After having seen the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby directed by Elliot Nugent and the 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton, I concluded that the novel was unfilmable. After having seen Alan Ladd’s performance as Gatsby in the 1949 version and Robert Redford’s performance as Gatsby in the 1974 version, I concluded that the role was unplayable. Happily, Baz Luhrman’s 2013 adaptation – and Leo DiCaprio’s performance in it – have proven me to be mistaken on both counts.
But first, a few words about the prior versions.
The Horrible Gatsby (1949)
What’s most horrible about Elliot Nugent’s 1949 adaptation of Gatsby is its framing device – Nick Carroway (MacDonald Carey) standing beside Gatsby’s tombstone and moralizing about the wages of sin. If Gatsby is a morality tale – and I don’t think it is – surely its moral stance amounts to something more than “God hates adultery.”
The principle sin of Nugent’s 1949 version is its mediocrity. Nugent’s uninspired direction is “noir lite.” The screenplay, adapted from a theater version by Owen Davis, is overly stagy. Alan Ladd as Gatsby looks the part – one can believe him as a gangster or a World War I vet – but he is ultimately a cipher, lacking inner life. Betty Field, believable as a white trash farm girl opposite Lon Chaney Jr. in Of Mice and Men (1939), is grossly miscast as Gatsby’s great love, Daisy Buchanan. Whatever her real background might have been, she is not convincingly upper-class. She does not have a “voice like money.” Romantic sparks between her and Ladd are virtually non-existent.
The rest of the cast varies in quality. MacDonald Carey is a terrible Nick Carroway, looking too old for the role and failing to communicate anything in the way of character. Barry Sullivan is an okay but not particularly memorable Tom Buchanan. The only players who emerge with honor are Shelley Winters as Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (a part the budding method actress could play in her sleep), and noir stalwart Elisha Cook as the piano-playing Klipspringer.
The Bland Gatsby (1974)
Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation is the “Masterpiece Theater” version of Gatsby – expensively appointed, but stiff, formal, suffocated by its own reverence. Mia Farrow as Daisy is the film’s greatest asset – she utterly nails the character – the voice, the wide-eyed charm that covers pure self-absorption, tinged with an edge of psychosis. Bruce Dern, as Tom Buchanan, and Karen Black, as Myrtle Wilson, are equally impressive. But Sam Waterston as narrator/audience surrogate, Nick Carroway, is overly bland. And Robert Redford, as Gatsby, is even more of a cipher than Alan Ladd was in the ’49 version. Not a man, but a concept.
Lurhman’s Surprise (2013)
Films, of course, are not literature, and what might be the most “faithful” adaptation (in terms of banal equivalencies of dialogue and plot) may not necessarily be the most cinematic. The most surprising thing about Baz Luhrman’s 2013 version is how he managed to crack the problem of adaptation and turn Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, a creation of language, into a genuine movie-movie.
Luhrman’s most impressive discovery is that Gatsby is fundamentally a story about looking. Carroway looks at Gatsby and his outlandish parties. Gatsby looks at Daisy. And, as Hitchcock demonstrated time and again, there is nothing more cinematic than the act of looking.
There is also the matter of genre. Luhrman’s Gatsby is neither a morality play (like the ’49 version) nor a stately literary adaptation (like the ’74 film). Luhrman looked at Fitzgerald’s book and saw in it the same genre as his 1996 Romeo + Juliet and his 2001 Moulin Rouge – a Tragic Romance. So while there are many other aspects of Gatsby that a director might choose to emphasize, Luhrman emphasizes the romantic angle – which has its advantages and its drawbacks. The advantages are that it gives the audience an emotionally involving story arc, and someone (Gatsby + Daisy) to root for. The disadvantage is that after persuading us that Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) are great lovers, he has to deal with the plot twist revealing Daisy to be a narcissistic sociopath.
Luhrman, like Vincente Minnelli before him, treats his most impressive set pieces – e.g., Gatsby’s parties – as if they were musical numbers, sweeping tour-de-forces of music, choreography, costumes, and decor. (See, for a typical example, the orgy and ride through the streets that concludes Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.) When we saw the first rap-scored trailers for Lurhman’s film last Fall, we were afraid that it was going to be the hip-hop Gatsby. Well, not quite. There is rap and hip-hop, but there is also Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (with fireworks!) and lots of other kinds of music besides, supporting but not overwhelming the film’s colorful 3-D imagery. This is not a realistic depiction of the 1920s, but a dream of that era, filtered through a 21st Century sensibility.
The performances – with the exception of Carey Mulligan’s last minute transformation – are uniformly effective. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carroway is not just a blank audience surrogate, but a warm and involving character in his own right. (And with his own weaknesses. The film begins with him in an asylum for recovering alcoholics.) DiCaprio succeeds, where his predecessors failed, in giving Gatsby an inner life. We feel his desperate romantic longing, his class insecurity — and his rage.