F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44 after years of heavy drinking took their toll. His friend Edmund Wilson edited together a draft version of Fitzgerald’s final work ‘The Last Tycoon’ for publication. In the foreword Wilson wrote about the people in Fitzgerald’s stories living for ‘big parties at which they go off like fireworks and which are likely to leave them in pieces.’ Traditionalists balked when the flamboyant director of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992) Baz Luhrmann announced his plans to make a version of Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Fitzgerald is a subtle writer, while Luhrmann’s movies are gaudy coloured confections which move at a breathless pace. They do not at first sight seem a good match. Yet Wilson’s comment about wonderful ruinous parties suits Luhrmann too. ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’ (1996) and ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) set up their doomed love affairs during lengthy and elaborately designed set-pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. Fitzgerald and Luhrmann may have differing approaches to their respective crafts but both men clearly know how to party.
For all Luhrmann’s showiness though this is still at heart Fitzgerald’s story. 1922, young writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) attends a lavish party thrown by mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Luhrmann’s visually spectacular approach to filmmaking is evident in how he arranges the first meeting between Carraway and Gatsby. In the novel the two men happen to stand next to each other at a party and begin talking. Luhrmann’s encounter is a seismic moment, there are fireworks in the sky. Music soars. DiCaprio’s movie star smile lights up the screen. Like Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly Gatsby is a fake but a genuine fake. The parties are a ruse intended to attract the attention of the love of his life Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) who lives across the bay and is now married. As with ‘Moulin Rouge’ Luhrmann uses contemporary music which in a period piece should feel anachronistic but instead comments on either a particular scene or a character’s emotional state. Lana Del Ray’s joyously melancholic song ‘Young and Beautiful’ reappears throughout as a refrain as Gatsby and Daisy attempt to rekindle their love affair behind the back of her ruthless businessman husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).
Station regulars will remember F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda appearing in ‘Midnight in Paris’ as bright young things partying with the Lost Generation of writers and artists. Later they drank their fill, too many gin rickey’s and late nights did for them both but Fitzgerald seems to have known this would happen. In his novels the comedown from the parties and the damage done afterwards was always irreparable. Luhrmann maintains this undercurrent of loss. Gatsby is a difficult part and requires a movie star with enough presence to catch the attention at first glance and DiCaprio delivers. Not just in terms of beauty but in his easy charm and vulnerability. It is a great performance, anchoring this wild ride of a movie with the yearning of a man who wants the unattainable.