Failing Fitzgerald’s Masterpiece

Exclusive: As an author, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master of subtlety in his characterizations and his style, not exactly the strengths of modern Hollywood, as is painfully apparent in the latest big-budget, 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, as Jim DiEugenio explains.

By Jim DiEugenio

There are a number of interesting, but ignored, comparisons between Orson Welles’s cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece The Great Gatsby.

Young men, who were mature beyond their years, created both works. Welles completed his film at age 26. Fitzgerald completed his novel at age 29. Neither man was able to equal, let alone surpass, the excellence he had achieved at such a young age. Consequently, both looked back ruefully – and at times were bitterly explicit – at the early milestones in their careers that they were never able to match.

Both ended up in Hollywood doing work they considered menial, and far below their abilities, just to survive. At times they actually lived at other people’s homes. Welles at director Peter Bogdanovich’s estate in Bel Air; Fitzgerald at the Encino home of actor Edward Everett Horton.

This was because the true achievement of their early works was not recognized when they were first released. That recognition took decades to achieve. For example, at the time of his death in 1940, the book Fitzgerald considered his finest had sold only 25,000 copies in 15 years. In 1942, Citizen Kane won just one Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay, and was snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director.

Further, Citizen Kane and The Great Gatsby share two artistic characteristics. First, the two works are marvels of both style and technique. As many have noted, Welles pioneered techniques of artistic expression that no other film director has surpassed to this day. And when Fitzgerald was at his peak, which he was here, very few American writers could make complex sentences flow as gorgeously and effortlessly as he could; yet never losing sight of the meaning he was trying to convey beneath the words.

And, the meanings of both works strike at the heart of the so-called eponymous “American Dream,” i.e., the idea that wealth and power and connections will both make America prosper as a republic, and also bring personal happiness and fulfillment to its citizens. I know of very few works — perhaps the novels of Theodore Dreiser qualify — which condemn that concept as harshly or as thoroughly as Fitzgerald or Welles did.

Fitzgerald’s Frame

Because of the theme he was after, Fitzgerald decided to center his story in New York, which at that time of the novel – the Roaring Twenties – had begun to catch up to London as the financial center of the world. But he deliberately made the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, an outsider from the Midwest. (And as we later discover, Jay Gatsby, whose real name is James Gatz, was also from the west.)

Carraway, who went to Yale, decides to take a job as a stockbroker in New York. But, by the end of the novel, he is so disgusted with both the people and the moral milieu of the place that he breaks off with his girlfriend, Jordan Baker, sells his car, and moves back to the Midwest. (As we shall see, this penultimate strophe of the novel is inexplicably missing from this present film.)

But although Nick Carraway and his Midwest story begin the novel, we quickly see that his story soon becomes a framing device around the main action. His tale is supposed to both parallel and resonate off the actual engine of the plot, which is the romantic triangle between Gatsby, his long lost love, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, the fabulously wealthy Tom Buchanan.

In turn, that triangle is rounded off by an affair Tom is having with a woman named Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle is far below Tom on the social scale, and she also has a husband named George, who runs a combination garage/filling station located between the fictional upper class town of East Egg and New York City.

Nick Carraway is a second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, and he happens to rent a small bungalow next to Gatsby’s huge mansion in another mythical wealthy enclave called West Egg. One day he goes to visit his cousin and a young professional golfer named Jordan Baker is there. At this visit, Carraway learns about Tom Buchanan’s affair.

He also realizes two things about his mysterious neighbor. First, that Gatsby gives lavish parties that Jordan Baker has been to, and that Daisy knew Gatsby from her youth in Louisville.

One day, Nick Carraway gets invited to one of Gatsby’s parties and, by happenstance, the two neighbors meet and become friends. Nick learns about Gatsby’s love affair five years previous with Daisy, how they had planned to marry, and how this was thwarted by the Great War. Nick arranges a meeting between the two, and this rekindles the lost romance.

