Title: The Great Gatsby (film)
Written By: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication Info: Directed by Baz Luhrmann 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction
It is imperative that when you go see The Great Gatsby, you know these two things:
1. It's a Baz Luhrmann movie. Baz is not known for subtlety.
If you want something restrained, something in which Leonardo DiCaprio isn't introduced by the sounds of Gershwin and the sight of fireworks, then look elsewhere. If you want lavish madness, then go see this – and see it in 3D. Both my friend and I saw it in 3D despite some skepticism, and we both felt it enhanced the story.
2. This is an anti-romance. Nothing ends well and as a matter of fact things tend not to start well, either. Expect a lot of angst and drunken wailing.
I do think this is a good movie, but if I had gone to it expecting a romance, I'd have hated it. It's a tragedy about people who dodge responsibility even when it literally flies at their heads, people who fall in love with figments, and people who love money and the facade of money and never know each other. It's emotionally affecting, but not happy.
The last time I read Gatsby, I was in high school, and, as they say, “I didn't get it”. All I remember of the book is a sense of excess, moral vapidity, and sadness. So, I can't speak to how well the movie works as a reflection of the book, except to say that it includes the kind of excess that only my boy Baz can produce, it is rife with moral vapidity, and it contains the kind of sadness that only a stubbornly hopeful but clearly doomed Leonardo can produce in a girl's heart. Seriously, this movie is perfectly cast – you can't imagine anyone else in any of these roles, and they bring a depth of feeling that belies the shallowness of their actions and words.
So, in keeping with the romance focus of Smart Bitches, I'm going to focus on the romantic stuff in the movie, or rather the anti-romantic stuff. Unspecific SPOILERS if you've never read the book or seen earlier film versions of the book or had a conversation with an English major. Here's a rundown of the relationships in the movie:
Gatsby loves Daisy, or rather, the idea of Daisy. Daisy may or may not love Gatsby, but she sure does love being rich. Daisy is married to Tom, who is having an affair with Myrtle, who is married to George. George loves Myrtle but Myrtle loves Tom, who loves Daisy. Nick has a little thing with Daisy's friend Jordan, possibly a teeny crush on Daisy, and a huge but apparently platonic bromance with Gatsby. Got that?
I don't think of the movie as an anti-romance just because it ends tragically. I think of it as an anti-romance because in a good romance, the characters see each other for who they are, and they recognize and enhance each other's best qualities. In doing so, they make each other better. In Gatsby, the opposite happens in two ways – no one really sees anyone else, and everyone is made worse by their romantic partner.
Let's start with recognition, and to keep this to a reasonable length, I'm going to focus on the main couple, Daisy and Gatsby. Gatsby, both the story as a whole and the specific character, is all about facade. Gatsby creates an entire fake persona for himself, one that he builds and reinforces with everything from lavish parties to carefully chosen catch-phrases (“old sport”). This persona is crafted largely for the benefit of Daisy. She can't possibly love Gatsby for himself. She doesn't know him. She knows that he is very rich and very adoring. She doesn't understand or know about his background, his ambition, or his ruthlessness.
Gatsby certainly doesn't know Daisy. He's in love with a five-year-old image of her, one that probably wasn't very accurate even then. If he saw her real self now, he'd recognize the fact that she has changed over the past five years. She's been a wife and a mother (technically, at least – she shows no interest in her daughter who is apparently being raised by nannies). She's more experienced and more cynical. She's deeply flawed, although an early speech of hers hints at hidden depths of perception and feeling and frustrated dreams. He can't or won't see that. She's not a person to Gatsby – she's a vision. Ultimately, she's a horrifically disappointing one, but even a stronger, less vapid person would have disappointed Gatsby, because he is all about perfection and real people aren't perfect.
As far as bringing out the best in each other, when it comes to Daisy, all Gatsby's assets become fatal liabilities. One of Gatsby's assets is his ability to fully believe in a vision he creates. Not only does he create a lavish life for himself, he reinvents his past – not only so that he can enter society, but also so that he can erase painful memories. Gatsby's determination to erase the past and form a perfect, replacement world allows him to create a seamless persona, but it also makes it impossible for Daisy to accept him. If Gatsby had simply asked Daisy to divorce her husband and marry him instead, she might have done so. But that's not enough for Gatsby, who wants to replace a painful past with perfection. His obsession with making Daisy say she never loved Tom drives her away. She can't accept Gatsby's real past once Tom brings it partially to light, and she can't let go of her own when Gatsby tries to force her to, so he can't win.
Another of Gatsby's assets/flaws is that Gatsby makes himself the person he wants to be by stubbornly refusing to accept any other possibility. Nick describes him as hopeful, but I would describe him as determined to the point of having a laser focus on what he wants. He refuses to accept the possibility of failure. When it comes to Daisy, this turns into his most self-destructive quality. He can't accept that Daisy won't leave Tom for him. After a lifetime of constantly striving to further his ambitions, he finds himself frozen by a false belief that Daisy will leave Tom for him. He can't leave town, or move on, or take business calls, or take any kind of action to protect himself and his interests, because to do so is to accept the possibility of failure. That refusal has always served him well, but when it comes to Daisy, it destroys him.
You'll notice that I'm talking a lot about Gatsby and not much about Daisy. That's because I couldn't get a handle on Daisy. There's an early speech in which she says the best a woman can hope for is to be a “beautiful little fool”. In that moment, Carey Mulligan, who plays Daisy, looks so profoundly bitter that it's as though Daisy, the person, shows for just a second – and then she disappears again, not because Mulligan is a bad actress, but because Daisy is even more committed to her persona than Gatsby is to his. She seems to have no self-will whatsoever. I kept thinking I didn't understand her, but maybe she's so broken, and so empty and shallow, that there's nothing left to understand.
In a happy romance, two people find each other and stay together. In a sad romance, two people find each other and lose each other. In Gatsby, people never do find each other. They just find dreams, and the dreams betray them. I'm glad I saw it, and I recommend it, but now I have to read one romance a day for a week just to recover.