May 15, 2013

Queer Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Carey Mulligan, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher

A lively adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Baz Luhrmann manages to energize the story without losing sight of the characters or essential themes. Furthermore, he manages to enhance several of the novels queer subtexts, creating a fantastic vision of a classic novel in the process.

Bonds salesman Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has recently moved to the north side of Long Island, where he meets the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is famous for throwing gigantic parties, although no one knows his reason for doing so. It turns out that Gatsby is madly in love with Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and secretly hopes she will stop by one of the parties. Gatsby befriends Nick and eventually requests that Nick arrange a tea party so he can finally meat Daisy. But of course, there are complications as Daisy is already married to Tom (Joel Edgerton) a Machiavellian character and an extremely jealous man.

The Queering
When it comes to the history of civil rights, particularly LGBTQ rights, our culture tells us that there has always been a steady progress towards equality. A progress that has made no regression. If one were to only analyze back to the 1940's and 50's, it's possible to see how this perception might come about. Yet it is not a true vision of history. The roaring twenties saw perhaps, the first "coming out" so to speak, for gay identity, in which cultural acceptance for queer folks was very far ahead of it's time. Berlin for example, prior to the NAZI's taking over, became a gay cultural mecca, with Magnus Hirschfeld establishing Scientific Humanitarian Committee 1897, in order to advocate for LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, the NAZI's would later destroy much of his work. New York City during the gay 20's was also a cultural center for the newly evolving gay culture, with the Harlem Renaissance, featuring LGBTQ people of color, providing the backbone of the revolution.

It was into this gradually queering world that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby a novel with several obvious queer subtexts. Subtexts by the way, that Luhrmann has managed to expand upon. The most obvious is that of Nick Carroway is clearly in love with Jay Gatsby. While the hollowness of Gatsby's grand vision is gradually revealed to the audience, Nick's view of Gatsby remains untainted. Even after his lies have been revealed, Nick still calls Gatsby "the most hopeful person I have ever known". In the film, when Gatsby dies at the end, Nick becomes so miserable and morose, that he winds up in a sanitarium, which provides the framing device for the film.

There are other queer subtexts as well. In the opening scenes, Tom is unable to keep his hands off of Nick. When Daisy is first introduced, she admits that she had spent the whole afternoon on a couch, that also happened to have contained her friend, tennis champion Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) and the two share a low key, but rather obvious subtext.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel was primarily concerned with exposing the emptiness of the 1920's excess. The film also does this, but slightly differently, with more melancholy and less wit. Luhrmann also is not afraid of using modern music, which I didn't find distracting personally, although others might. The films' main strength lie with the way Luhrmann manages to capture the excesses of the 1920's before pulling back and gradually revealing how hollow the lifestyle is that Gatsby -- and everyone else -- is leading. Overall though, I think Luhrmann is faithful enough to the novel to avoid causing most English teachers from experiencing fainting fits, but I'm not sure what how many of them will view the rather significant shifts in tone.

Now in my opinion, this is a dream cast for this story. With the exception of Carey Mulligan, there is not a weak performance to be found. However, I blame Mulligan's work on the fact that the character of Daisy is poorly developed. While I understand the character's symbolic significance, she still ends up with little more personality than the green light that Gatsby is constantly reaching for. I could not tell if this was intentional or not on the filmmakers' part, but I found it distracting. Particularly during a scene where Gatsby and Tom talk about Daisy's feelings at length before they actually bother to ask her, even though she was present the whole time. Worse, Daisy does not even speak up for herself until she was asked. I honestly cannot think of a contemporary narrative where a female character was both A) designed to be the focus of the story and B) given so little agency. Jordan (played with flair by Elizabeth Debicki) fares a little better, although she was given little to do once she had finished introducing Nick to the high life.

As far as more technical details go, the opening scenes are poorly structured and edited, with an over-reliance on Nick's voice-over. Maybe it just took me a little while to get used to Luhrmann's style, for once Gatsby is introduced, I found the films' rhythm to be much more tolerable.

Overall though, this is a rather memorable adaptation of an American classic novel. Luhrmann provides a rather strong, and at times gaudy, visual style, but outside of the jumpy opening scenes, he knows when to slow down and focus on the narrative as well as the characters entrapped within it.

This Gatsby is worth going to extraordinary, I mean great, lengths to see, old sport.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


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