As the two begin to see each other, Gatsby insists that Daisy completely renounce her love for her husband Tom and say that she never loved him. This struggle culminates in a long and tense two-stage showdown that ends at a room in the Plaza Hotel in New York. There it is revealed that Daisy cannot bring herself to do what Gatsby wants her to, and that Tom has found out that Gatsby’s fortune is based upon his ties to Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish-American bootlegger and gambler.

On the way back from the hotel, Daisy is driving  Gatsby’s car and she hits Myrtle Wilson and kills her. In another car, Tom sees this and falsely tells Myrtle’s husband George that Gatsby did the hit-and-run driving.  George then tracks down Gatsby lying near his pool, whom he kills before taking his own life.

Nick Callaway helps arrange Gatsby’s funeral, which is attended by almost no one except his father. He then meets Tom Buchanan on the street. Tom says Gatsby had it coming for killing Myrtle, revealing that Daisy had lied to him about what happened. Nick visits the place where he first saw Gatsby standing at the end of a pier staring at a green light across the bay nearer the Buchanan house. Disillusioned by all that has happened, he decides to leave New York and return home.

A Forward Motion

Although the plot includes several major characters, flashbacks and settings, the forward motion of the story is handled with such skill and dexterity that it has the effect of a hydraulic transmission: there is nearly no detection of a shift in place or tone.

What makes this even more impressive is the fact that, strictly speaking, the book is really a novella. In some versions the text runs to just 176 pages, meaning there is very little filler in the book. Although Fitzgerald was a master of descriptive writing, there is very little of that for its own sake. The author pushes the motion forward and only slows down when he needs to, to describe an important event or character.

But the marvel of the book is this: In describing the story, characters, and the author’s technique, I really have not told the reader all that much about the book. For it really exists in the sharply drawn characterizations, the author’s memorable depiction of a unique epoch in American history, and his felicitous use of symbols throughout. All of which give the book a luxurious texture, at the same time that it lends the novel a rich undercurrent of depth, scope and meaning.

That final quality is manifest most pungently in the last unforgettable page of the book where Fitzgerald, after summing up the fate of the rest of the characters, ends the work with Nick on the beach near Gatsby’s empty house. It is a lovely crescendo/reverie that almost reaches the level of poetry, summing up in a few paragraphs the deepest meanings of the story.

Although the ending could have easily been presented visually, that touching and incandescent coda was not filmed by director Baz Luhrmann in his new movie adaptation. It is simply presented as text to read. But before presenting the myriad problems with the disappointing current adaptation, I think it’s appropriate to address the fact that, historically speaking, Fitzgerald has not been well served by the film adaptations of his books.

Multiple Adaptations

To my knowledge, this is the eighth effort to film one of his novels. Including Luhrmann’s rendition, there have been four prior attempts to film The Great Gatsby; two attempts to adapt Tender is the Night, and one film made of Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished, novel The Last Tycoon, a book which actually was about the movie business.

The first version of Gatsby was a silent film starring Warner Baxter. From my research about it, that film has been lost and only bits and pieces of it remain. (Some of this can be seen on You Tube.)

In 1949, a talking version of the book was made starring Alan Ladd as Gatsby, Betty Field as Daisy, and MacDonald Carey as Nick. Reportedly, this version accented the underworld aspect of the story, turning the tale into at least partly a film noir. This version was pulled from circulation in 1974, since the same studio that produced the Ladd version, namely Paramount, also produced the 1974 version.

The 1974 adaptation starred Robert Redford – who had not quite attained superstar status yet – as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Sam Waterston as Nick. It had a script by Francis Coppola and was directed by the Englishman Jack Clayton, who had made at least one distinguished film in his career, but that was many years previous. This picture generated a huge amount of advance publicity, including a Newsweek cover story. But from the script onward, it turned out to be an overproduced  misfire.

In 2000, a more modestly produced—and much less ballyhooed–version of the story was made for cable television. This one starred British actor Toby Stephens as Gatsby, Mira Sorvino as Daisy, and Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway.

If one includes the productions of the other two novels, this writer has seen all the available films, with just two exceptions: the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby and the 1985 TV mini-series version of Tender is the Night. I regret not seeing the latter, not just because it is very difficult to find anywhere today, but also because it was reliably praised as being perhaps the finest screen adaptation of a Fitzgerald novel ever.

