Tuesday, May 21, 2013

the great gatsby: redford vs. dicaprio smackdown

Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby is brash and loud and colorful, compared to the pastel-hued tones of Jack Clayton's 1974 version. But is it a better film? Yes and no. The real take-away as the credits began to roll was that F. Scott Fitzgerald's timeless tale had proved, once again, to be, while not exactly un-filmable, at least as elusive to capture as Gatsby's dream of a future life with Daisy proved to be.

Leonardo DiCaprio was effective and impressive as Jay Gatsby, the self-made (and re-made) man, a dreamer who wants to go back in time with the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. DiCaprio was able to convey how much he cared for Daisy, and how deeply his small-town origins still hung about him, no matter how hard he tried to escape them. In 1974 Robert Redford captured the Gatsby facade, and wore the clothes (designer Theoni V. Aldredge won the Best Costume Oscar, but Ralph Lauren did the men's suits) with more ease and authority. Redford even made the phrase "old sport" sound almost natural and seemed more convincingly menacing as a man who may have been hiding some dark secrets. But DiCaprio was able to take the character to a more emotional place.

He wore it well: Robert Redford in one of Ralph Lauren's linen suits
Gatsby, looking good poolside
What really rankled in the 2013 version was how the women in the story all seemed to be relegated to the background. Daisy may have been Gatsby's focus and the impetus for all of his character's actions, but as played by Carey Mulligan she was just a bland, soft-voiced, Southern-drawling cipher. Luhrmann didn't even acknowledge Daisy's lack of mothering skills — until the last few moments of the film the audience, unless they were acquainted with the book or earlier film version, would hardly know she even has a child. As miscast as Mia Farrow might have been in the 1974 version, she at least was front and center throughout the story. Her Daisy was flighty and selfish and rather unlikable. Probably a litte too unlikable. But Daisy Buchanan, as Fitzgerald wrote her, is not, ultimately, a great person. Luhrmann tried to soft-pedal some of his heroine's faults at the end, which should annoy fans of the novel. Daisy also was dressed in impractical, busy summer frocks, designed by Catherine Martin (who is married to Luhrmann), and an unattractive bleach blond bob.

We have come to expect the character of Daisy to be un-castable, but there is no excuse for how poorly Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson were represented in this latest film version. Elizabeth Debicki started off promisingly as Jordan Baker, Daisy's professional golfer best friend, but then practically disappeared from the action, as Luhrmann chose to focus on narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Gatsby and Daisy. What happened to Nick and Jordan's romance, or Jordan's witty, wicked sense of humor? What happened to Fitzgerald's interesting, multifacted female characters? Gone.

And unless the viewer is paying strict attention, it is possible that Tom Buchanan's (Joel Edgerton) lover, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) might be completely missed. With Luhrmann's frenetic pacing of certain scenes it's altogether likely that not only would one not catch Myrtle's name, but also not realize at first that she was the person who tried to flag down Gatsby's yellow car as it whizzed by in a penultimate scene of the movie.

Daisy's husband Tom is a jerk and a racist and a bigot, but he actually does care for Myrtle. Their relationship in both the book and the 1974 filmed version is portrayed as something far beyond casual. Joel Edgerton tried hard to fill in the blanks left in Luhrmann's script. Bruce Dern may have been a strange casting choice as the rich, Old Money, hunky, athletic Tom in 1974, but he very ably portrayed the boor's love of both of his women, Daisy and Myrtle.

That's a lot of lace and flounces for a summer frock
Leo, as Gatsby, raises his glass in a welcoming toast
Quick takes, 1974:

The screenplay/adaptation was by Francis Ford Coppola (!)

The scene where Nick has dinner with Daisy and Tom and Jordan: we see Daisy get jealous of Tom taking Myrtle's phone call — she is definitely hurt, and we feel that she really loves him.

The close-up camerawork was a little disconcerting.

Extra scenes showing Gatsby and Daisy's affair once they become reacquainted make us believe that their love may have a chance.

The scene with Gatsby showing his shirts to impress Daisy really works, as does the scene featuring Gatsby's final swim in his pool.

Quick takes, 2013:

A real stand-out scene is the final confrontation at the Plaza Hotel, where DiCaprio lets Gatsby (finally) lose his cool.

The tea that Gatsby arranges at Nick's to (re)meet Daisy, with Gatsby over-filling his small cottage with flowers and cakes, his nervous anticipation and awe at seeing the love of his life after five years, is both funny and poignant to watch.

The first over-the-top party that Nick attends at Gatsby's is everything Luhrmann is known for — visual opulence, hip music, frenetic camerawork — and it's great fun to watch. Unfortunately the rest of the film can't quite keep up the pace.

Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway was even more removed and diffident than Fitzgerald's. Not many could attend a drug and alcohol-fueled orgy and still remain uninvolved, but somehow he pulled it off. Luhrmann's framing device of having an alcoholic Carraway narrate the film from a sanitarium as he writes the story didn't quite work, either.

The hip-hop music used to "update" this Gatsby actually worked quite well, but like many of the other design elements, seemed to lessen or disappear as the film progressed. Why not truly update the story to modern times instead of keeping it in the '20s? That may have held this film back from being a truly modern version.

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford as Daisy and Gatsby
L-R: Nick, Gatsby, Daisy and Tom (Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton)
As much as this latest version of The Great Gatsby didn't quite live up to my expectations — its vaunted excess actually seemed to peter out about halfway through the film into straight melodrama — it's hard not to admire both Luhrmann's ambition and aspiration to film such a complex literary classic. When most multiplex movie fare involves superheroes who battle endless CGI explosions, or the latest entry in a franchise that features cars driving really, really fast, a film that ends with some of the most evocative words in American literature is something to applaud:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
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