Hollywood is having one more shot at Gatsby—the sixth one. The first filmed Gatsby was silent, pun intended. My favorite was the second, made in 1949 and starring Alan Ladd. The blond, short Ladd had those hooded eyes and sharp features that conveyed depth as well as sensitivity while looking pretty tough. The Great Gatsby is the novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald an immortal, but when it was first published in 1925 it was hardly a critical or financial success. It has been called the greatest American novel ever written, and when I look around at the crap being written today, I tend to agree. It’s number two, I’d say, after Tender is the Night.
The third film version, starring Robert Redford, was the worst. It was a fashion show performed by two tongue-tied robots. Redford cannot register emotion or longing—he can only act it, and it shows—and Mia Farrow as Daisy was totally miscast. La Farrow is actually quite cerebral, something Daisy is not, and by trying hard to show superficiality, Mia simply missed the boat by a mile or so. Ironically Jordan Baker, Tom Buchanan, and Nick Carraway were all very good, but when Jay and Daisy are out to lunch the only thing left is a sideshow.
So will the version with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Jay be any better? I doubt it very much. Hollywood has butchered more books than were ever burnt by Islamic fanatics, so I’m not getting my hopes up. There’s no way Hollywood can resist making it a sartorial bonanza with gleaming automobiles and incredible mansions getting in the story’s way.
Here’s Fitzgerald a few dozen pages into his novel:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
That is all a Hollywood director has to read and presto, he’s got a movie. Throw in the Jazz Age, women in cloche hats and cylinder dresses, great houses with retinues of servants, Park Avenue lockjaw accents, snobbery, and some suggestion of violence, and it’s Oscar time. (Well, almost but not quite.) The Jazz Age still holds us in its sway because the youthful rebels who let it rip between the wars were mostly upper-class and rich. At a distance of 90 years it is difficult to conceive the horror it instilled in parental hearts when they heard their children playing jazz music on their Victrolas. And worse, it was played by…Negroes! In segregated America, this was revolutionary. Scott and Zelda would emerge from the Plaza drunk, then jump fully clothed into the fountain abutting 5th Avenue. Gatsby’s guests would drink and party all night, then drive drunk back into the city. Those were wild, crazy years, and jazz was the anthem of the times.
My grandfather called it decadent gutter music. When I said Louis Armstrong was among the greatest musicians ever, he asked me to leave the room. But it’s the world of endless partygoing and high-octane frivolity that still fascinates and always will (until sharia law is imposed, that is).
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