Select Page

The Movie “The Great Gatsby”

The Movie “The Great Gatsby”

by William H. Benson

May 23, 2013

     Last Friday evening I saw “The Great Gatsby.” Playing Jay Gatsby is Leonardo DiCaprio, and he gives his usual rounded and splashy performance. The blonde English actress, Carey Mulligan, plays the comely and innocent-appearing, but not-so-intelligent, Daisy Buchanan, desired by two men, first, her husband, Tom Buchanan, but also her neighbor, Jay Gatsby. It is a tale of unrequited love, of adultery, and its ugly consequences.

     In a sense though, DiCaprio and Mulligan appear mismatched. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 fictional novel, they are close to the same age, nearing 30, but DiCaprio is 38 this year, and looks even older. Carey Mulligan is 27, but her ghost-white English skin makes her look 20. There is an age gap.

     Tobey Maguire plays the thirty-year-old Nick Carraway, the story’s first-person narrator. Tobey will turn 38 next month, and he looks 38.

     Baz Luhrmann, the movie’s director, has created a vision of “Great Gatsby” that is a phantasmagoric dreamscape of music, dance, colors, sights, and sounds that he centers around the most unrestrained party scenes imaginable, scenes that may eclipse anything witnessed in the 1920s. Then, when Nick Carraway types his tale on an early-vintage typewriter, letters appear around him, bounce into place across the screen, and transform themselves into sentences. Also, the camera will zoom across vast distances and then stop at a moment.

     It is enough, or too much, and a far cry from Fitzgerald’s literary novel, and from the chaste and sedate 1974 movie that starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.

     One redeeming thing I noticed. Luhrmann laid a recognizable piece of music near his version’s beginning: a few chords of George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue,” that appear out of nowhere, distinct and incongruous, like a rose standing in a weed patch.

     The story is simple. Jimmy Gatz fled his parent’s poor farm in North Dakota and survived combat in Europe’s Great War. Later, he changed his name to Jay Gatsby, and earned a fortune through Meyer Wolfsheim, a New York City racketeer who, with Gatsby’s help, defied the country’s prohibition laws.

    Gatsby met Daisy in 1917 during the war and fell in love with her, but because he was penniless at that time, she married the dashing Tom Buchanan, who came from old money. Gatsby builds a mansion at West Egg on Long Island’s north shore, across the bay from East Egg, where Tom and Daisy live.

     In the summer of 1922 Gatsby stares at night across that bay to the green light that fronts Tom and Daisy’s mansion, reaching out for that light, hoping that he can win Daisy’s love. He throws reckless parties for people he does not know, and so Fitzgerald wrote, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

     Gatsby confides in Nick Carraway, his only friend, who lives in the cottage next door, and Nick tells Jay not to expect too much from Daisy because “You can’t repeat the past.”

     “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

     Jay is obsessed with recapturing those first moments he had with Daisy when they were young, before the war, but now when he pushes her to tell Tom Buchanan that she never loved him, she is bewildered, confused, torn. Her hesitation crushes Jay, and so the tale winds down to its hideous conclusion, as do most tales that include alcohol abuse, criminal activity, and adultery.

     Fitzgerald’s literary skills, his way with words, and Luhrmann’s staging and scenery construction  dazzle the screen, and together they surpass the plot’s wretchedness.

     Nick Carraway finishes the story. “It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

     Nick feels sympathy for Jay Gatsby because he was innocent: “he believed in the green light.”

     A possible theme for Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is that one person cannot force another to love them. Although he or she may try, the results are not the best.

     Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s own life was tragic. He married Zelda, and their romance was legendary, but his true love was for alcohol. In 1940 at the age of 44, he passed away due to a heart attack brought on by chronic alcoholism. Like his fictional hero Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald missed the green light.