Blockbuster with Pomp, Circumstance, Dimension, and Style
By: Ellis Nassour
F. Scott Fitzgerald critically-acclaimed, prose-laden novel The Great Gatsby, set in 1922 against the mansions of Long Island amidst the Roaring 20s – with its loose morals, the birth of the Jazz Age [a term coined by Fitzgerald], sky-rocketing stocks, prohibition, social climbers, and bobs-and- feathers flappers doing the shimmy. It’s considered one of the great novels of the 20th Century. It’s also considered unfilmbable, which hasn’t stopped Hollywood and TV from trying.
The eagerly-anticipated latest Great Gatsby [Warner Bros./Village Roadshow], produced for $127-million, is co-written, and directed by Australian stage and screen visionary, Baz Luhrmann, director of the 2002 avant garde stage version of La Boheme. It stars Oscar-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire [a previous Spider Man; as Nick Carraway], and Aussie Joel Edgerton [Zero Dark Thirty; as Tom Buchanan].
DiCaprio says he wanted to play Jay Gatsby "because I was drawn to the idea of a man who came from nothing and created himself from his imagination. He lifted himself up by his bootstraps as a poor youth and created a new persona. It’s an authentic American story. World War I had ended. There was prohibition. It was an exciting time. Gatsby wanted to emulate Rockefeller. He found ways to get rich quick. Very rich. We can relate to the dreamer in him and his ambition."
He’d given Jay Gatsby a lot of thought before filming. It’s one of his favorite books. "He’s this hopeless romantic so in love with Daisy that he accumulated immense to respectably hold her hand. Though he’s hollow, Gatsby has great hope in the search for meaning in his life.
"The Gatsby I remembered from junior high," he continues, "was different from who I discovered when I reread it. For the first time, I was struck by the sadness in him. I looked at him as attaching himself to this relic from his past. Daisy’s a mirage he’s desperately holding on to. Even when he’s finally has her wrapped in his arms, he’s still searching for this thing that he thinks will complete him."
There’s been massive buzz about Luhrmann’s superstylized vision, which some describe as orgiastic, a word actually used in the novel. There’s not only the wild party scene, which, even according to the director, got wilder than he imagined; but also non-Fitzgeraldian elements such as tunes by Andre 3000, Beyoncé, Fergie, Bryan Ferry, Florence + the Machine, will.i.am, Amy Winehouse, and by co-producer Jay-Z [Carter] – similar to those in his films Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet. The majority is incorporated in a non-jarring way. [Interscope Records has released a CD of the song tracks].
Luhrmann says, "Today’s hip-hop is what jazz was then." The dramatic score by Craig Armstrong isn’t your typical romantic film score, but serves the extravaganza well.
A fan since seeing the 1974 film multiple times in his youth in a remote area of New South Wales, he states, "I never start these things to be controversial. I never think they’re going to be a big deal." He added there was no option to film the entire book. "That would be a seven-hour experience!"
Critics and fans of the book have long surmised one of the Great Gatsby’s inherent problems is that Fitzgerald never gives a vivid description of his dark title character, other than referring to him as "an elegant young roughneck."
From Luhrmann and the stars on down, all were aware that many consider the novel a sacred text. "I could hear the masses!" laughs the director. "‘What’s he doing to it?’ On the first day of shooting, we were nervous. We felt we were carrying a heavy chalice and a great responsibility."
"Everyone has a connection to Gatsby as a character," says DiCaprio. "It’s one of those novels that’s talked about almost a 100 years later for a reason. It’s one of the most celebrated. It’s like American Shakespeare. Everyone who reads the novel has their interpretation of who the characters are. They’re attached on a very personal level. However, it’s incredibly nuanced and existential. When you making a movie, you have to be much more specific."
Maguire says, "The hard part was determining what could be left out, while also figuring out a way to externalize the sensibility of Nick, an outsider who has the privilege to look in and in whose head the story unfolds."
Venturing into a project of such magnitude took a core unit of trust for DiCaprio and Maguire. "To know that someone I’ve known for 20 years [Maguire] and 17 years [Luhrmann] were involved was a great comfort," explains DiCaprio. We were always extremely honest with each other. We needed checks and balances."