As mentioned above, the Alan Ladd version of the book made much, perhaps too much, of the criminal element. Like so much else in the book, Fitzgerald artfully lays in this aspect as a suggestive, mysterious background near the beginning, so that it can be used to powerful effect near the end.

For instance, there are calls made to Gatsby from some large cities, calls we never actually hear. Then there is a brief meeting between Gatsby, Nick, and Meyer Wolfsheim, whom, Gatsby informs Nick, fixed the 1919 World Series. Wolfsheim is clearly meant to suggest Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish-American racketeer who specialized in organizing mobster influence in professional athletics, reportedly including the 1919 World Series.

Fitzgerald means to contrast how Gatsby made his money — through his apprenticeship with Wolfsheim — against Nick’s work in the bond market and Tom Buchanan’s “honest wealth” in stocks. In fact, near the end, in the duel over Daisy, Tom uses this underworld angle against Gatsby and states that one of his Wall Street friends lowered himself and – much to his regret – got mixed up with Wolfsheim and Gatsby.

Apparently, back in 1925, Fitzgerald did not foresee how the much more serious gangsterism of Wall Street would one day clearly outstrip the power and reach of organized crime. Thereby making the illicit profits of the underworld pale in comparison to the illicit piracy of “bond salesmen.”

The Fitzgerald Revival

What caused the revival of interest in Fitzgerald that has extended out to this day? Why is he so much more studied and revered now than in his own time? For, as I noted, The Great Gatsby did not sell well upon its publication in 1925.

In fact, each of his first two novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, sold more than twice as many copies in their initial run than Gatsby did in 15 years. And although Fitzgerald always thought it was his best book, Gatsby did not have anywhere near the critical acclaim while he was alive that it has today.

Most commentators credit Arthur Mizener’s book, The Far Side of Paradise, with beginning the Fitzgerald revival. It was published in 1951 and was the first full-scale biography of Fitzgerald and his mercurial wife Zelda. Although it was a scholarly look at the writer by a Cornell professor, because Fitzgerald’s life was so colorful, the book became an unexpected  best-seller.

Mizener’s book became the equivalent of the proverbial first rock in an avalanche. A whole reconsideration of Fitzgerald took place. His publisher, Scribner’s, began to reissue his five novels as a set. Academia began to reexamine the man’s achievement. The Great Gatsby was lavishly praised by such venerated critics as Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot.

By the Sixties, Fitzgerald’s name and reputation had entered the modern American literary canon. The book made the top ten in both the Modern Library and Time Magazine lists of the best American 20th Century novels. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over ten million copies. It never goes out of print since it is taught as a standard introduction to the novel at most colleges.

And that immense popularity has contributed to the translation of the book not only into cinema, but also stage productions. Just this year, there will be three different theater productions of the novel. One of them an eight-hour recital of the book itself.

A Subtle Skill

Because of all this devoted analysis, most admirers of his work are today familiar with how Fitzgerald achieved what he did in this book. First, there is his flawless writing technique, which reaches a euphony of rhythm and stateliness that few American writers have ever matched. There is also the symbology of the book, e.g., the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that expands into metaphor, but it is so suffused in Fitzgerald’s depiction of his characters and the historical period that the symbols never obtrude. Not even at the end. Connected to this, is the author’s use of understatement to make his effects, and the high points of his drama, speak louder than they normally would.

As an example of the last, take the first time that Nick meets Tom’s girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson. With Nick in his car, Tom picks up Myrtle and brings them both to an apartment he is renting to carry on the extramarital affair. Myrtle invites her sister Catherine and two neighbors in the building, a couple called the McKees, up for some drinks.

There is some small talk by the McKees about Mr. McKee’s hobby, which is photography, and a bit about Gatsby’s parties and his reputed background from the war. Myrtle then relates how she met Tom, and how she made a mistake in marrying her husband. Then Mr. McKee falls asleep and Nick gets drowsy.

Nick, who has been drinking too much, then describes an argument taking place between Tom and Myrtle over the mentioning of Daisy’s name in public. Defying Tom, Myrtle starts repeating Daisy’s name over and over. This is Fitzgerald’s next sentence in the book: “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.”

