When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” came out, it was not a success. Some of the reviews were scathing. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic wrote that the book was “a minor performance … At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical.” The editors of the New York Evening World were “quite convinced after reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.” Fitzgerald expected that Gatsby would be his greatest novel and a financial success, but instead the initial editions sold very slowly. Even the cover art by Francis Cugat – counted as one of the best dust jackets ever – didn’t help the sales. Fitzgerald died 15 years later believing himself to be a failure. The book was finally discovered by readers after World War II, and it gained the status it deserved. It’s now listed as #2 on the New American Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.
The movies haven’t done well by Gatsby. A silent version featuring William Powell came out in 1926, the year after the book was published, but this version has been lost. In 1949 the book was filmed again, but totally miscast with Alan Ladd as Gatsby. The Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version from 1974 looked great and the Ralph Lauren costumes led to a return of 1920s chic but it was sunk by poor direction that couldn’t capture the roar of the Roaring Twenties. All it managed was a mellow meow.
Now, finally, the novel is getting its due. Baz Luhrmann’s new version roars like Gatsby’s custom-made roadster tearing through the streets of New York City. Luhrmann has always had a slightly mad and highly manic sensibility, with movies like Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet (which also starred Leonardo DiCaprio) and Moulin Rouge! His last film, Australia, was a bit of a misstep, though it had its pleasures.
With The Great Gatsby, he displays a more mature style while keeping the energy of his earlier works. The movie is visually sumptuous, with kudos to Catherine Martin’s production design as well as Simon Duggan’s cinematography. They capture the opulence of Gatsby’s world, the frenetic pleasure-seeking of both flappers and financiers in the 1920s, as well as the darkness just beneath the surface.
The movie is told in retrospect by Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire), as he recovers from alcoholism at a Long Island sanitarium. The doctor suggests that he write to help deal with his demons, so Caraway writes about the summer when he met Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Caraway has come to New York after graduating from Yale to work in the bond market and he takes a small house in the town of West Egg, near where his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives with her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Tom was Nick’s friend at Yale and is fabulously wealthy, living in a mansion across a Long Island Sound inlet from Nick. All’s not well between Tom and Daisy, though. Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), who regularly calls him at home. For support, Daisy has her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), an amateur golfer who becomes Nick’s girlfriend.
Nick lives next door to the huge mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. One day Nick receives an invitation to attend Gatsby’s next party, and while there he tries to find out about his host. No one really knows who he is or where he came from, though there are plenty of rumors. Nick gets a bit soused and is chaperoned by someone he takes to be another guest. It’s only later that the man he’s been talking with reveals that he is Gatsby. (The way Luhrmann films this is stunning.)
Gatsby takes Nick under his wing, guiding him through the upper levels of New York society. In return, Gatsby asks for Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy. Nick learns that his cousin and Gatsby were acquainted years earlier, before Gatsby went off to fight in France during the first World War. Now Gatsby wants to renew the relationship, even though Daisy is married.
DiCaprio slips into the skin of Gatsby and wears it easily, something Redford couldn’t do in 1974. Gatsby’s the epitome of the self-made man, and also the self-unmade man. His obsessions both caused him to rise and are his fatal flaw, and DiCaprio manages to convincing portray a character deluding himself. DiCaprio and Maguire have been friends for a long time, since their start in film and television as child actors, and there is a definite ease when they’re acting together. Mulligan has an essentially thankless role, since Daisy is a shallow, beautiful doll who instigates a tragedy but emerges from it completely unscathed. A wonderful discovery is Debicki, who grabs the audience’s attention whenever she’s on screen. The end of the film does drag a bit, but Luhrmann brings it to a satisfying conclusion.
One reason The Great Gatsby may not have done well in the 1920s is because it’s a cautionary tale about America’s obsession with riches and excess. As Fitzgerald wrote, “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 . . . .” One can see echoes of Gatsby in the manipulators of Wall Street who caused the 2008 crash. Fitzgerald famously said that the rich were different. In The Great Gatsby, that’s an indictment, and the movie presents it with devastating clarity.