‘Gatsby': a Little Greater Than Expected

May 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies, The Arts

Paramount Pictures released The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, in March of 1974. Two weeks later, I turned 12 and held my birthday party at the Embassy Theater on Broadway and 72nd Street. Family mythology has it that my mother looked down the row of sixth-grade girls as Redford met his tragic end, and there was not a dry eye in the house.

Robert Redford was exactly how Jay Gatsby was supposed to look. Tall, lean, tan, blond—just rugged enough to avoid being too pretty. He looked as lovely in his crisp suits as Mia Farrow’s Daisy did in her flowing dresses. My instant infatuation (shared by all of my party guests and my younger sister) resulted in the purchase of a movie poster, a paperback copy of the novel, and a soundtrack record album. These were the days before VCRs, and reliving the romantic movie in my mind’s eye was as close as I could get.

Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby (1974)

Fast-forward nearly 40 years. When I first saw the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s new Gatsby, I rolled my eyes. “Oh, no,” I thought. “This is going to be so over-produced, so over-the-top.” The news that it would be presented in 3-D seemed to confirm my worst fears.

Yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald described some extravagant parties, but there is nothing 3-D about The Great Gatsby. It’s a quiet story about moral decay and fatigue, and the loss of a dream. The book is an introspective piece of fiction. (The most climactic scene takes place on a hot afternoon in a suite at the Plaza.) And while I have great respect for the talents of Leonardo DiCaprio, his role in Titanic (in my book, another over-produced, over-the-top film) overshadows his more thoughtful roles.

To prepare for what promised to be an avalanche of art direction, I revisited the Gatsby of my youth. To my great surprise, the movie that had held me in thrall as a preteen was not as I remembered. In fact, it took me several sittings to get through it. Robert Redford and Mia Farrow were as handsome as ever, but there wasn’t any real passion between them. There were endless scenes of pastel and gauze. And the period music I had thought so swoony then (“What’ll I do/when you/are far away/and I am blue/What’ll I do?”) now seemed just a little insipid.

With all due apologies to my former starry-eyed self . . . what a snore!

But I still couldn’t quite embrace the new vision of Gatsby. Lurmann promised a feast for the eyes, but how would his showstopper-music-video sensibilities handle the kind of nuanced acting the source material called for? The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, so I was prepared for an epic. I was also, to be honest, prepared to be disappointed. And I was wrong.

This new Great Gatsby is certainly a major piece of work. But I confess that I was caught up in it—and not just in the extravagant sets and costumes and incongruous hip-hop soundtrack. I genuinely cared about the characters and what was going to happen.

You see, the new Gatsby is a little greater than I expected.

As advertised, the movie does for the roaring twenties what Moulin Rouge did for the belle époque. There are hundreds (seemingly thousands) of gay flappers sparkling away in divine decadence. The mansions on the coasts of East and West Egg owe much to the art directors (and even more to the digital special effects). The champagne never never never stops flowing.

But despite all of these cinematic bells and whistles (and an estimated budget of $127 million, quite a contrast with 1974’s $6.5 million), what really captured my heart was the portrait of Gatsby. In this new version, he is less enigmatic and a little more human.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby (2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio is all grown up and he does a fine job—especially when he is insecure or momentarily ruffled. His Gatsby’s gorgeous façade has a few cracks in it, and he actually loses his temper (Redford never did). For a few tense moments you can believe the gossip that “He killed a man once.” He’s appalled, however, at his own ungentlemanlike behavior, and quickly pulls himself together, apologizing and utterly terrified that he has lost Daisy.

Carey Mulligan is not as successful, although she certainly appears to be acting her heart out. She is not preternaturally pretty, which makes Gatsby’s infatuation feel a little more genuine. But, it’s hard to tell what she wants. In 1974, Mia Farrow seemed to struggle as well. That’s the problem with Daisy. Is she a star-crossed heroine? A manipulative little bitch? Or simply a dim bulb? While Gatsby has made it his sole purpose to reclaim their lost love, Daisy walks away from it. This is the truly tragic end of Gatsby, more than any misguided bullet is.

The supporting players are well-cast. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, the closest representation of Fitzgerald himself, is a careful narrator, at once attracted to and repelled by the people and stories unfolding around him. His admiration for and defense of Gatsby strike the only chords of unselfish friendship in the entire movie. Elizabeth Debicki is a deliciously icy Jordan Sparks. Joel Edgerton is, as described, a “hulking” bully of a Tom Buchanan. Jason Clarke plays George Wilson with such palpable sorrow that his scenes become difficult to watch. And Isla Fisher, as George’s wife (and Tom’s mistress), is a brazen, brassy Myrtle, an outspoken contrast to all the genteel characters who never really say what they mean.

Luhrmann, as ever the epitome of an auteur, has added some scenes I could have done without: a little too much backstory, in particular. (We now know exactly when and where Gatsby picked up his repetitive “old sport.”) He also found a place for some comedy as Gatsby fusses over his first tea with Daisy. The stage business went on a little too long although DiCaprio, drenched and dripping from his frantic escape into the rain, held his own.

Meanwhile, a very touching scene from the book was omitted. Gatsby’s father arrives for the funeral and Nick has a brief glimpse into his friend’s past, as well as his true character. “Ever since he made his success he was very generous with me,” says Henry Gatz. So while the self-made man denied his background publicly, he still made it a point to do the right thing. Dramatizing this one last time would have been a strong ending and would have reinforced the newer, more faceted, Gatsby the movie created. But, by then, I think it had run out of steam.

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may be a bit too much of a wild ride visually. But it gave me a new way of looking at a familiar figure. And there’s something pretty great about that.