Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"GATSBY? WHAT GATSBY?" : Notes on an Adaptation

When it Comes to Bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age Classic to the Big Screen, '70s Mediocrity Has the Advantage Over Modern Techno-Fetishism
After speculating in an earlier post on how Baz Luhrmann’s $127 million adaptation of The Great Gatsby would stack up next to Jack Clayton’s prosaic 1974 version (HERE); I finally got around to seeing the 2013 film (sans 3D) last night.

Well, my overall opinion is that Luhrmann’s is the better film, but then, so is the 8mm home movie I made of my first trip to Universal Studios in 1972. To say Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is better than the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow starrer is not the same as saying it's a good film. It’s merely to note, comparatively speaking, that it is an improvement over the former. It wins by default.
Indeed, when taken as a stand-alone movie adaptation, I think the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby mostly proves that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is unfilmable and should be hereafter left alone. Unless, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber has plans for turning it into a West End musical sometime soon.

What surprises me is that while Baz Luhrmann’s glittery Gatsby is more spirited, better acted (generally), and, by and large, a far more dramatic and romantically persuasive movie than Jack Clayton’s over-reverential take, I could pop the seriously flawed 1974 version into my DVD player and watch it in its entirety this very minute, but I really can’t imagine wanting to see the 2013 adaptation ever again.  
 Gatsby & Daisy - 1974
Why? Because for all the tin-eared, uber-devotional faithfulness of Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay; the leaden portentousness of Jack Clayton’s direction; and the hermetic, airlessness of most of the performances; 1974s The Great Gatsby is at least populated with real human beings occupying a recognizably real world. And until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s version, I never really grasped the degree to which that little detail matters in a film that's not about Transformers or superheroes.

When I see live theater, there’s this unique energy and danger that comes from everything happening right before you in real-time. It adds to the overall excitement of the experience and allows for the considerable suspension of disbelief required to allow entire worlds to exist within a proscenium arch. Movies operate on a different level. They create a hyper-reality that' once removed. Any emotional distance created by the fact that I’m watching flickering images staged in the recent or distant past is mitigated by the intimacy of close-ups, the persuasive use of music, and the way I allow myself to be drawn in by the selective, directed gaze of the camera lens.
Daisy & Gatsby - 2013
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby makes extensive use of computer-generated imagery, both realistic and stylized. Imagery whose sometimes flagrant artificiality gives one the impression of watching Jazz Age avatars populating the landscape of an art-deco video game. The camera swoops, dives, and darts about the action like a paper airplane hurled by a grade-schooler with lousy aim, and the 2D effect of the film’s 3D technology makes the actors appear to stand apart and separate from their surroundings. Virtually floating in front of the scenery - like those vinyl Colorforms cutouts I had as a kid. In short, the entire enterprise becomes a high-tech cartoon. And in cartoons, there can be no human jeopardy. 

The fragility of humans, both physical and emotional, is the crux of all drama. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald emphasizes human vulnerability by contrasting and juxtaposing his weak characters against the illusory shelter their materialism affords them. No matter how big the house, powerful the car, or ornate the swimming pool--they all prove insufficient citadels against pain, death, and tragedy. But for this to hit home, the material world has to be made real for us, and the characters have to feel as if they inhabit it and are of flesh and blood.
Jordan & Nick - 1974
The 1974 Gatsby buried its characters beneath millions of dollars’ worth of production values, but at least the quirky casting of '70s stalwarts Karen Black and Bruce Dern helped to imbue the film with brief flourishes of unmistakable humanity. Luhrmann’s Gatsby wants to dazzle us with spectacle, but at the cost of grounding anything in a palpable reality. The actors, digitized to a glossy sheen that renders flesh the same waxy burnish of department store mannequins, are impossible to care for because they have been rendered as animatronic Gatsby dolls. They posture and pose, look terrific in their period duds, and all carry on as if they're in a college production of Private Lives, but they never feel like they have any life beyond what we're being shown. How could they? They exist on a computer graphics grid.