Because of their friendship, Maguire states that he and DiCaprio "had a comfortable dialogue. The Nick and Gatsby relationship was interesting to explore. Nick realizes that Gatsby had an agenda for him, but ultimately that unfolds into a real friendship. Perhaps his only one. I have affection for Leo, so it was easy to have affection for Gatsby."
Luhrmann saw evidence of this during rehearsals. "With nervousness and dealing with all the props, I called ‘Action’ on the first scene we shot. The camera was rolling. I said, ‘Let’s just improvise.’ The back-and-forth between Leo and Toby was pure and connected. It came from a depth that existed before we began."
Aspects of the film and some of the performances are way over the top. Take the "near-orgy" party sequence early in the film at Gatsby’s castle. While it captures the craziness of the Roaring 20s, it borders on bawdy Cirque du Soleil on steroids and might have audiences thinking they’re back at infamous Studio 54.
Shot in Australia in 2-D and converted into 3-D. The extra dimension certainly adds depth to the picture, but some sequences that should dazzle [eyepopping arrangements of flowers, for instance] have lost contrast. Shooting in the depth process VistaVison, rare these days, might have been wiser. There are exceptions, such as the long shot of the Buchanan estate. In spite of phone book-sized credit list of CGI artists, some of the
"Baz wanted the film to make a pop," says cinematographer Simon Duggan. "He didn’t want the look of a period film – what we think the 20s looked like. He wanted it to feel as if we were right there."
Luhrmann states he used 3-D "to enhance the performance and the presence of the actors. I was able to watch Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder the way it was originally shown [shot with two cameras, projected with two]. It wasn’t things coming out at me that grabbed me. Grace Kelly there in the room and I wanted to reach out and touch her. It struck me how much 3-D was like theater. How powerful 3-D is when an actor moves toward the camera as opposed to moving the camera toward the actor."
There have been a Broadway play [directed by George Cuckor]; the acclaimed Off Broadway re-enactment of the novel’s text by Elevator Repair Service; three film versions [the first, a silent]; at least two abridged TV versions in the mid- and late 50s; a 2000 A&E TV adaptation, which critics were widely divided on; and 1949’s rarely seen, but highly- respected 90-minute adaptation, which starred Alan Ladd, Betty Field, MacDonald Carey, and Barry Sullivan.
None other than Francis Ford Coopola [The Godfather trilogy] wrote the screen play for the lavish if uninspired 1974 screen version, which starred Robert Redford [still thought by many to be the definitive Gatsby], Mia Farrow, Sam Waterson, and Bruce Dern. New York Times critic Vincent Canby termed it "lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool." Two positive things were its stunning cinematography and Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning score, which incorporated Irving Berlin’s "What I’ll Do?"
In previous incarnations, the film’s costumes by Oscar-winning designer Theoni Aldredge inspired fashion trends. That’s happening again with high-end couture for women and a Brooks Brothers line for men inspired by the wardrobe created by Catherine Martin [Luhrmann’s wife] and those outfits by Prada and Miu Miu.
Here’s a not-too-detailed synopsis of The Great Gatsby
Poor but Ivy League-educated would-be writer Nick Carraway returns from WW1 and leaves the Midwest to chase his dreams in New York. On L.I, he rents a cottage next door to the castle-like mansion of enigmatic, new-monied Jay Gatsby, with whom he served in the Army, who throws wild, extravagant parties. He uses Nick to win back his cousin Daisy, whom he courted before going to war, living in splendor but unhappily married to brutish former star athlete Tom Buchanan.
Daisy’s discovery of the affair draws her closer to Gatsby, whom she sees as her escape. They rekindle their romance. This leads to a showdown between Gatsby and Tom, that culminates in a horrible accident, and deceit. As everyone, but Gatsby wakes to reality, Daisy seemingly reconciles with Tom, who’s not yet finished with Gatsby. He plants the seed with the husband of his mistress that it’s Gatsby who’s having the affair. In the aftermath, Nick sees through the cracks of Gatsby’s nouveau riche existence and is totally disillusioned. [As is often the case with novelists, many elements of the characters are based on people Fitzgerald knew.]
Photos: Matt Hart, Daniel Smith, and Warner Brothers.