Shallow Not Stupid

Nothing is ever as bad as it used to be. (Even flared pants look better reinvented than they did on the thunder thighs of 1970s stars, before it became illegal to be filmed if you were above size 2.) But nostalgia for things forgotten has ensured that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby had a good kicking from the critics, before they had even seen it. They prefer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel (which most of them probs haven’t read) or the 1974 version of the movie starring Robert Redford in the title role.

Ok, Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit Fatsby compared to the young Rob Redford. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby has a manic energy similar to going into the Burberry shop and trying on all the metallic trenches in the Prorsum range. You can’t decide which color to pick so you buy them all! Surely a movie about a morally bankrupt world full of violence, betrayal, and good old vulgar money needs to be a bit flash?

Poor Baz hasn’t had a massive hit since Moulin Rouge and nobody criticized him for jizzing up Paris in that. But The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece and there’s a theory in the movie industry that trashy books make good movies and good books are hard to film.

Like most theories this one has a good chance of being pure shite. Silly old Lee Strasberg said that Paul Newman “wasn’t sexy enough to be an actor.” Paul could have replied that Lee wasn’t talented enough to be an actor so he became a megalomaniacal Method teacher. Instead he starred in The Hustler, bringing sex to the pool table without any actual shagging.

The Hustler is also a brilliant book by the American alcoholic writer Walter Tevis. Talent and alcoholism were something he had in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald. But while Tevis remained discreetly obscure, allowing the movies of his books to eclipse both his novels and his life, Fitzgerald’s talent lives in the shadow of his fame, giving his fiction a dead glamorous allure that hard work and early nights probably couldn’t have achieved.

The Great Gatsby works as a film. To prove it, it has been made into five. Scott and Zelda were supposed to play themselves in the first version but Zelda didn’t like her screen test. Mad girls look better in real life than they do when the camera steals their soul.

Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, which was doomed like the hero himself before it was even released this week, is being unfavorably compared to the moody Coppola-scripted 1974 movie version starring Redford and Farrow, which had rotten reviews when first released.

Jay McInerney, who wants to be F. Scott Fitzgerald or at least die trying, said on Facebook: “With great trepidation am I about to submit to a screening of The Great Gatsby.” Afterward he calls it the Quite Good Gatsby. He doesn’t like Carey Mulligan as Daisy—and who can blame him when the poor girl looks at best like a well-painted pug. Her range of expressions could give Lassie a run for its money. To be fair, Mia Farrow’s a hard act to follow as Daisy. She isn’t a woman so as much as a delusion, who wants her daughter (played by Patsy Kensit before she grew up and became a rock chick) to be a “beautiful little fool,” which is a line famously stolen—like lots of Scott’s best lines—from Zelda’s diary.

Zelda is the original Shallow Not Stupid heroine riding around Alabama in her flesh-colored bathing suit with her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead. Or asking Hemingway, “Don’t you think Al Jolson is bigger than Jesus?”—surely a wind-up of the fat fisherman, who later repeated it as evidence of her insanity. Or cutting off the car roof in the South of France to get a suntan, recently made fashionable by Coco Chanel. The same sun that burned the southern hellgirl out before the indignity of the final state sanatorium—when Scott’s books were no longer bestsellers—where Zelda burned to death in a fire, possibly started by her.

But Luhrmann could be cleverer than the critics are giving him credit for. Obsession is blind. Jay Gatsby isn’t really seeing Daisy. He’s hearing her “voice full of money.” Carey Mulligan doesn’t have to be beautiful; Leo DiCaprio just has to pretend she is. And Leo as Jay Gatsby is an inspired choice. In a way, he’s like the country he lives in, greedy for everything including the pies that make his cheeks chubby—not the poetic beauty of a young Redford, before he was sun-damaged.

I don’t believe Redford killed a man, or worked as a bootlegger, Old Sport. I don’t believe F. Scott Fitzgerald did either. He made it up. But I can accept trailer trash Leo as a boy who clawed his way out of the slums and became a gangster, or maybe just a movie star. And Luhrmann’s hard glamor in 3D is surely closer in spirit to the Jazz Age than director Jack Clayton’s earlier ethereal version of the story.

Fitzgerald was writing about an America at a time when it was downright immoral to be poor or unhappy, where its people thought they owned the future. The world belongs to China now. Let the Asians be vulgar, as Jordan Baker, my favorite character, might say. Jordan— who cheats at golf and is the femme-fatale flapper closer to Zelda than any other Fitzgerald heroine (except perhaps Gloria Gilbert in the Beautiful and Damned)—encapsulates the spirit of the modern age. She’s a life force beating on the sidelines of the story, witnessing the other characters’ self-inflicted tragedy but never intending to be anything other than superficial herself.

A writer may have only one story to tell, but, like the bob haircut, a million ways of reinventing it. It’s not a competition. The voyeur is allowed to watch both. But if it were a competition, Baz Luhrmann’s exciting, glitzy Gatsby has a chance of winning it.

The past is dead. The future might never happen. If you’re too lazy to read the book, see the movie.

Read more about Vivien Lash as her evil twin in Carole Morin’s novel Spying on Strange Men