I’m afraid 1974’s The Great Gatsby (a film I harbored no great fondness for beyond a nagging nostalgia and the sight of Robert Redford’s thighs in a bathing suit) has become yet another mediocre film from my past that’s starting to look more like a classic in the wake of a middling remake (a la: The Poseidon Adventure, Fame, Rollerball, and Planet of the Apes).
Nick & Jordan - 2013
Of course, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was a big hit at the boxoffice,  proving most emphatically that 3D, CGI, and anachronistic music scores by Jay Z are here to stay, and what the public wants.
To which I can only respond, in the words of one Miss Jean Brodie:
"For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

A Few Random Observations:
1. In spite of forever looking like he's playing dress-up in his Daddy's clothing, Leonardo DiCaprio does a marvelous job as Gatsby. Infinitely more complex and sympathetic than Robert Redford’s Arrow Collar model interpretation, he's the major galvanizing force in the film for me.

2. I’m convinced it’s impossible to make a party on film look like any fun.

I'm absolutely crazy about Carey Mulligan, who makes a fabulous-looking Daisy Buchanan. But as her role is written, I'm not sure she fares much better than Mia Farrow

3. In an effort to capture the dizzying madness of the Jazz Age, Luhrmann, by all appearances, tied the camera to a rope and started swinging it over his head. Honestly, it's like a hummingbird was his cinematographer, and cartoonist Tex Avery was his editor.

4. Actress Elizabeth Debicki makes me think what a wonderful Jordan Baker Anjelica Houston would have made in the 1974 film.

5. Like the kind of digital manipulation that Vanity Fair shutterbug Annie Leibovitz passes off as photography these days, the images in The Great Gatsby, beautiful as they are, never once look organic. None of the actors appear to be in the same room together. Hell, none of the ROOMS seem to be in the same room.

6. Blending the music of Gershwin (the exquisite Rhapsody in Blue) with the compositions of contemporary pop stars only draws attention to how awful the music of contemporary pop stars is.

Isla Fisher's superficial performance as Myrtle Wilson (she plays her like Miss Hannigan in a touring company of Annie - or, more accurately, as Annie all grown up) achieved the impossible: It made me long for Karen Black's over-emotive histrionics in the 1974 film

7. There’s no denying that Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a beautiful-looking film, but when Baz Luhrmann tries for Ken Russell operatic bombast, his images, lacking in either context or passion, at best come off as the work of a very clever Los Angles event/party planner.

8. I thought so in 1974 and I think so now; Bruce Dern's Tom Buchanan is a brilliant piece of character work. Joel Edgerton comes off as a tad too callow and weightless.

9. I very much like the framing device employed in the new film that has Nick Carraway recounting his summer with Gatsby from inside the sanitarium he's committed himself to after becoming an alcoholic. It's an inspired touch that adds a bit of depth to a character so often on the periphery of the action.

When it comes to movies, I willingly confess to being just as obsessed with the past as Gatsby. But I honestly would have welcomed an adaptation of The Great Gatsby that I didn't have to watch ironically.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013


  1. Love this post Ken.
    I have a growing sentimental attachment to the 1974 version which I think time has been kind to.
    I didn''t care for it much when it came out - it was way over-hyped - but so many aspects of it have grown on me over the years - especially Dern who is terrific. The Scott Wilson/Karen Black moments hook me, too.
    And I do love what Nelson Riddle did with the period music, especially turning that fabulous Berlin tune "What'll I Do?" into the theme song. It also gave the original ads and posters the classy tagline - "Gone is the romance that once was divine." Imagine the studio marketers allowing that approach these days?
    You're right, of course, that "Gatsby" is unfilmable but I know I will watch the 1974 version again at some point, and will never rewatch the new one.

  2. Thanks so much, Joe. So seriously flattering that my fave arts/books journalist bothers to read my posts now and then. Your stuff is still the smartest and most interesting stuff on the web.
    Anyhow, I see that we feel somewhat the same regarding Clayton's "The Great Gatsby." It's a film that's looking better with time, and certain performances (Dern's especially) have survived the overriding hype of the day.

