thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.

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Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

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Sarah S: Melissa made a thorough defense of the contemporary, hybrid soundtrack. How did you think the music worked in the actual film? How about the CG? The general style?

For my part, I was fine with the music and feel that Lurhman has “trained” his audience in how to absorb his frenetic, garish, mish-mash vision. Having said that, I’m not sure he gives 1920s jazz quite enough credit for how it can still make people (at least, make me) feel. I got a bit tired of the swooping CG; it felt too fake. Still, I was overall pleased with the style, particularly the costumes.

Sarah T: The music (and the parties) were my favorite part! I loved Jay Z’s hip-hop/jazz-age mashups, and I think the songs really captured the decadence and seedy glitz of the 1920s. Plus, so danceable. Which brings me to the parties. Luhrmann’s always at his best when he’s going big, which is why Gatsby’s parties soared so high in the film. It’s not just the blitz of glitter and fountains and flappers and fireworks that makes those scenes pulse with life, it’s the way the camera swirls through the crowd and then stops, so you get a sense of both the parties’ wild scope and that intimacy that Jordan loves so much.

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Sarah S: Let’s talk about the actors. Wasn’t DiCaprio magnificent? And so were Mulligan and Edgerton. However, did you find Toby Maguire tiresome as Carraway? The incessant exposition and voiceover,  am I right?!? (That bit’s not entirely Maguire’s fault, of course.) In the book, you can make of Nick what you will: reliable? unreliable? sympathetic? snot-nosed? It’s part of what makes the book so rich. But you don’t need a narrator like that in a movie and, indeed, it’s hard to pull off. So instead, we’re given Nick Carraway as total prat. (FWIW: much of the exposition came directly from the book but much of it didn’t. For example: “Gatsby and Daisy sped away…toward death.” *vomit* At the same time, getting in the closing lines was nice and fitting.)

Sarah T: Big yes to DiCaprio—he was all I’ve ever wanted in a Gatsby, so starry-eyed and desperate and with that crinkly golden aura that makes you understand immediately how he managed to climb so high. He’s wonderful in most scenes, but I particularly loved his conversation with Nick after the party: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” The way DiCaprio says it, you understand how much he needs to believe that’s true.

Also, I did not think Nick was a prat! Tell me more about this. Like my blue-eyed girl Jordan I was annoyed and often disappointed by his shiftlessness. But in Maguire’s scenes with DiCaprio I felt a real warmth and sympathy that made their odd friendship work onscreen. (It turns out they’re good friends in real life, too, which may have something to do with it.) Also, I’m into the Nick-is-gay interpretation of Gatsby that got floated back in our grad school seminar, and since Maguire looked most alive in those scenes I guess I wound up reading their relationship on that level.

Sarah S: I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I think DiCaprio is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. This movie needed actors who could convey a lot of depth without explanatory monologues or a very sympathetic plot. It’s one of the reasons the book may be “unfilmable” and why I was so happy to see Luhrmann as director because he was always going to do an interpretation.

Okay, maybe Nick wasn’t a total prat. If it wasn’t for the exposition, I probably would have liked Maguire just fine. It was so often textbook “telling” instead of “showing,” sometimes literally describing images (like Gatsby reaching for the green light before he reaches toward it) that don’t need explaining or telling the audience how to interpret the action, which I found an annoying unwillingness to trust that we could “get” the meaning without having it spelled out.

As to Nick’s potential homosexuality, it’s there for interpretation in the movie (and the book) and Luhrmann took a light hand with it that actually makes the whole thing richer. I think the best evidence for this is the erasure of Nick’s relationship with Jordan and his voyeuristic presence during Gatsby and Daisy’s affair. Nick’s always a been a bit of a voyeur, and the conceit of him as “author” of the book further necessitated his presence at scenes he shouldn’t be witnessing. But then if we extrapolate further to the scenes he’s imagining—the most romantic, the most intimate—well, then, is he identifying with Gatsby in love with Daisy or Daisy loved by Gatsby who Nick so adores?

