Violence, betrayal and good old vulgar money

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Vivien Lash defends Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby

Nothing is ever as bad as it used to be. Even flares 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, even 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.

Ok Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit Fatsby compared to the young Rab 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 colour 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 megalomaniac 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 is a masterpiece that works as a film – and it has been made into five to prove it. 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 unfavourably compared to the moody Coppola-scripted 1974 movie version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (which had rotten reviews when first released).
Jay McInerney, who wants to be Scott Fitzgerald or at least die trying, said on FB: “With great trepidation am about to submit to a screening of The Great Gatsby.”

Afterwards 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 – a delusion not a woman, who wants her daughter (played by Patsy Kensit before she grew up to be 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-coloured bathing suit with her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead. Or asking Hemingway, ‘Don’t you think Al Jolson is bigger than Jesus?’ which was 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 fash by Coco Chanel.

The same sun that burnt 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 face fat; not the poetic beauty of young Rab 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 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 glamour 3D is surely closer in spirit to the Jazz Age than Jack Clayton’s earlier ethereal version of the story.
Fitzgerald was writing about an America where it’s 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 favourite 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 was 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.

See Vivien Lash play herself in the Spying on Strange Men film.


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