    The total lack of any kind of relationship depicted between Myrtyle and her husband in the new film really got me to appreciate what they did in the 1974 film. And honestly, the first time out, their scenes really bugged me. Now, Karen Black and Scott Wilson seem to have been onto something I hadn't opened myself up to back then.
    Very cool of you to have taken note of the ad campaign and the use of the song lyric as a tagline. I've always like that line.
    I'm glad that the younger generation has a Gatsby that is perhaps relevant to them. Me, I owe Baz Luhrmann a vote of thanks for proving fresh eyes fro me to appreciate a film I'd long ago assigned the camp heap. Redford & Farrow are looking pretty good to me these days.

  3. Mark here, saying hello from Australia!

    Is there any chance we can send this review to Baz? Okay, I've not seen his version of "Gatsby", but let's be honest, what you've written, Ken, sounds like a pretty airtight damnation of the film. Just from the previews, which I have seen far too many times, I notice how the whole things looks like a computer game--and yes, Baz, I CAN tell it's CGI just from the trailers!

    I noticed, from the trailer, how they took a 1960s song from The Turtles ("Happy Together"), remade it for 2013 (complete with horrid-sounding heavy metal screaming) and used it in a film based in the 1920s. Sometimes, such anachronisms can work really well. But seldom is the case.

    1. Hi Mark
      I always forget you're from the land of Baz. I suspect that perhaps the hype for this film was even bigger there, but it was truly overpowering here.
      Happily that Turtle's song never makes it into the finished film, but what does is enough to make your ears bleed. Just not my thing, and all the (music) artists seemed to miss the point of the book ("A little party never killed nobody..." Oh, really?)
      Anyhow, I don't mean to Baz bash, but I'm tempted to reference Macbeth in saying that, by and large, this Gatsby is "...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
      Good to hear from you, Mark!

  4. I was thinking so many of these same thoughts when I saw the new adaption earlier this year. The Jazz Age without the music of the period is just not The Jazz Age. The new framing device bugged me because it was almost identical to the one Baz used for "Moulin Rouge."

    1. Hi Tom
      Yeah, I know what you mean about the music. The one thing a film adaptation can supply that the novel can't, is the actual music that gave the Jazz Age its name and so underscored the craziness of the era....and Luhrmann decides to leave it out.

      Also, I never thought of that framing device being so similar to "Moulin Rouge" until you noted it! Had it occurred to me I'm afraid it would have impressed me less. Luhrmann hasn't made so many films that he can afford to borrow from himself yet. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Hi Ken - I was actually pleasantly surprised by the Luhrmann version...I thought it captured a lot of the poetic nuance of the Fitzgerald novella...emphasis on the word "novella." The horrible Paramount film feels as long as Proust's boxed set...it tries to hard to be "important."

    I do agree with Tom's astute comment about the lack of period music. Anachronisms are the rule rather than the exception in period pieces these days, as filmmakers pander to teenage audiences, rather than trying to educate them and get them excited about the brilliant artistry of a bygone era. After all, that's how all us movie lovers came to appreciate so many films that were created long before we were born.

    Another great post, Mr. Ken!!!!

    1. Hi Chris
      I love that phrase "as long as Proust's boxed set" in describing the 1974 film! As you point out, that film does suffer from the desire to be "important." Always the kiss of death with literary adaptations.
      I'm glad the Luhrmann version captured the book better for you. I would certainly apply your words "poetic nuance"to DiCaprio's performance. I think he's awfully good.
      And you make a very good point about the difference between pandering to and educating young ticket buyers. It's a pity, but perhaps Luhrmann's Jay Z Gatsby got a few more people to read Fitzgerald's book than a more straightforward telling might have. Still, one of these days I have to scour the internet for an article explaining artistically speaking, why 3D was considered for this film at all. I just don't get it.
      Glad you like the post, Chris. Thank you very much for commenting

    2. The 3D added NOTHING, I totally agree. In fact, remember that the film was scheduled for a much-earlier release but the filmmakers must have been afraid it would flop, so pulled it and redid the whole thing in 3D. I was sure it was going to be awful, and with low expectations like that, I allowed myself to be entertained. DiCaprio is indeed a fine actor, and Carey Mulligan was a very credible Daisy...I hate to say it, being a HUGE Mia Farrow fan (I will pay money to see her do anything), but Mulligan's performance is far superior. I also always wondered what it would have been like if Robert Evans had got his wish, for his then-wife Ali MacGraw to play Daisy. I think Ali could have added some much-needed tension to the story.