In the midst of a quiet, expository, almost meanderingly low-key scene, that sentence has an impact much more potent than its 13, mostly monosyllabic, words. In fact, once we read it, we can see how the author has been lulling us into a quiet complacency so that the brutal effect of Tom’s striking a woman who wants to marry him will be brought home like it was us being struck in the face.

As I watched this scene unfold in front of me in Baz Luhrmann’s film, I could hardly believe my eyes. First, after the arrival at the apartment, we get the unmistakable sound of Tom and Myrtle copulating in the bedroom. After this, Myrtle’s sister Catherine comes to the door, followed by at least seven other people. None of them, as far as I could see, were the quiet couple, the McKees.

What follows next really resembles something like an orgy. There is loud, blaring music while everyone is getting drunk. Catherine starts French kissing Nick in close up shots, and this is intercut with shots of champagne corks popping. Luhrmann, for no reason I could discern, then takes us outside the apartment to a black man playing a trumpet outside. Then, the script has Nick saying something like “I began to like New York.”

Only after all this, does the scene with Tom hitting Myrtle occur. And by then, because of all the wild clichés that Luhrmann has depicted previously, it has nowhere near the impact it has in the novel. Instead of saying something about Myrtle’s yearning for social status, about Tom’s power and brutality, and also foreshadowing the climactic scene at the Plaza Hotel, where that power and brutality will assert itself again, it just comes off as being a hackneyed lover’s quarrel.

And by giving Nick that line out of a commercial about liking New York, that alters the point that Nick’s outsider character is supposed to make about this scene. He gets drunk not because he wants to participate in some sex orgy — which Fitzgerald does not even suggest — he gets drunk because he is bored and then repulsed by Tom’s actions. In the book, in keeping with the understatement that sets off the dramatic act, Nick leaves on the elevator with Mr. McKee. He then ends up at Penn Station waiting for a train while reading the newspaper.

Meeting the Gangster

Take another memorable scene from the book, the one in which Gatsby and Nick go into New York to eat lunch because he wants to talk to Nick about doing him a personal favor. At the restaurant, Wolfsheim approaches and sits down thinking that Gatsby wants to introduce him to Nick for business purposes. During the scene, Wolfsheim explains how he met Gatsby after the war and took a liking to him personally because of his good looks and demeanor.

Wolfsheim says quaintly: “There’s the kind of man you’d like to take home and introduce to your mother and sister.” He then adds that Gatsby is “very careful about women. He would never so much look at a friend’s wife.”

After this brief conversation based upon a mistaken assumption, Wolfsheim excuses himself and leaves. Nick asks who he is and Gatsby replies he is a gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series, a fact that astonishes Nick. Again, this is a quiet, conversational scene which ends with a compelling discovery about Gatsby’s business relationships.

Luhrmann moves the scene to a barbershop. He then has the characters walk through a secret door and step down into a speakeasy, a Luhrmannesque speakeasy. It features literally scores of people, maybe hundreds, drinking up like there is no tomorrow. There are also girls dancing in a neatly choreographed musical number with loud music on the soundtrack.

Luhrmann adds to the frenzy of the scene by employing stop-action frames and jump cuts in his usual headlong editing style. Then, Wolfsheim actually says something to Nick about Daisy, and finally, Tom Buchanan comes into the speakeasy, and Gatsby leaves. Again, the problem is that Luhrmann’s over-the-top operatics actually defeat the purpose of the scene.

The friendliness and almost tenderness that Wolfsheim shows to his protégé, Gatsby; the matter-of-fact way Gatsby calls Wolfsheim a gambler who fixed the World Series, a subtle technique that Fitzgerald employs to show how Gatsby has adapted to this world; and Nick’s quiet astonishment that he could be in the milieu of such people. All this is lost in the midst of the visual twists and pyrotechnics Luhrmann is so addicted to.

