” peninsula, where you gain a clear view across Manhasset Bay.
Fitzgerald supposedly based the place where Daisy lived, on the “East Egg”, or Sands Point, on an actual 25 room mansion called Lands End. It’s no longer there.
The mansion, built in 1902 by a newspaper proprietor and whose later visitors included Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, fell into disrepair in recent years. The bulldozers moved in last year and the site is being subdivided for 13 more modest mansions.
This area was once known as the Gold Coast, where wealthy New Yorkers fled their plush Manhattan apartments for their weekend castles.
It was with a mixture of curiosity, envy and critical eye that Fitzgerald, an outsider to this society, set up in a small home near here with his wife, Zelda. Enjoying the hospitality of his millionaire neighbours, he documented the heights, and anticipated the decline, of the period known as America’s Gilded Age.
Gatsby tells of a young man, Nick Carraway, who moves to a small shack in the West Egg and finds his neighbour is Gatsby, whose parties are legendary but is under suspicion from his shallow, ungrateful guests: the gossip is that he’s almost certainly a bootlegger, the same scoundrel making the illicit liquor they love to drink.
Gatsby’s “old sport” British affectations are too quaint. The scuttlebutt is that he manufactured a past in order to buy acceptance from the old-money snobs.
The always exhausted, heat-wilted Daisy, across the bay, is in a loveless marriage to Tom Buchanan, a brute whose affairs Daisy has chosen to ignore in order to protect her personal comfort.
Daisy, possibly the real villain is the book, is beautiful and shiftless, and was once courted by Gatsby back in the mid-western town they came from. Then, his name was Gatz. She became impatient for his return from the war and instead married Tom, an all-American football hero who came from old money.
Gatsby’s parties are for one reason: his hope that Daisy will see the lights across the bay and come to him. But she never does, until Gatsby learns that his neighbour, Nick, is Daisy’s cousin.
Introductions are made and Gatsby and Daisy begin their doomed affair. A death, or two, help bring matters to a tragic end. The real story is not about the wild parties: it is Carraway’s view that Gatsby, supposedly the bad guy, is driven by romanticism and passion more real than 100 of his elitist guests.
Professor Prigozy says the book still sells 300,000 copies each year and always resonates with students: “I think the thing that captures them is the dream and the sense of possibility. They identify with that – even though the dream fails, they keep their boats against the current.”
It is about Gatsby’s – and everyone’s – fight to belong. So perhaps Luhrmann, as he faces the skeptics, is entitled to feel a bit like Gatsby.
Jackson Bryer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland’s Department of English, has been teaching Fitzgerald for 50 years. He has edited books of Fitzgerald’s letters and essays and, with Professor Prigozy, is a founder of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.
“The book is about the American dream,” he says. “While Gatsby could get the money, he couldn’t get the girl or penetrate the social stigmas of American society.”
Professor Bryer is another Luhrmann doubter. For him the book is just that – a book. “It isn’t just the story or the characters,” he says. “It’s the very style and words that have always set it apart. It’s almost poetic. That would always seem to make it very difficult for a movie to capture.
“But I would never say never.”
It is easy to see why Luhrmann chose to film in Sydney. New York’s skies are so often grey; and the book speaks of blue skies and green seas and slow days. And so little remains of Gatsby’s playground. Most of the big mansions are gone. The lifestyle died suddenly, in October 1929, with the crash.
There will always be attempts to find a new Gatsby, such as Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. It never quite works. Gatsby wasn’t a money story. It was a love story.
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