    3. Honestly, I think Ali Macgraw would have kicked ass as Daisy. She doesn't have much range, but, given that she played a very Daisy Buchanan-like rich girl in "Goodbye, Columbus", I think her sometimes aloof countenance would have been terrific.
      I agree that Carey Mulligan's Daisy is MUCH better acted than Farrow 's (Mulligan actually puts across that weird "I've never seen such beautiful shirts" line). i actually think farrow was miscast...and like you I'm really crazy about her...but the few things Luhrmann seems to do right got all lost for me in the morass of what didn't gel. As a result, the reverse happened: most everything that once rankled me about the Paramount version all of a sudden didn't seem so bad.
      When I heard that a remake of Gatsby was planned, I honestly thought ANY adaptation had to be an improvement. Luhrmann surprised me!
      Oh, and I'd forgotten about its changed release date. no wonder the 3D seems so incidental. thanks, Chris! You're always good for engaging film banter.

  6. I wish Hollywood would have made "The Great Gatsby" with Brando, in the mid-50s, with Elizabeth Taylor as Daisy. If it was done as an all-star cast, my dream team would have been Burt Lancaster as Tom, Ava Gardner as Jordan, and Montgomery Clift as Nick. Director...George Cukor, maybe? George Stevens? Just a lil dream in my wanna-be casting director head!

    1. That is SOME dream cast! I would have seen that film in a heartbeat.
      I never saw the Alan Ladd "Gatsby", but the brief clip of Shelley Winters available on YouTube gives the impression that she made a terrifically brassy Myrtle.

    2. I'm sure Shelley was perfect! ; )
      I would have her reprise Myrtle on my mid-50s dream team!
      The 49 version is so strange...judging from the clips...Betty Field as Daisy, the dream girl? Less than a decade later she was playing small town Moms and maids!

    3. Rico, I love your dream cast.
      George Stevens would be perfect for the epic themes, but if you wanted a more sexy soap opera version, you could do the same cast directed by Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind)!!

    4. Rico- Had to laugh at the "small town moms and maids" reference to the wonderful but woefully un-dreamgirl-like Betty Field as Daisy. What were they thinking?
      And Chris, Douglas Sirk would have made a wonderful "Gatsby" director. He could have given us plenty of sumptuous romantic excess.

    5. Well, if Douglas Sirk had directed a "Gatsby" it surely wouldn't have lacked in emotion, like some of these other leaden versions!

  7. Took my mother to see this one. She all but swooned over Leo. I think he did do a better job than Redford - less internal, brought the emotions to the fore better. I was entranced by Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan - frankly, I would rather watch The Jordan Bake movie. Now wouldn't that be fun! I once had a boyfriend who said I had Lois Chiles voice....but I digress.

    I also think Theoni Aldredge's costume design really stands the test of time, compared to Catherine Martin's. There's been a lot of blather that she'll get a Best Costume Design nomination, but I don't feel she deserves it, since several of Mulligan's gowns were Prada, and the headpiece's were Tiffany.

    In terms of set design, to me the original was just enough removed from the 1920s that the homes looked (and were) the real thing. Luhrmann's Gatsby lives in a Disney Princess CGI castle, for chrissakes!

    And Ken, you know how I feel about Karen Black. She was still alive when this came out, and I'd like to think she watched it and laughed at the little girl trying to fill her shoes. Only a diva could do it....

    1. That was SOME boyfriend who could reference Lois Chiles' voice! What a compliment! You must have done the swooning then.
      Jordan Baker DOES appear to have a fascinating backstory never explored. At least in both films they cast actresses that contrasted intriguingly with Daisy.
      I'm with you on the costumes, and that's a perfect description of Gatsby's odd-looking castle/mansion!

      And, as for Karen Black, I think I gave her a rather raw deal all these years in regard to her performance in "Gatsby." She at least made me understand her Myrtle. Now that she's gone, I really get what a 70s diva she was.
      Thanks, Tanya!