The Wrong Director

When I first heard that Luhrmann was going to direct this new adaptation, I had some reservations since I understood his visual style from his previous film Moulin Rouge. But I thought back to Elia Kazan’s 1976 film of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and I recalled how Kazan had largely restrained his usual hyperdramatic style in order to capture some of the atmosphere and feeling of Fitzgerald. Well, Kazan evidently understood something that Luhrmann did not.

Kazan was trying his best to serve the book. Confirming my worst fear, Luhrmann wants to give us not The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, but The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann. And the last thing in the world that Luhrmann understands is understatement, which is very odd because, as Dwight MacDonald once wrote, any real artist understands that to have effects you have to have contrast, which Fitzgerald understood very well.

But what Luhrmann does not seem to understand is that if all your scenes scream, then they drown each other out: that is they all whisper since they are all done at the same intense pitch.

In addition to his frenetic cutting style, Luhrmann also does something I don’t ever recall another director doing with a writer of Fitzgerald’s stature. In the middle of the film, he suddenly starts putting some words from the novel on screen in white letters, letter by letter. To me, this was jarring and distracting.

Another textural problem I had was the recurrent use of huge panoramic shots done by a crane over New York and the surrounding water. I think this was done for the 3D version of the film. But by doing it repeatedly, it loses its impact for when it is needed most, which is only in certain spots, especially at the end of the book.

And then there is the music. In an apparent attempt to cash in on the youth market, Luhrmann has used some contemporary musicians and singers like Jay-Z, Fergie, and Beyonce Knowles. Luhrmann wanted to use modern hip-hop pop and alternative rock and translate these contemporary songs back into Twenties arrangements.

My questions are: Why not do the opposite? Why not take the music of the Jazz Age, and modify it with the electronic tools we have today in order to give it a stereophonic sound? To me, the music does not work either in setting a mood, or commenting on the story. It seems a simplistic way to make money off the soundtrack.

Over the Top

As I mentioned above, many people thought that the 1974 version of the film was overproduced. It may have been. But in comparison to Luhrmann’s adaptation, it looks like a low-budget B movie. Again, I was taken aback by the depiction of Nick attending Gatsby’s first party.

In the book, Fitzgerald actually lists the people who attended Gatsby’s parties that summer. (See the beginning of Chapter Four.) It may be about a hundred or so people. The first party in Luhrmann’s film easily has ten times that many.

And Luhrmann choreographs it, and I exaggerate here a bit, to resemble something out of a Busby Berkeley musical. He uses gigantic sets, garish lighting, fast cutting, loud music, all in the aid of creating a kind of wild bacchanalia. The problem with this is simple: there is no re-creation of either mood or time. In other words, there is no transport to a different place in the past.

There is no sense of the epic romantic grandeur Fitzgerald is out to create through his main character, whom – in a line cut from the film – one of the minor characters in the book calls a modern David Belasco, a New York theater impresario famous around the turn of the century. With Luhrmann’s treatment, one could call DiCaprio’s Gatsby a modern Ken Russell, the flamboyant English film director.

Another good example of the contrast between the book and film is the climactic scene between Tom Buchanan and Gatsby. Daisy has arranged a meeting at her home to tell  her husband that she and Gatsby are in love and will be leaving. But the scene shifts to the Plaza Hotel. Realizing what has been going on, Tom has done some research on Gatsby and his association with Wolfsheim.

And after some back-and-forth bickering between the two men over Daisy, Buchanan plays his ace card and calls Gatsby a swindler. The argument gets heated and Tom then reveals that Gatsby’s alleged drugstore business is a really a front for bootlegging. Fitzgerald subtly caps this scene by using a reference from one of Gatsby’s first parties, when a girl threw in, among some idle chatter, the rumor that Gatsby had killed a man. In a masterly return to that early dialogue, Fitzgerald now recalls the phrase:

“I turned back to Gatsby — and was startled at his expression. He looked — and this is said in all contempt for the babbled slander of his garden — as if he had ‘killed a man.’ For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way.”

Because of the precise, small-scale way that Fitzgerald has calibrated the scene – with the use of certain words, like swindler; with the details of Daisy trying to light a cigarette; with the music drifting upwards from the dance hall below – and because these have been used like a jeweler setting diamonds in a Swiss watch, the impact of the above three sentences is like a giant velvet glove pushing us back in our seats. Gatsby’s ugly past, which he used to attain the wealth he thought he needed to win back his lost love, has been tragically exposed.

