August 22, 2013

"The Great Gatsby's" Limp Nick Problem

A friend writes:
I thought the film was okay - saw it late (though not as late as you!) and never got around to writing about it. Leo DiCaprio was excellent. The problem is that Tobey Maguire was God-awful. And since the story is really Carraway's, not Gatsby's, having a limp Nick kills the story. 

Nick needs to be a cool guy, quiet but good-looking, somebody to whom rich people want to reveal their secrets. Nick should have melancholy depths, but he also needs to be subtly charismatic. Otherwise, the plot makes even less sense. E.g., Tom Buchanan, Nick's cousin-in-law, instantly takes Nick along to meet his mistress with whom he's cheating on Nick's cousin Daisy. You can make up various explanations of Tom's motivation for this imprudent behavior, but the most plausible is that Tom just wants to be around Nick and to show off to his lady friend that Nick is his protege. (Thus, while Gatsby has ulterior motives for hanging around with Nick, he also always seems to really like Nick).

In other words, Nick should be both F. Scott Fitzgerald's self-pitying self-image of F. Scott Fitzgerald, combined with the real life F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a big celebrity years before he wrote The Great Gatsby at age 30. There are no shortage of handsome, personable young actors in Hollywood who can play that role. You can order them up by the boatload in London. By the standards of movie stars, however, Tobey Maguire isn't one of them.

The 1974 film had Sam Waterston (Law & Order) as Nick. Waterston at least had some air of distinction about him, even if he always looked a little not quite right in the head (as if he not only looked a little bit like Abraham Lincoln, but also, deep down, believed he really was Abraham Lincoln). But Tobey Maguire mostly seems dorky and mundane, which served him well in Spider-Man, but not here.
I understand what Luhrmann has been trying to do since Moulin Rouge, but it isn't working for me. It isn't that I object to melodrama as a key component of fine art, and it certainly isn't that I object to conscious artifice. But I find his style hyperactive and his characterization shallow. When Vivien Leigh raises her fist to the sky and says, "I'll never go hungry again," she's insanely larger than life, whereas Luhrmann's characters too often wind up seeming like wind-up dolls. That's certainly how I felt about Nicole Kidman; I never believed in her for an instant. Daisy Buchanan, of course, is supposed to be shallow - but I couldn't tell if Luhrmann understood that, or if he thought she was just dandy.   

Luhrmann says he's influenced by Bollywood films' relationships with their unsophisticated audiences. So, what would a Bollywood audience think? Daisy is fair and rich. What's not to like?

As for Carey Mulligan as Daisy, she's fine. She's one of this new breed of refined British stars, like her rock star husband Malcolm Mumford. But she's not quite beautiful enough for a legendary role. She came to fame in An Education for her amazing ability to make tiny muscles in her face flutter -- she's like a very feminine Jim Carrey. But, Luhrmann doesn't have her do much of that here. In repose, her face isn't quite lovely enough. But, it's not a major defect in the movie, just a missed opportunity.
Finally, I like your suggestion of how to frame a film adaptation. Are you familiar with the Elevator Repair Service (a theatrical group) and their production, Gatz? It's a stage version of The Great Gatsby, but it's not exactly an adaptation. Rather, the play is set in an exceptionally depressing basement office of some dreary small business. Everyone's starting off their depressing day, when one employee, whose computer won't start, picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby. And starts to read. And, thereby, to take on the role of Nick Carraway - and one by one, the other employees get in on the act, taking on roles from the book and acting out scenes - but never leaving the world of the office, never putting on costumes or anything like that. And they read the entire book. It takes 8 hours, with intermissions, and it's fantastic. I got the impression that they were aiming for something similar to what you were thinking about with your frame story: what does a story like this mean to the people who read it and loved it, the normal people, not the academic students of literature (nor the bored high-school kids who are forced to read it). 
Anyway, I liked ERS's version a lot better than Luhrmann's.

Sometimes when I go for a walk in the park after dark, I run into this troupe of amateur actors in their early 20s who use the open air near the playground to rehearse Shakespeare plays. They'll be saying "doth" to each other and sword-fighting at 3/4ths speed to get ready for their shows. Obviously, they've got zero money if a dimly lit outdoor playground is their best option for rehearsal space.

But, from the perspective of cultural continuity, how great is it that young people are still coming together voluntarily like this to put on Shakespeare plays after 400 years?

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

even if he always looked a little not quite right in the head (as if he not only looked a little bit like Abraham Lincoln, but also, deep down, believed he really was Abraham Lincoln)

LOL!

