Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Great Gatsby Comes Back - Again!



On the list of my all-time favorite books, The Great Gatsby has reigned near the top of that list since my high school read of it.  In the annals of great fiction there are few books that would rank higher than F. Scott Fitzgerald's take on the upper classes of 1920's American society.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck would still be in the lofty number one position of the greatest of great American novels.

I was home sick today and in anticipation of the new filmed version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan I decided to re-read the novel. It took me 3:15 to read it, so it is indeed an easy read. The book is still one of the definitive literary experiences that any reader can live through, but I must admit it took on a completely different take than my last go-round with it. I have been keeping journals through much of my life, so I know the last time I encountered the book was back in 1992. In those 21 years much has changed, but if any one situation now is completely different it is our near total destruction of the concept of love. I suspect the average person under a certain age will see Jay Gatsby as a crazy stalker or at bare minimum, slightly goofy. We no longer romanticize romance. When was the last genuinely believable love story released as a film? I'd have to say it was You've Got Mail or Something's Gotta Give. These were the last two examples where two characters realistically fell in love with one another. We no longer have love stories. Think of the great love stories in Hollywood's past?  Love with the Proper Stranger, Fanny (1961 version), A Man and a Woman, Splendor in the Grass, Random Harvest.  

Daisy Buchanan was a dim-witted wanna-be.  She had no depth and her only real asset was her beauty; and yet Hollywood has yet to convincingly cast Daisy Buchanan. Carey Mulligan portrays Daisy Buchanan in the latest film version and as talented as she is, she is by no means physically beautiful. Please don't take offense at this, but one must go with what Fitzgerald put on the page. Men swooned over this woman. Carey Mulligan is a far better choice than Mia Farrow was. Mia Farrow looked stoned out of her mind in the 1974 version of the film. Farrow was a limited actor and even far less defining of the term physical beauty than Carey Mulligan. Who could have played Daisy? I always felt Gwyneth Paltrow would have been a perfect Daisy Buchanan. Not that she is stunningly beautiful, but she exemplifies a pretty sophistication that isn't arguable. She is now several years too old to play Daisy, but she would have been perfect. Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman are the two actresses in age friendly territory who seem to have both the talent and the required beauty to pull off Daisy Buchanan. 

Back in early 1973, Paramount Pictures screen tested Tuesday Weld, Candice Bergen, Katharine Ross, Faye Dunaway and several other beautiful actresses (all of whom are on the most beautiful actresses of all-time list right here on this site) for the role of Daisy Buchanan.  This was after Ali MacGraw was kicked off of the project due to an affair with Steve McQueen. Her ex-husband, Robert Evans was running Paramount Pictures and one can't blame him for dissing on a woman who cheated on him. Robert Redford who portrayed Jay Gatsby in the 1974 version admitted in an interview around the time of Gatsby's release that he didn't use his clout regarding the casting of Daisy Buchanan. At the time he was as hot as volcanic lava at its peak, but he chose not to use his power to cast his co-star. He should have used his clout.

Redford also said back in the 1970's that an American should have directed The Great Gatsby (1974 version). Englishman Jack Clayton directed it dismally, but being an American has nothing to do with it. Baz Luhrmann isn't an American and I know instinctively he is the director for this film. Gatsby has failed on film and in television in large part, because no one has been able to translate the beautiful prose of Fitzgerald to the screen. Luhrmann's eye candy (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet) as cinema will surely make up for the loss in translation of the words.

The book should be read in one sitting. The dynamics of the times and the characters are better retained and even explored when you go right through it. It's as though you were reading it in "real time" as though you were a journalist, even though no one has defined "fake time."

Nick Carraway remains the only decent human being in the book. You have to love his wisdom. Jordan Baker is the cynic's dream and she is highly appealing in some odd way. Tom Buchanan is the classic jerk, but his wife, the much discussed Daisy Buchanan remains all these years later a woman so off-putting that it makes you question the very sanity of Jay Gatsby. There is little to love about this woman. Of course, it seems fitting that this shallow, self-involved human would diminish Gatsby even in death.

Jay Gatsby may have found the perfect actor with Leonardo DiCaprio.  I used to dislike DiCaprio. I remember hearing Anthony Hopkins discuss DiCaprio's performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape years ago. He admitted he voted for him for the 1993 Best Supporting Actor Award given by the Motion Picture Academy. By the way, voters aren't supposed to admit who they voted for. Against the rules and all that. DiCaprio lost to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, but he should have lost to Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. Hopkins said the following when one reviewer asked him re: DiCaprio's Gilbert Grape performance - "isn't it a one note performance?" Hopkins replied "yes, but he found the note."

I loathed Titanic so much that I literally wouldn't see DiCaprio in a film for several years. In recent years, I have grown to greatly appreciate DiCaprio as an actor and as one of our few actual movie stars. As they say, he can open a movie and he seemingly can play pretty much any character. He has a wide range and tremendous depth as an actor. If you doubt this, check out his recent filmography. Superb work.

As a lover of the The Great Gatsby I suspect that after 90 years Jay Gatsby has been found. I cannot think of an actor currently working in film or television that can do justice to Gatsby quite like I believe DiCaprio can.  One of the traits that an actor must nail is Gatsby's vulnerable side. As much as I love Robert Redford, he was and is completely incapable of acting vulnerable. The 1974 Jack Clayton version should have starred Warren Beatty. Beatty, for all of his famed womanizing escapades has managed to pull off vulnerable quite brilliantly. He even manages to exude vulnerable in the final moments of Shampoo and that isn't exactly a film of noble virtue.

Gatsby had been produced two other times as a feature film. In 1949, Alan Ladd and the now completely forgotten, Betty Field played the two leads, but the film is now an inconsequential memory in the history of cinema. In 1926, a silent film made its debut. I have never seen this version. Quite honestly, I don't even know if it exists. If it does, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) may revive it on opening weekend. The book has also been turned into a telefilm, but alas, that was a failure as well.

Here's to American literature at its finest.  We are still finding time with Fitzgerald's novel nearly 90 years after its release. May it be so still, if the world exists in the next 90 years. May we also still fall in love with love.

To Jay Gatsby. A fool he may have been, but the question remains, why do fools fall in love? Can anyone finally get this right? Let's hope. The soundtrack seems distracting and it will certainly date it by the time DiCaprio turns 50, but again, here's hoping. It was the Jazz age. I repeat, it was the Jazz age. Ironically enough, Fitzgerald deemed it the Jazz age.

Was Gatsby even in love? This one-time hopeful and hopeless romantic would have said yes, but now, I say no.

Every high school and college English instructor should be demanding their students see the film. Let's hope it lives up to its hype in spite of a ridiculously lowered bar with a "contemporary" music score and the silly casting (she allegedly kissed DiCaprio at the end of the screen test) of Carey Mulligan. It easily will be better than what the 1974 version provided.

I saw The Great Gatsby today and the first half of the film is dreadful. Just dreadful. It totally misses the nuances of the literature. Yes, I'm a purist. I suspect this will be the last time anyone takes this story on in my lifetime. Leonardo DiCaprio was indeed perfectly cast as Jay Gatsby. He is introduced on screen in a full frontal fashion of gorgeousness. Using George Gershwin's timeless and brilliant Rhapsody in Blue we meet Jay Gatsby.  That moment is the best scene in the entire film. Outside of the marvelous DiCaprio, the acting is all second rate. The film is worth seeing for DiCaprio alone.   

 
Warner Bros. Pictures 2013
 
THE GREAT GATSBY open in theaters on Friday, May 10
 

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