Cinematic Histrionics

That kind of artistry does not interest Luhrmann. So again, I sat incredulously as this scene approached its climax in the film. With all the subtlety of say Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio first swings his hand back and smashes a glass to the floor. He then flies into a rage, turns around, and walks across the room to Tom and stands over him.

And then Luhrmann cuts into a close up of DiCaprio actually getting right into Tom Buchanan’s face, separated from it by about 10 centimeters. Needless to say, this is not Fitzgerald – and it’s not in keeping with the character he created.

Although some have said that Luhrmann and his co-scenarist Craig Pearce have followed the story fairly faithfully, I disagree. To the point that I wonder how many of these reviewers have read the book lately.

Luhrmann and Pearce have adapted the book loosely; it’s a liberal adaptation. In addition to the points I have already made, they have, for all practical purposes, jettisoned the entire romance between Nick and Jordan Baker, the professional golfer Nick meets when he first drives over to see his second cousin Daisy.

Jordan Baker is in the film, but her role is greatly reduced and there is no parallel coupling of the two as in the book. Therefore, the story loses a dimension since Fitzgerald used the Carraway-Baker affair to comment on the Gatsby-Buchanan affair, and also to differentiate Nick’s character from Gatsby.

Luhrmann and Pearce further tinker with the story by installing their own framing device. Nick is still the narrator, but at the beginning we see him in some kind of sanitarium talking with a doctor. The doctor tells him to start writing down the experience that landed him there. Therefore, the telling of the story becomes part of the rather trite device of mental therapy. (This is how those white letters of the novel appear on the screen.)

Pearce and Luhrmann also cut out the final meeting between Nick and Tom, where Nick learns about Daisy’s deception about running over Myrtle Wilson — and how this lie led to both Gatsby’s death and the Buchanans leaving the area shortly afterwards.

Mishandling the Funeral

And what Pearce and Luhrmann do to the ending! One of the most endearing episodes in the novel is Nick arranging Gatsby’s funeral. He can’t get anyone to show up, not even Wolfsheim. This is very strange to the Midwesterner since so many people had taken advantage of the man’s prodigal generosity at his parties.

But unexpectedly, Gatsby’s father shows up. And there follows one of the most touching scenes in the novel. Mr. Gatz shows Nick a little card he retrieved from a book his son had. On the card is written a set of rules the boy should obey in order to advance in the world. Mr. Gatz comments that he always knew his son would be a formidable figure one day.

The unstated irony, of course, is that those rules did not make Gatsby what he was. His association with Wolfsheim did.

But besides cutting that out, prior to the funeral, Luhrmann shows us Gatsby lying in state. And we see scores of people filing by his exposed body in a casket. Then, realizing that this is the opposite of what Fitzgerald wrote, he then shows us the sparely attended funeral. Never bothering to explain why so many would be at the former, yet so few at the latter.

Then there’s the acting. Tobey Maguire, a man whose success I have never been able to figure out, is Nick. As others have noted, Maguire’s voice is so nondescript that you forget it very soon after he speaks. So he was not a good choice for the narrator just on that score.

But as a character, Nick Carraway is the kind of man who has to exist essentially in a mode of discovery and reaction. Therefore, what was needed was an actor of real intelligence and resourcefulness who’s own economic means of expression matched the author’s. Perhaps a young Jon Voight could have pulled it off. Instead, in Maguire, Luhrmann has cast an actor who could barely handle the comic book character Spiderman. He’s simply a zero.

As Daisy, Luhrmann gives us the 28-year-old Carey Mulligan who had mostly done television up until this time. To me, she was as non-descript as Maguire in face and voice. She never captures the wonderful line Fitzgerald gives to Gatsby about Daisy: her voice was full of money.

Joel Edgerton is cast as her husband Tom. Fitzgerald means Buchanan to be a newly rich neighbor trying to affect learning and class and likeability, but whose natural instincts keep exposing all that as a sham. Edgerton captures none of that surface. He comes off as a sweaty rugby player almost from the start.