Anonymous said...

8 hours of people reading The Great Gatsby on stage? That sounds awful!

Sam Lively said...

If you want to see Waterston at his nadir, checkout The Newsroom.

Auntie Analogue said...


"And they read the entire book. It takes 8 hours..."

Eight. Hours?

At that length, at my age my ticket needs to buy me a seat with a built-in commode. And I'd still bring a pistol with just one round in it for me. Just. In. Case.

Anonymous said...

http://www.amren.com/news/2013/08/latest-act-test-results-reveal-huge-race-gap-as-only-1-in-20-african-americans-students-fully-ready-for-college/

Anonymous said...

http://www.amren.com/news/2013/08/the-butler-director-u-s-more-racist-now-that-obamas-president/

Charlesz Martel said...

Hey, that's how Andy Kaufman got started!

Anonymous said...

"She came to fame in An Education for her amazing ability to make tiny muscles in her face flutter -- she's like a very feminine Jim Carrey."

Heh, heh, heh.
Ace Ventura Pet Detective: Shark Scene

-meh

Brad said...

Thought you were going Naked Gun on us for a moment there Steve.

http://www.hark.com/clips/nffrwgrknh-see-5-weirdos-dressed-in-togas-stabbing-a-guy

James Kabala said...

There was a TV movie with Paul Rudd as Nick. I never saw it, but it seems like potentially good casting.

Anonymous said...

"But, from the perspective of cultural continuity, how great is it that young people are still coming together voluntarily like this to put on Shakespeare plays after 400 years?"

Terrible. Four hundred years and nobody updates the language to make it understandable?

Anonymous said...

I have a somewhat different take on the casting choices. Sam Waterston pretty much spent the entire 1974 movie doing an impression of a total non-entity, an impression he was perfectly capable of pulling off at the time (nowadays though his eyebrows would interfere). Tobey Maguire was probably cribbing off of that portrayal himself. I think that the idea of Carraway being totally boring is basically consistent with the book itself, even if it loses a little plausibility from knowing a little more about it's author and the associated mileiu.

Regarding Daisy Buchanan, in the 1974 movie she was played by Mia Farrow. Mia f****ing Farrow. And now you tell me that Carey Mulligan isn't pretty enough!!!! Puh-leeaaazzzeee. When I watched the 1974 movie, at first I was intensely annoyed about that casting choice, but then by the end I was reminded about how much of a villain she was it made more sense to me - maybe you're supposed to find her annoying.

Anonymous said...

I saw MOULIN ROUGE and hated it. Luhrmann is the worst. Trashy and pretentious, tacky and stylish, the worst possible combinations.
I suspect his GREAT GATSBY is much the same.

"Personally, I thought it was pretty good adaptation, more energetic and emotionally powerful than the tasteful, listless 1974 one with Robert Redford as Gatsby"

That's not saying much as the 70s GATSBY was total shit. But 'pretty good adaptation' as what? Camp?

"It's very good, ranking with, say, Waugh's four or five best novels, but, unfortunately, American literature isn't all that spectacular. So, it's reputation gets inflated by American patriotism and by its being on all the high school reading lists."

Great or not, it's very special and has captivated people all over the world. And I don't think patriotism has anything to do with it. After all, if patriotism was the reason, why this novel rather than many others with more IMPORTANT SOUNDING THEMES. Why not some hefty historical novel?

I think there's a unique, personal aspect to the Gatsby story that gets at something that we all feel but can't really put on finger on.
It's this sense of uncertainty about class, race, ethnicity, love, and truth that has fascinated readers over the years.

"The 1974 version just seemed to reinforce among literati the assumption that Fitzgerald's novel is just so superior that no talents like screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola in his early 1970s prime can't grasp the ineffable essence of the book the way you did while writing your book report in 10th grade."

People didn't blame Coppola for the fiasco, and the problem wasn't in the writing but in the casting, cinematography, art design, and direction. Awful direction by a hack director. I think Coppola back then might have made a decent or even a great Gatsby. Indeed, THE GODFATHER touches on similar themes. On the surface, Vito and Michael are not romantic but hardnosed operators, but they are romantics underneath just the same. Especially Michael comes to believe in the myth of the family so much that he maintains the illusion even as the reality slips underneath him. The other great Gatsby-themes movie is ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Indeed, the best Gatsby-like movies--about men so caught up in the illusion and the dream that they become blind to reality--were not direct adaptations of GATSBY.
Think of YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY--young Gibson would have been perfect as Gatsby. Think of INCEPTION, probably a better GATSBY than the direct adaption by Luhrmann.