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Sarah T: I thought Luhrmann actually one-upped the book in one respect: the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, which Fitzgerald acknowledged was the book’s Achilles heel. Luhrmann gets the romantic heavy lifting done in two back-to-back scenes: their jittery, awkward, hilarious first meeting for tea in Nick’s cottage-turned-florist shop, and then the swoony afternoon they spend in Gatsby’s mansion. That shirt scene! Both Gatsby and Daisy lit up with love and relief, and then the sudden sharp turn as Daisy starts thinking about all those years lost. Pitch-perfect. What did you think about the Daisy-Gatsby storyline in this version, Sarah S? Were you feeling it?

Sarah S: I was! And the credit for this goes, I think, all to the actors: DiCaprio’s bursting anxiety waiting for Daisy at Nick’s cottage, played for laughs and then for agony; Mulligan’s whisper to Gatsby, “I wish I’d done everything in the world with you.” And those shirts! That scene’s so odd when you first encounter it but Mulligan nailed it. This was one spot where I was irritated by Nick’s explanation because the scene was so perfect it wasn’t needed. But, as we mentioned before, their love is tainted by Daisy’s need for money and security and Gatsby’s combined emotions of devotion and ownership.

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Sarah T: I was glad Luhrmann preserved the book’s complicated portrait of race and racism, even calling attention to it at times–take the scene where Tom barrels on about that racist book in front of the African-American butlers. What were your thoughts, Sarah?

Sarah S: I agree about the complicated portrayal, including the still racist depiction of Wolfsheim. As to Tom, don’t you think it’s even an easier way to immediately show he’s a villain and a boor than it was when the book came out? (I.e. I’m glad it was in there since it’s Tom but I didn’t find leaving it in to be particularly progressive.) There was additional sympathy when Nick looks at the apartment house across the way from Tom and Myrtle’s love-nest and sees the working class people, many of them African American, living their lives. And presented without comment, the magnificent scene of the black flappers and dandies in the screaming car with the champagne and the white chauffeur. This sight makes Nick very uncomfortable in the book, it’s a sign that the world has become topsy-turvy. In the movie it’s stunningly visual and magnificent.

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  1. So many wonderful thoughts, ladies! You did a great job of mulling over various aspects of the movie and helped me think through my own responses.

    Speaking of that scene with the car full of black flappers and dandies – did anyone think it was a stunningly brilliant little snide commentary on race because of the music, too? They were playing “H to the Izzo” on the soundtrack, Jay-Z’s 2001 mega-hit anthem celebrating his own rise to success. I’m pretty sure it was the only old track that Jay-Z pulled for the soundtrack – he mostly sampled a bunch of stuff from the 2011 Watch the Throne. The video for “H to the Izzo” is like a Gatsby party – a street parade full of the celebrities of hip-hop and pop from the time, as Kanye, Destiny’s Child, Nelly, Eve, and OutKast all cameo in it. And the song itself contains plenty of implied race commentary, as Jay-Z cites his own rap success as a kind of social retribution for the years of poverty and suffering his people faced. So, as someone who knows that song and thinks about race, the moment I heard it, it felt like a hilarious one-up on Gatsby. Like, sure, Tom, you got your racist ideas as well as your classicist ideas. But in a century, the servants whose bow-ties you flick in your cruel, racist way might be telling you to “pay us like you owe us/for all the years you hold us.” So watch out, you brutish polo player.

    Of course, this analysis was all thought through after the film. At the moment, I merely cracked up really loudly, garnering turn-around stares from the fairly empty theater. Just had to share that story here, because the GLG crew might understand why the heck I was so delighted and laughing so hard.

  2. […] learned. For my “clickable photo page,” for example, I made a slide show of pics from the new The Great Gatsby movie. For my final CSS project, I made a resume for Jaime Lannister (Career Objective: to become Captain […]

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