DiCaprio’s Interpretation

To complete the failed ensemble, there is Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatz/Gatsby. The man who tried being successful the All-American way and found out that it didn’t work, who then did achieve success the scorned-upon way and tried to hide this from an upper class of snobs and hypocrites who, in many ways, are worse people than he.

Gatz/Gatsby is a man who has essentially, by his own will and imagination, created an illusion of a country squire to aid in sustaining his dream. Very few actors could create this almost ethereal character who has now become an icon to millions. The problem is that DiCaprio is really just an earnest yeoman in the part. He never actually inhabits the character from the inside out.

And Luhrmann does not help him. To create a character like this takes a talented and dedicated actor being coached by a director who understands how uphill the journey is, and is willing to be there as a tutor all the way.

Far and away, the best performance I ever saw as  a Fitzgerald hero was a young Robert DeNiro as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon. DeNiro was directed in that film by Elia Kazan, one of the founders of the The Actors Studio, and one of the best actors’ directors ever. DeNiro lost over 40 pounds for that part and he rehearsed with Kazan on weekends. He needed to master Stahr’s walk and carriage.

Plus, DeNiro did mental exercises so as to perfect the overbearing attitude of a very bright studio president who had everything under his control.  To put it mildly, I don’t see any of that kind of hard preparation work in DiCaprio’s performance. He can’t even capture the externals of the character: his voice keeps on slipping around without any consistency and there is nothing ethereal about his bearing or walk.

DiCaprio here is the opposite of what DeNiro was. Not an artist, but a leading man. A hundred actors could do what he did.

Decades ago, the redoubtable film critic Stanley Kauffmann mapped out two ways to evaluate adaptations of estimable books: 1.) Does the film create the effect of the novel in a substantial way? If not, then 2.) Does it create an effect by way of its own artistry?

There have been films that have achieved the first category e.g. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And there are some who have achieved the second, Roman Polanksi’s Tess. This film does neither. And it does so in an arrogant, loud and brash way that is offensive to those who understand the complex statement Fitzgerald was making about the so-called American Dream.

I have little doubt that if Fitzgerald could see this pastiche, the dirt atop his grave would be quaking.

Jim DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His new book is Destiny Betrayed (Second Edition) from Skyhorse Publishing.

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9 comments on “Failing Fitzgerald’s Masterpiece

  1. stefanos skopros on said:

    Very illuminating review and sensitive appreciation of Fitzgerald. Oi, Las Vegas Gatsby via over-kill Hollywood is all we need. Vulpine Wall Street crushes the tough-tender vision of a Main Street master. A lot of it going around these days: unsubtle, unsatisfying, disrespectful.

  2. Hillary on said:

    Dumbed down America ?
    .
    What is evident from this piece is that “times have NOT changed” in respect to genius recognition,
    and the evolution of Western Civilization as a result has suffered.
    These two were trod upon by the wealthy whose domain had to be protected.
    It’s the golden rule ………………”he who has the gold rules”.

  3. James DiEugenio on said:

    Thanks to both of you.

    The film is a travesty. And I agree with Hillary as to what the system did to these two extremely talented artists.

  4. Malcolm McIntyre on said:

    “Fitzgerald did not foresee how the much more serious gangsterism of Wall Street would one day clearly outstrip the power and reach of organized crime”: What makes you think Wall Street is absent organised crime?

  5. James DiEugenio on said:

    I am not saying they are absent.

    But from what I have read, the 2007-08 two trillion dollar meltdown was not caused in the main by them.

  6. Partlow funeral home on said:

    just awesome!

    • James DiEugenio on said:

      Thanks so much Partlow. This is getting posted around a lot. I think I was the only person to actually read the book before I criticized the film.

      Go ahead and post around yourself.

  7. Terry on said:

    Room at the Top, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and The Innocents were also directed by Clayton and are quite marvelous.

    • James DiEugenio on said:

      Room at the Top is a good film, no argument from me.

      The other two I think are more questionable. But The Innocents is at least a respectable attempt to film a classic novella.