"And, Luhrmann does a good job of simplifying Fitzgerald's story down to its core -- Gatsby's doomed love for Daisy -- so that it will be readily comprehensible to a generation of C students needing to get up to speed on what the assigned book is about without actually reading it."

The strange thing about GG is there is no real core. Gatsby comes to love 'Daisy' than Daisy. He creates his own 'Daisy' and his own dream of how this 'Daisy' will love him. Long ago, he might have been happy if Daisy just eloped with him and lived happily ever after in a quiet middle class life. But his attempt to win her love turns into a need for valediction of self to not just her but her entire world. Indeed, if Gatsby were given a choice of going off with Daisy all alone while leaving his wealth and her world behind, he wouldn't have. It began with his love for her but turned into something much bigger.

Anonymous said...



So, he becomes obsessed with being the better kind of man, a 'great man', that Daisy would admire and fall for. But in remaking his own image, he also remade Daisy, mythifying her far behind what she is: just a shallow pretty tart. So, to an extent, Gatsby is really in love with himself: the 'great man' who wins the love of a 'great woman', except that Daisy isn't great in anyway. She's just a tart.
So, Gatsby builds a real fortune chasing after castles in the air. It's comical as well as tragic, and yet we don't laugh because, like Holly Golightly, Gatsby is a real phony. He convinced himself to believe in all the bullshit he made of himself.

Fitzergald probably had Hollywood on his mind, with it quick made fortunes by immigrant Jews who went from rags to riches. I don't think there's any clear indication that Gatsby is Jewish but the character might have been inspired by Jewish figures. And Fitz's last book was THE LAST TYCOON, about a famous Jewish tycoon who was Gatsby like in some way.

I also think the appeal of the book is in the ironic meaning of the title. What is 'great'? Can one be a totally deluded fool and still be somewhat great? Can a novel that subverts the notion of greatness be great? This is a very American question where everyone is supposed to be equal and yet is filled with notions that YOU TOO CAN BE GREAT.

In a similar vein, the appeal of DEATH OF A SALESMAN has been the question, 'can an ordinary man be a center of tragedy that had been reserved only for 'great men' and heroes in the past?'
Some conservatives dismiss Miller's play for its 'anti-capitalism', but whatever Miller's political views were, I think it's very powerful in digging into the soul of an 'ordinary man' with dreams of grandeur. In real terms, Loman's life is a farce but given that the American dream of success makes so many people dream impossible dreams, the dreamworld can be 'tragic' and in that sense, I suppose one can say even ordinary life can be tragic. Certainly was true of MULHOLLAND DR.

Also, one can sense shades of GATSBY-ism in VERTIGO and A.I.
The dream you just can't let go, even if it destroys you or the one you love. Gatsby surely worked with gangsters, but he also remains a child. His dream of Daisy is Napoleonic and puppy love-ish at the same time.

I would say a whole bunch of successful GATSBYs have been made.. except that they are adaptations of the book itself.
I'll bet AVIATOR and CITIZEN KANE are better Gatsby's than Gatsby-adapted movies. SOCIAL NETWORK also riffs on some Gatsby themes, but it wasn't much good.
WALL STREET, though about rich guys, isn't like GATSBY because Gekko knows exactly what he wants and goes for it.
NIXON, at least according to Oliver STone, is more like GATSBY though Nixon is in love with power. It's Gatsby-like in Stone's telling because of the sense that no matter how cynical, ruthless, cunning, and shrewd Nixon is, there is a part of him that remains the mama's boy, the good Quaker who wants to do the right thing, and ironically, this good side of him blinds him to his own dark side since he always believes whatever dirty thing he does has a higher goal and purpose.
The strange thing about Gatsby--and this gets to an aspect of the American character--is he's so thoroughly corrupt yet also so innocent, so stained yet so pure, so selfish yet so selfless, so egotistical yet so private, so grandiose in his schemes, so intimate in his dreams.

Anonymous said...

CASINO, another great variation of Gatsby. Rothstein meets Ginger the whore and sees a goddess-wife-and-mother in her. If a guy wants to delude himself, there is no end.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB2jVKZVeE4

Hilarious discussion of GATSBY in a liberal film. Would be considered 'homophobic' today.

Anonymous said...

PAPER CHASE. Kingsfield as the Daisy of a college student.

THE GRADUATE. modern knight in shining armor tale.

MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Joe Buck and his crazy dream that combines innocence and corruption in equal measure.

Anonymous said...

I thought Toby McGuire was terrible in Spiderman. He looked like he was on the verge of drooling from sheer idiocy.

dearieme said...

The Shakespeare thing is easily explained - he's the best. By miles. By light years. By googoothingywhatsits. Though I admit to being mildly surprised that he isn't edited a bit more to help the audience. Surely somewhere there is someone with a fine ear for language who could do the job?

Vlad the Dim-witted said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but the end of this piece seems to have nothing to do with the rest of it. Are you sure this wasn't intended for Taki's?

Marlowe said...

Alvy: You're an actor, Max. You should be doing Shakespeare in the Park.

Rob: Oh, I did Shakespeare in the Park, Max. I got mugged. I was playing Richard the Second and two guys with leather jackets stole my leotard.

Steve Sailer said...

Paul Rudd sounds about the right kind of looks for Nick -- he doesn't stand out much, but after awhile you notice he's very handsome.

Anonymous said...

"But, from the perspective of cultural continuity, how great is it that young people are still coming together voluntarily like this to put on Shakespeare plays after 400 years?"

Terrible. Four hundred years and nobody updates the language to make it understandable?


Why the double standard? They regularly update Beowulf to make it understandable, after all.

dsgntd_plyr said...

Steve, wrt your frame-story I'd make the same actor play Nick and the narrator. I'd watch that movie.

dsgntd_plyr said...

James Kabala said...

"There was a TV movie with Paul Rudd as Nick. I never saw it, but it seems like potentially good casting."

Back when A&E tried to be high-brow. Full movie for free! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUupvzSOA9I&list=PL9738E82710061733

Mr. Anon said...

"I think there's a unique, personal aspect to the Gatsby story that gets at something that we all feel but can't really put on finger on.
It's this sense of uncertainty about class, race, ethnicity, love, and truth that has fascinated readers over the years."

As a tale of lost love, I can see why it has some appeal.

Mr. Anon said...

"dsgntd_plyr said...

Back when A&E tried to be high-brow. Full movie for free! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUupvzSOA9I&list=PL9738E82710061733"

Thanks for the link. Although it sometimes almost seemed like a "Naked Gun" version of "The Great Gatsby", I actually liked the casting and the acting much better than the 1974 version. Rudd was very good as Nick Caraway - much better than Sam Waterston. And Mira Sorvino is much more believable as the object of a life-long obsession than is Mia Farrow.

Anonymous said...

Division of elites and masses in Central Asia too.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/aug/15/why-and-what-you-should-know-about-central-asia/?pagination=false

"However, China also faces much hostility in Central Asia, as it does elsewhere in the third world, for the ways it exploits the region while offering little in return. Chinese companies bring their own workers and equipment, refusing to hire locally, carry out local job training, or buy large quantities of local goods and produce. It is common to hear conspiracy theories about China buying up agricultural land in Central Asia or settling millions of its peasant farmers there. Central Asian people fear Chinese influence even as their leaders embrace China, which does not question them about their lack of democracy or human rights, or their reluctance to introduce economic reform."

Anonymous said...

However, China also faces much hostility in Central Asia, as it does elsewhere in the third world, for the ways it exploits the region while offering little in return. Chinese companies bring their own workers and equipment, refusing to hire locally, carry out local job training, or buy large quantities of local goods and produce.

The barter type deal China usually works out in these situations is that it builds infrastructure in exchange for raw materials. The idea being that then the locals can use the infrastructure for their own purposes in developing their internal, domestic economy. Part of the point of this is to avoid meddling as much as possible in the internal political economy of the country.

If China didn't do this, and instead Chinese companies came in to hire local labor, train locals, and buy up local goods, you'd likely have even greater complaints about exploitation and neo-colonialism.

Anonymous said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/movies/homevideo/the-damned-by-rene-clement-comes-to-video.html?ref=arts&_r=0

"France would not have a real national conversation about the Occupation until the ’70s, when films like Marcel Ophuls’s “Sorrow and the Pity” and Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien” put the issue forward in less accommodating terms."

When will we have a real conversation about Jewish involvement with communism and communist espionage?
When will have a real conversation about America's aiding and abetting of the massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Zionists?
When will have a real conversation about racial differences, namely that the fact that blacks are less intelligent, physically stronger, and more psychopathic is the reason for racial problems?

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO6LKIn-cMQ

All this 'gender-bender' stuff.
1% of the population but 99% of the news.

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