“Gatsby? What Gatsby?”
Just so you know, that line has to be the cheesiest line in both versions. Neither Mia Farrow nor Carey Mulligan pull off the mixed sentiment of excitement and feigned indifference. I can’t think of a single actress who could do that, so it’s no knock on Farrow or Mulligan; just saying. Though one can say, “what Gatsby indeed?” because never has there been a remake that was so redundant as the Baz Luhrman film. It’s true, the old one has dated considerably in its shooting technique; but it’s not like the new version really substantially added any insight into the book. If anything, it looks more like a forgery than a remake.
Watching both versions, you come to realise that F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t a great dramaturg when it came to the characters in his novel. He’s so preoccupied with the particulars of the characters that he seems to forget that there is some kind of reason for those character other than for the display of his characterisation. In may ways the book doesn’t have a lot of dramatic turning points so both versions of the film lurch from one loose moment to the next with only the most vague of causation. The end arrives as abruptly as the action starts to get a little interesting.
The Plaza Hotel Scene
The most conflict-ridden scene is the Plaza Hotel scene where things come to a head when Gatsby forces Daisy to tell Tom she doesn’t love him. But of course she breaks and says that she loves both men. In both versions this results in a closeup of shock on Gatsby played by Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. The shock on DiCaprio’s version is actually priceless.
It’s interesting that the identical scene is written 40years apart and remains mostly the same and true to the book. Yet, when seen back to back it is clear that there is some attempt by the characters of the 1974 version to settle things as adults, while the 2013 version seems to be more of a petulant outburst by an emotionally juvenile Gatsby. Yet this is the interesting crux of comparing the two versions. The earlier film seems populated by adults, with only Nick Carraway being the innocent. The latter film seems to be populated by overgrown adolescents who have tremendous difficulty behaving with proper civil decorum. Redford was 38 when he played the role. DiCaprio is 39. They’re both a bit too old to be playing Gatsby, but interestingly enough DiCaprio’s Gatsby comes across as being much younger in spirit as well as behaviour than Redford’s Gatsby.
Even Mulligan’s Daisy seems so much younger than Farrow’s Daisy. Carey Mulligan is listed as 28 according to Wikipedia, while Farrow was 29 at the time. You would still pick Farrow’s Daisy to be a much older woman than Mulligan’s Daisy.
It is as if cinema and its stars have gone through neoteny.
Robert Redford comes across as a adult with a strange fixation on this one woman. Leonardo DiCaprio comes across as a man-child trapped in a world he refuses to understand and is somehow latched onto the idea of Daisy much more than the real Daisy can sustain. You sort of wonder what has happened to our civilisation in the intervening years. Where have all the adults gone?
What The Distance of Time Tells Us
When you watch both versions back to back and have a little think about the character of Jay Gatsby, you’re forced to confront the fact that he’s a stalker. The whole getup with the mansion across the bay and the parties in spite of his retiring nature just so she would turn up, is one big stalky move. Nick Carraway on the other hand is a voyeur. He disguises his observations as a narrator in a sort of feigned indifference, but ultimately Nick makes the observations he does because he likes to watch. So the two main male characters in a story about a dynamic, masculine romanticism, are actually passive and recessive. This probably explains why the romance between Gatsby and Daisy feels incredibly turgid and dull in both versions. Gatsby might be great at getting to the girl, but he doesn’t know how to get the girl. Carraway’s sense of impotence in the narrative then is a reflection of Gatsby’s inability to close the deal he thinks he’s closing in upon. The rest of it seems to be a frivolous infatuation with the trappings of wealth.
Well, wealth is nice, so it’s not like there’s a great revelation there in either film. If anything the Luhrman version seems to be fixated on the lavishness of the parties and the manse, while the Clayton version seems to be fixated on class. These takes on the book are not bad in of themselves, but both movies seem to expose the hollowness at the core of the book itself. The Toby Maguire version of Nick Carraway makes a strong denunciation of Tom and Daisy and the inherited wealth set, while Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway makes more of a commentary on the shallowness of people inhabit the class, neither film really lends itself to a deeper analysis of the central ‘tragedy’.
Rich Girls Don’t Marry Poor Boys
For a line that’s not in the book, the line casts a long shadow over both films. The line is credited to the father of F. Scott Fiztgerald’s first love Ginevra.King, Charles G. King. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote down the quote when he first met the man, and the man allegedly said, “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”
The line got rearranged into the line we know today by Francis Ford Coppola, and has made it into both versions of the film. It’s a strange way to find posterity, but there you have it Charles G. King, you’re an important footnote in cinema! The re-arranging of the line tells you a lot – that Charles G. King might have been trying to fend off a poor boy from his rich daughter, but in the eyes of Francis Ford Coppola the writer, “Rich Girls” know better and actively seek not to marry Poor Boys (presumably, if they had any goddamn sense).
