How Great Can Gatsby Be?

By Alan Hustak on April 26, 2013


first_gatsby.jpgThe first attempt to bring Jay Gatsby to the screen in 1926 was so bad that Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the fragile story walked out of the screening. “We saw 'The Great Gatsby' in the movies. It's ROTTEN and awful and terrible and so we left," Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda confided to her diary.






ladd_gatsby.jpgThe 1949 version with Alan Ladd was turned into a gangster film which emphasized Gatsby’s ties to the mob. It died at the box office.  Robert Redford was miscast in the 1974 remake.  (Pauline Kael called that version “limp and benumbed.”) Then there was the stilted, really awful made-for television version with Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith’s son) which was shot in Montreal in 1999.  

Will Baz Luhrman succeed where others have failed?  

The Australian film-maker’s  $150-million adaptation was to have been in theatres last Christmas but shooting down under was prolonged – not always a good sign in the industry of things to come.  It is now scheduled to open the Cannes Film Festival in May and is expected to be in movie theatres this summer.











dicaprio_gatsby.jpgLeonardo di Caprio is cast as the enigmatic loner from the Midwest, the man with his dreams behind him. Di Caprio and Luhrman worked together before 20  years ago on Romeo and Juliet. Because of both of their box office reputations and because of publicity generated about the long-anticipated movie, it will undoubtedly be a hit.

But will it be any good?




real_gatsby.jpgGatsby is a story that endures because it is about living in an illusion. Above all, Gatsby is a westerner, who the author says is “perhaps possessed some deficiency which made him subtly unacceptable to eastern life.”  Gatsby is defined by others.  He might have been Kaiser Wilhelm’s cousin, a German spy during World War I, or a bootlegger with ties to the mob who made his fortune during prohibition. He may even have been a hit-man.  No one really knows where his money came from, but everyone is more than happy to help him spend it. Everyone can identify with the story of an outcast trying to gain respectability whose shady past is largely the invention of others. Fitzgerald’s book exposes a simple truth: Money can buy position, but it can’t buy social acceptance. Gatsby sees himself as a romantic; others portray him as an outsider, as a boor who will never fit in.  Can any actor bridge that nuance?

When Fitzgerald created Gatsby he was writing about himself.  “It started as one man I knew, but then changed into myself,”  he wrote.  But the character is apparently also a composite of two men he knew:  Max Von Gerlacht, the dashing nephew of celebrated U.S. General Perishing, and Cushman Albert Rice, who, like Fitzgerald, came out of Minnesota. Gerlacht like Gatsby, augmented his income by bootlegging, threw lavish parties until his money ran out, and, like Gatsby, often used the expression ‘Old Sport,’ He ended his days as a used car dealer in New York and died in 1958. Rice was a friend of Gerlacht’s and like Gatsby, came from the Midwest, threw epic parties, and boasted about the decorations he received from Montenegro as a machine gunner in the first Balkan war in 1912. Edward Fuller, who lived next door to Fitzgerald in Great Neck, Long Island, was convicted of racketeering, may have been an influence, as was one of Fuller’s associates, the gambler Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein wore cuff links fashioned out of human teeth, just as the Meyer Wolfsheim character does in the book.

redford_gatsby.jpgWith his previous film, Moulin Rouge, Luhrman showed us he can indeed capture flash and charisma on screen. But can the director go beyond the superficial and plumb the underlying depths of despair and yearning in Gatsby’s story?  There is, as Fitzgerald tells us “something gorgeous” about him so Dicaprio fits that bill. But can he, one of the highest profile actors in the world, really dissolve into Gatsby’s skin and convince us that the lost love of his youth, Daisy Buchanan is  really  unattainable?  Will his Gatsby be little more than a mature Jack Dawson, an extension of another reckless but handsome mid western rube who was cast adrift among a crowd of sneering New England socialites on the Titanic? Or will he be sensitive enough, as Fitzgerald suggests, to relate to “one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away?”

Casting Spiderman (Toby Maguire) as the narrator Nick Caraway and British actress Carey Mulligan as Daisy seems a bit odd.  Judging by the trailers, high tech animation brings a certain artificial look to the film.  The emphasis is on the “gleaming dazzling parties,” and the animated technology required to brink the New York of the 20s to life.  But to be truly great, a truly satisfying film, Gatsby has to be more than a movie about well-drilled beautiful mannequins having a good time. Not only does it have to capture the full meaning of Fitzgerald’s incantatory prose, but it does have to deliver the full force of Gatsby’s image.



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