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The 'Gatsby' Baz Luhrmann Should Have Made

Forget DiCaprio—The Movie Needs Bernie Madoff

Warner Brothers

If you don’t know that Gatsby is coming (again), then Warner Brothers might as well give up now. They are distributing the latest version of the high-school classic on which they and Bazmark Films (which means Baz Luhrmann) are said to have spent $127 million. Just as Luhrmann made Paris in Australia for Moulin Rouge, so Long Island is now a Pacific paradise. The last big-screen version of The Great Gatsby, in 1974, was written by Francis Coppola, and an Englishman, Jack Clayton, directed it. The film starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Gatsby and Daisy. Redford then was 38. And now, Leonardo DiCaprio is the same age. Is that how old Gatsby is? Put it another way, old sport, is there any chance of tying this slippery character down on a screen?

I’m looking forward to it, honestly. But even if I had $127 million I’d find other people for the film. DiCaprio works hard, and he is not a bad actor, even if he is nowhere near the talent he was as a kid. Gatsby is not really described in the novel, but he has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance.” It’s because Gatsby will never get the assurance that shines out of him that he needs to be more of a ghost, a man unnoticed at his own party. Who else could do it? Johnny Depp has a ghostly quality: I’d have given him $12,700 for the job. As for Daisy—well, talk about not being there. Mia Farrow was quite good casting in 1974, but this time we’re getting Carey Mulligan, who is English, very much there, and (if I may say so) not beautiful or selfish enough for Daisy. After all, if you do this story in 2013, you’re asking us to believe that Gatsby ruins his life for love of Daisy—but we hardly do love stories like that any more. One of the problems about Gatsby is that the central story is flimsy and daft. Clooney could do it; he has that smile. Try Christian Bale (in his Patrick Bateman mode) and Rooney Mara—make Daisy cold, perverse, and flat-out nasty (with a tattoo?). That’s interesting: I’d give them both $127,000 for that.

I’m looking forward to it, honestly. But Fitzgerald has been stranded by history. In 1925 he meant the “great” in the title as ironic, but nobody does irony any more, which leaves “great” out on a limb. It’s terrific or nothing. Whereas Gatsby is something of an idiot, a wishful thinker, a schoolboy romantic who is misled by these sharp Easterners that Nick Carraway understands. Nick is the storyteller, after all. In 1974 he was lucky to get Sam Waterston in his part. (It was as if a New York D.A. was in Carraway’s future.) This time, it’s Tobey Maguire, who is 38, too, but helplessly younger than that. Nick is a veteran of the war (Ninth Machine-Gun Battalion), shrewd in the ways of class and money, and he ought to recognize Gatsby as a hopeless interloper while growing to like him. That’s where Depp could have helped. He’s a country-boy outsider, a masquerader, eternally insecure. He could be the author of that notebook where Jimmy Gatz has listed the regime he needs to follow if he’s going to make it.

Warner Brothers
Robert Redford, in 1974's Great Gatsby.

Everyone thinks Baz Luhrmann will do the parties like swell production numbers, and in the trailers there is one party that looks as if Busby Berkeley designed it, plus a scene of Gatsby tossing his famous shirts down a long staircase like trophies for groupies. But the parties are a diversion from the cool elegiac prose of the book and the consciousness that understands the frivolity and irrelevance of party time.

That voice is Nick, but it is Fitzgerald, too, and it ends in that realization of the helpless way in which—as early as 1925—America was beating back, into the past. Once you grasp that, the breakthrough insight would have been to set the story today. Is it so hard to find versions of the leading characters on Long Island now? Isn’t this a story about money in America? The film has got to have a Daisy who sustains the description, “Her voice is full of money.” And the last American movie actresses who had that were Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly. But the film has to link that up to the way Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota once told himself to “practice elocution, poise and how to attain it.”

The last film that got a young man’s class inferiority was A Place in the Sun (1951) where the lowly George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) goes up to the Eastman house for a swank party and feels alone. Clift could have been Gatsby around 1950: radiant, but brittle, and a little anxious whether he was saying “old sport” to the right people. In fact, A Place in the Sun (which is from Dreiser’s An American Tragedy), and has Elizabeth Taylor as its Daisy, comes closer to the tone of Gatsby than the Robert Redford movie from 1974.

Gatsby is also about high society and the underworld of gangsters in the 1920s. You might need to recast Meyer Wolfsheim (based on Arnold Rothstein) as Bernie Madoff, with Gatsby raising venture capital on Long Island from the last of the old WASP money. That’s not what Fitzgerald wrote, but it gets at what he wanted to see.

But how is any movie going to convey this Long Island:

[G]radually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

That’s hard to film. Yet not as hard as the very end, “So, we beat on …” You can no more film that than you can photograph “vanished trees.” So will Tobey Maguire do it as a voiceover? Against shots of the Sound and the green light on the end of the dock? But I can think of one voiceover that captured the feeling of the end of the book. There’s a moment in The Magnificent Ambersons where George walks home realizing that the magnificence is over (the adjective is as ironic as Gatsby’s “great”). Welles uses little except power lines darkening the sky in the spoiled city and his own sonorous and melancholy narration. He could have played Gatsby in 1941. Perhaps he did. Charles Foster Kane is an upstart from the raw West, thrown out of colleges, but sounding as if he owned them. Welles had money in his voice, but not in his pockets, and that’s where The Great Gatsby ought to begin.

You know, I’m really looking forward to it. It opens the Cannes festival, five days after its debut in the U.S. on May 10. It looks as if it has flashbacks, war scenes, and a young Gatsby in the cast list. Might be swell (and long), but it will still tread on the toes of a book that identified the American confusion in which "tomorrow" and "One fine morning" never lose the shadow of the past.