  8. I've seen only the 1974 version of Gatsby, and it left me cold. Robert Redford and Mia Farrow?!? But it did look good and I thought Lois Chiles and Sam Waterston were well cast. I haven't seen the Luhrmann edition, so can't say much about it - except that my godson (age 25) and his girlfriend (23) went to see it and reported back that they thought it was the worst movie they'd ever seen - I'm not sure he remembers that I took him and his brother to see Adam Sandler's Little Nicky years ago...

    I'm with you that "F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is unfilmable and should hereafter be left alone."

    1. That "Little Nicky" comment is priceless! (I can barely write a post without expressing my disdain for all things Adam Sandler.)

      I know what you mean about the 1974 "Gatsby." I wasn't very sold on it either when I first saw it, and my opinion only soured as the years went on. It was only after seeing how little was achieved by the passing of more than 30 years and the application of millions of dollars more in production costs. I think it's mostly nostalgia, but I swear...Redford and Farrow have begun to look pretty good to me!
      Good to hear from you, Eve!! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Well thank you so much for a very good laugh!
    I laughed from the title all the way through to the end.

    I happen to like 1974 in its not so very good way ---- it's not terrible; it's just nuthin' much to write home about.

    Then there's the horrendously forgettable American Playhouse Dull-toid variant featuring Mira Sorvino as Daisy. UGH.

    People keep saying that this is an un-filmable source book.
    I don't agree and I think one day it'll be done well.
    I think the problem is in it's addressing issues about our culture with which we are still in denial.
    That's why for instance, the uproarious Brit Television THE OFFICE succeeded and the American variant failed.

    Alan Ladd was a very interesting Gatsby to me. He had something the others' lack, Leo's more than credible take notwithstanding. Yes, and Shelley Winters worked as well. Maybe Irene Dunne as Daisy? I dunno ---- would she have been right?

    I was disappointed that you didn't follow up on your initial 2013 casting fear back stated in your initial review of 1974:

    "I must say I’m intrigued by the little I've seen . . .although I'm not sure if I'm up for another one of Tobey Maguire's stare-a-thon roles."

    How Rude and like most Rude Things, How Very True! SPIDERMAN got the best in him

    Do you think maybe when he's a Senior Actor they'll have room for him in a remake of HOBBIT and LOTR?

    Just think of it, "MY PRECIOUS" !!!

    1. Hi Gregory
      Your comments made ME laugh! I’m glad you appreciated the not-to-be-taken-too-seriously tone of it all.
      As one of those folks who thinks “Gatsby” can’t be filmed, I really like the reason you pose for why it hasn't been successful as of yet. An excellent, very perceptive observation and a very good point. I may have to reconsider my stance.

      That Mira Sorvino version definitely looked terrible, so I never checked that one out, and I’ve never seen the Alan Ladd one, save for the hooty scene they have on YouTube of Winters' Myrtle being hit by a car (the period special effects making it look like she was hit by a giant flyswatter).
      Funny you mention my Tobey Maguire comment, for I did indeed think of mentioning it in the second piece, but I thought (since he did indeed engage in just letting his eyes glaze over and stare in scene after scene), but I thought I'd be beating a dead horse. As you note, it's just too true!

      I feel like an old man asking this (which is OK, since I am) but what does ROT mean? I haven’t come across that one before in texting.
      Thanks, Gregory. I have to say I am very flattered and gratified at your taking time out to read and respond to so many of my posts.

    2. It means Roliing On the Floor, Laughing My Ass Off!
      Aren't you glad you asked/

      Speaking of ,I'm SOOOOOOOOOOO glad you got to see the scene where Shelley /Shelley's Dummy got hit. I remember saying out loud "Well, check THAT out!" It was as you say "a hoot!"

      Speaking of Tired old men I turned 60 November 5. I share that day with Vivien Leigh, Roy Rogers and Sam Shepard (amongst for some reason, many others in La Show Biz) Hmmmm . . . That's 2 ersatz cowboys, and one alcoholic, nymphomanical ersatz southern belle.

      What does that make me?

      Onward and upward!

    3. Happy belated birthday! 60, a stellar decade!

  10. didn't care much for this movie, but it introduced me to haunting lana del rey and the sublime young and beautiful. somehow when i hear young and beautiful i think of marilyn monroe and not leonardo.