By Rafer Guzmán
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
---- — Will the fourth time be a charm for “The Great Gatsby”?
Every few decades, Hollywood is entranced anew by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel of high living and low morals in the Jazz Age. The story of the love between self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby and flighty aristocrat Daisy Buchanan has been filmed in 1926, 1949 and, most notoriously, in 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Often, though, it’s the filmmakers who learn the novel’s cruel lessons, spending time and money on a labor of love that ultimately exceeds their grasp.
Somebody once said you can’t repeat the past, but today, “The Great Gatsby” once again arrives in theaters with some of the hottest stars of the age. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the title role, Carey Mulligan is his elusive Daisy and Tobey Maguire portrays narrator Nick Carraway. Rounding out the cast are Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) as Daisy’s husband, Tom, and Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) as his working-class plaything, Myrtle Wilson. The director is Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”), who co-wrote with his longtime collaborator, Craig Pearce.
It certainly isn’t the same old “Gatsby,” although it’s still set in the fictional Long Island villages of East Egg, and West Egg — inspired by Great Neck, where Fitzgerald briefly lived. With a reported budget of $100 million, this version is big, brassy, lavish and driven by an anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack (Jay-Z is the film’s executive producer). What’s more, it’s in 3-D.
Luhrmann seems aware that his “Gatsby” won’t please everyone. Wrapping up a three-day publicity marathon last weekend at the Plaza Hotel — a crucial locale in the novel — Luhrmann sums up the reactions he’s gotten so far: “Whatever their view of the film, they’re really engaged in the debate,” he says. “They love the book and they want to talk about it. Everyone owns ‘The Great Gatsby.’ It’s theirs, and don’t you touch it.”
“Debate” is an apt choice of words for a novel that has always been open to conflicting interpretations. Is it an ode to American optimism? A cautionary tale of greed? A snapshot of a generation teetering on unimaginable change? The book’s nuanced characters and ever-changing relationships can be equally tough to define.
“The ‘Gatsby’ that I remember reading when I was 15 years old in junior high was far different than the ‘Gatsby’ that I read as an adult,” says DiCaprio. “Everyone has their own personal attachment to this book, and they feel like they know these characters on a very intimate level. And, of course, when you’re making a movie, you have to be very specific.”
Hollywood has been trying to pin down “The Great Gatsby” almost from the moment it hit shelves. The first version was a 1926 silent starring Warner Baxter as Jay, but no known prints exist. The 1949 adaptation starred an enjoyably tough Alan Ladd but suffered from lengthy monologues and a moralistic streak. The definitive version, and not in a good way, remains the 1974 attempt with Redford and Farrow.
It could have been a three-hankie blockbuster — the “Titanic” of its day — with lavish costumes by a then-rising Ralph Lauren, a script by Francis Ford Coppola and direction by British import Jack Clayton. Instead, this “Gatsby” became a near-legendary dud. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “as lifeless as a body that had been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”
“It’s one of the most beautifully written books we have in our culture, and you can’t really get that in a film,” says Ruth Prigozy, an English professor at Hofstra University and co-founder of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. “A lot of it has to do with descriptions of the parties, of the home, of Tom Buchanan and the power in his arms. Even the description of when Gatsby first sees Daisy, there’s something communicated. They haven’t yet been able to transcribe that into film.”
Luhrmann was determined to try. A longtime Fitzgerald fan, he revisited the novel via audiobook while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Express in 2004 and was struck by its prescience. “Stock markets soaring, moral elasticity on Wall Street, a kind of shared hypocrisy,” Lurhmann says. “And it all ends in a terrible crash.”
To bring “Gatsby” to the screen, Luhrmann juggled financing from three studios, relocated the production to Australia when New York proved too expensive and even survived getting his head split open by a stray camera crane. More important, he did extensive research, speaking to Fitzgerald scholars, lifting material from “Trimalchio” (an early version of the novel) and reading correspondence from the author’s teenage muse, Ginerva King, and his eventual wife, Zelda.
To play Daisy, Mulligan read those letters, too, along with “The Great Gatsby” for the very first time. “There were lines in the book that didn’t make the movie, but that I loved,” the British actress says. “When Nick describes her as ‘the golden girl, the king’s daughter,’ those were big for me. I remembered those.”
Luhrmann says his goal was to “reveal the text” of an 88-year-old novel that still seems relevant. After the film’s release, he says, “The debate will continue. Believe me, it will continue.”
Is it a winter movie or a summer movie? Way back in 2011, Warner Bros. announced that "The Great Gatsby" would arrive in theaters Dec. 25, 2012. Christmas is a high-profile spot, one of the busiest and most competitive moviegoing days of the year. It's often reserved for serious awards contenders (like "Frost/Nixon" in 2008) or upbeat crowd-pleasers ("Sherlock Holmes" in 2009). Last summer, though, Warner Bros. announced that "Gatsby" had been pushed back to this summer. So just what kind of movie is it? The high-profile cast and literary pedigree suggest Oscar ambitions, while the hip-hop soundtrack and spectacular-looking sets suggest razzle-dazzle Hollywood entertainment. Warner Bros. explained the movie in a statement in August. "We think moviegoers of all ages are going to embrace it, and it makes sense to ensure this unique film reaches the largest audience possible," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. Another studio executive called it "the perfect summer movie." Here's one more possible factor: "Gatsby" star Leonardo DiCaprio already had a 2012 Christmas release, and a big one, in "Django Unchained." Given how well that movie performed -- two Oscars and $450 million in worldwide ticket sales -- Warner Bros. may have made the right move. "I think it's incredibly smart," says Phil Contrino, editor of the website Boxoffice.com. Whether "Gatsby" wins any Oscars, it's now positioned as an attractive alternative to the coming glut of sci-fi and superhero films. Contrino predicts a strong opening weekend of $30 million, and possibly higher. "It's a perfect counter programming option for the summer season," he says. "I think the move will pay off handsomely."