Both films stage the line differently. In the Clayton version, it is as an outburst by Daisy in order to explain why she did not wait for Jay Gatsby to return from the war. In some ways the Clayton version is more classically sexist in that it ascribes the condition to the woman who would not marry below her class. The Luhrman version seems to attempt to subvert this line as being said by a man to another man as commentary on the condition of women and men in the 1920s – but in that sense it is more honest to the spirit of Charles G. King’s utterance.
I don’t know how uncomfortable people are when they watch either of the Gatsby movies and when the line gets flung. When Daisy says it in the earlier film, it is like an admission of her shallowness and awfulness of character that she would embrace wealth over any personal attribute Gatsby might have had to offer before he became wealthy. Naturally, it is more memorable than the passing comment version of the Luhrman version because it is the crux of the argument for Daisy’s actions in the story in the earlier film, when she refuses to say she never loved Tom Buchanan.
What is interesting in the Luhrman version is that upon hearing it, Nick dismisses the notion, and this seems to mean that Luhrman does not hold to it as an important part of Daisy’s calculations (or Jordan’s for that matter); rather, the line is a commentary that is aimed at the audience as somehow malicious without significance. Nonetheless the Nick Carraway in the latter version ends up in psychiatric care with Jack Thompson(!) over his abreaction to the shallowness of Daisy. It’s possible that Luhrman’s relationship with the line is a lot more complicated than first appearance.
The advent of the zoom lens must have been extraordinary in its day. Suddenly there was the freedom to re-frame without having to change lenses. The 1970s is the age of the zoom lens in cinema as resizing the shot with the zoom while the shot is running, became part of the package. There are a lot of zoom lens flourishes and re-sized frames in the earlier film, which makes it a typical film of its time. We just don’t see that style any more. Watching it requires one to readjust to the aesthetic of the era. After the aesthetically severe 1980s there was a concerted, almost puritanical shift away from the zoom lens, while other devices such as the Steadicam an the Louma crane came in to vogue.
Baz Luhrman seems hell bent on moving the camera no matter what, so his films are populated with gratuitous crane shots, stomach-turning tracking shots, and liberal doses of the Steadicam. For all the time that has elapsed between the two films, it seems the Great Gatsby can only be captured on film with the most gauche camera moves available.
Maybe in 40years time, somebody will come up with an even more radical way to move the camera, and then we will be in for an even more radical Gatsby. Maybe it will only be in 20years. It probably won’t be worth it.
What The Distance of Time Tells Us Part II
Meyer Wolfsheim in the book is clearly based on Arnold Rothstein who famously fixed the 1919 World Series. We’ve seen the characterisation of Rothstein in ‘Eight Men out’ as well as more recently in ‘Boardwalk Empire’. So that would make Jay Gatsby somebody a bit like Jimmy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Or Meyer Lansky or Lucky Luciano or even Al Capone. In any case, to have been a bootlegger with such success would imply Gatsby must have been high up in these kinds of outfits. You wonder how Arnold Rothstein in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ would react if he found out one of his associates was holding randomly lavish parties in a big mansion on Long Island.
One wonders how well Fitzgerald might have known such figures. Or maybe he didn’t and that is why he only obliquely refers to Wolfsheim as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and leaves it at that. While we see the phone calls about Philadelphia in both films, neither film really brings an outline to the bootlegging that was going on under the Prohibition, even though this is the source of Gatsby’s great wealth. It appears that even though Fitzgerald was living the reality of the Prohibition era, he had very little idea as to how things were and how they worked. This is reflected in the scarcity of detail in the book as well as both films. The limits of the book circumscribe the limits for both films and in many ways this is disappointing because frankly, inquiring minds would want to know.
It is clear that over time, the ‘Gatsby’ fiction has been far superseded by the detailed fiction of such things as ‘Boardwalk Empire’.
The 1974 version actually is a bit of a revelation because it features some interesting names. Lois Chiles – who plays my favourite Bond Girl in ‘Moonraker’ – appears as Jordan Baker. That was a bit of a surprise-reminder. Also surprising is the girl playing Daisy’s daughter Pammy, was Patsy Kensit. yes, that Patsy Kensit. Scott Wilson plays George Wilson, and that’s pretty interesting I’d totally forgotten about that performance.