Set in 1922, published in 1925, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is considered one of the greatest of the great American novels. Fitzgerald deliberately set out to write a book that would speak deeply of its place and time, a quintessentially American work of art — and now comes Luhrmann with his 21st century sensibility, blending hip-hop tunes into a classic of the Jazz Age, casting the ubiquitous Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, and filming it all in 3D to boot.
It’s bound to be a disaster. Isn’t it?
Not so fast. Despite all the bells and whistles, and the sound and fury that tend to go with a high-profile Hollywood release, this version of The Great Gatsby — the sixth time it has been filmed — may well be the most personal interpretation yet.
Certainly there are strong similarities between Jay Gatsby and Luhrmann. Fitzgerald’s story centres on Gatsby, a self-made man who uses his ‘new money’ to force his way into the high society of 1920s Long Island. Determined to woo Daisy, the woman he loved before going off to fight in the First World War, Gatsby throws lavish parties in his mansion in West Egg in the hope that Daisy — married now to the ‘old money’ Tom Buchanan, and living across the bay in East Egg — will attend. A tragic love story unfolds, set against the backdrop of jazz music, the Flapper Era, and the bootlegging of illicit booze smuggling that eventually led to organised crime.
The glamorous world of 1920s Long Island is far removed in time and place from Heron’s Creek, Australia, where Mark Luhrmann was born in 1962, but it’s here the similarities between Luhrmann and Gatsby begin. Both men changed their names — in the novel, Jay Gatz gives way to Jay Gatsby as a more socially acceptable name — and both are very much self-made men who have succeeded on their own terms. Indeed, there was a strongly autobiographical quality to Luhrmann’s first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992), in which a maverick young dancer causes mayhem in the tightly regulated world of small-town ballroom dancing.
Well received at Cannes, Strictly Ballroom offered Luhrmann a passport to Hollywood, where his ambitions weren’t noticeably dimmed by his choice of next film. A teen-friendly version of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, which was retitled Romeo + Juliet (1996), updated to the trendy US suburb of ‘Verona’ (complete with cars and guns), and soundtracked by some of the hippest young bands around at the time — but still retained Shakespeare’s original text.
It was an audacious production which remains one of the stand-out movies of the 1990s, and one which should give those inclined to write off The Great Gatsby pause for thought.
It was on the set of Romeo + Juliet that Luhrmann established a close friendship with DiCaprio, a friendship that was the deciding factor in persuading DiCaprio to take the lead role of Gatsby. DiCaprio, who has become a global superstar in the intervening decades, has gone on record to speak of his trust in Luhrmann as a director, and of his passion for the Gatsby story. Such things are important in Hollywood, particularly for a director with Luhrmann’s reputation for taking risks.
The musical Moulin Rouge (2001) was a bold and stunning film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, a critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie that confirmed Luhrmann’s idiosyncratic vision. His next project, however, the epic Australia (2008), earned over $200m at the box office but was critically panned.
In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last movie. As a result, there’s a lot riding on The Great Gatsby. Costing in excess of $125m, it needs to win very big at the box office, both to earn back its investment and re-establish Luhrmann’s credentials as a maverick who can combine a commercial and an artistic sensibility.
And then there’s the personal dimension. Luhrmann first fell in love with the idea of making The Great Gatsby in 2004, while listening to it as an audio book during a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. At this point, post-Moulin Rouge, his stock in Hollywood was at its highest point, and he agreed a deal with Sony, which had acquired the rights to Fitzgerald’s novel.
It was here, however, that Luhrmann experienced his first serious reversal. A long-cherished project about Alexander the Great fell apart, and then the critics savaged Australia. Worse was to follow. Luhrmann wanted to shoot The Great Gatsby in New York, but Sony decided it was too expensive. Moreover, Sony wanted to limit Luhrmann’s budget to $80m, which meant bringing production partners on board or putting the project on the long finger.
Determined the film would be made, Luhrmann flew to LA to personally persuade Warners to invest in The Great Gatsby. Over the course of a torrid two-hour meeting, the director poured out his ideas for a 21st century Gatsby. The executives were impressed. Of course, the fact that Leo DiCaprio had already committed to the project didn’t do his cause any harm either...
The green light was given.
Even with the financial backing in place — and a cast that included Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, and Ben Affleck — the shoot for The Great Gatsby was far from smooth. Affleck was forced to pull out, to work on Argo, and was replaced with Joel Edgerton. The proposed New York shoot was moved to Australia, where the set was dogged by accidents — Luhrmann himself required stitches in a head wound after being struck by a camera crane — and one of Australia’s worst ever rainy seasons threatened to wash out the production.
Even after the shoot was concluded, there were rumours that all was not well with The Great Gatsby. Originally scheduled for release for Christmas 2012, the release date was pushed back to summer 2012. ‘Re-shoots’, muttered the cynics, although the official reason given was that the filmmakers didn’t want to clash with another Leonardo DiCaprio release, the Quentin Tarantino movie Django Unchained.
And now that the movie is almost here, questions still remain. Was the controversial 3D shoot worth it from an artistic point of view? Will Luhrmann’s singular vision reinvigorate F Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel for a new generation, as Romeo + Juliet opened up Shakespeare for a generation of teenagers in the 1990s? Will The Great Gatsby be a bold artistic statement in the same vein as Moulin Rouge or a sprawling, self-indulgent celebration of Baz Luhrmann, as was the case with Australia?
There are two things, however, we already know for certain. One: Even if it stinks out every joint it plays, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will be a far more interesting film than 1974’s bland adaptation, scripted by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Two: Even if it proves to be the best film of the year, you’ll have no trouble finding someone who’ll tell you that the novel is far superior...
* The Great Gatsby opens in cinemas nationwide on May 16.