The Great Gatsbys
A CultureMap®
by Christine Sismondo
Published on 9/24/13

The Great Gatsby ranks on the short list of books (including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick) that exemplify the Great American Novel. Why? It captures the 1920s zeitgeist while telling the timeless story of an individual confronting the ultimate emptiness of the American dream. Gatsby has inspired numerous film and stage interpretations, very few as memorable as the novel. Doing justice to Gatsby is nearly as elusive as the American dream itself.

The Great Gatsby (1974)  (Jack Clayton (dir.) | film | 1974)
to  The Great Gatsby (2013)  (Baz Luhrmann (dir.) | film | 2013)

Any adaptation of The Great Gatsby is, by definition, a story about careless rich people behaving badly, but some versions are more pointed than others in their class critique. Australian director Baz Luhrmann promised his tribute to this Great American Novel would be more pointed—and timely—than most, given the rash of high-finance types behaving irresponsibly during the financial crises of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Luhrmann’s visual texture is usually hyperdecadent and luxe but is even more so in Gatsby, as if the director’s extravagant film Moulin Rouge! (2001) and the city of Las Vegas hooked up and had quintuplets. Except, that is, when the film’s setting transitions to the wasteland of the ash heaps, a place inhabited by the poor working-class souls who pay the price for the carefree life the rich enjoy. The 1974 film version of Gatsby is less overt in its economic criticism, concentrating as much on the repugnant racism and anti-Semitism of buffoonish millionaire Tom Buchanan, the husband of the title character’s love interest. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a very different Gatsby than his graceful predecessor Robert Redford, who could almost pass for old money—except for his trendy pink suit.

F. Scott Fitzgerald  (1896–1940 | American writer)
to  Eight Men Out  (John Sayles (dir.) | film | 1988)

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the character Meyer Wolfsheim to reinforce the theme of lost innocence and the failure of the American dream. Purportedly based on real-life New York Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein (1882–1928), Wolfsheim is introduced to narrator Nick Carraway as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. The notion staggers Nick, who thought the shocking Black Sox scandal couldn’t have resulted from one man’s actions (it didn’t; Rothstein allegedly bankrolled the bribes to throw the series, but the fix wasn’t his idea, and he was never charged with a crime). By tarnishing the reputation of America’s national pastime, Wolfsheim’s callous individualism demonstrates that “one man could start to play with the faith of 50 million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

Rothstein has “appeared” (often thinly disguised) in many works, including the musical Guys and Dolls (1950), based on Damon Runyon’s tales of New York City gamblers. Rothstein is undisguised in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and in Eight Men Out, John Sayles’s fictionalized film about the Sox scandal. Befitting Rothstein’s behind-the-scenes forcefulness, character actor Michael Lerner plays him with, according to reviewer Janet Maslin, “the quietest aplomb.”

Woody Allen  (b. 1935 | American filmmaker)
to  The Great Gatsby (1974)  (Jack Clayton (dir.) | film | 1974)

Megaproducer Robert Evans bought the film rights to The Great Gatsby allegedly so his then wife, Ali MacGraw (Love Story), could play the starring role of Daisy Buchanan, the longtime object of Jay Gatsby’s obsessive affections and a symbol of his class aspirations. MacGraw later divorced Evans, however, and Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby) landed the part. This was good luck not only for Farrow but also for the many F. Scott Fitzgerald fans who couldn’t imagine the relatively inexperienced MacGraw as Daisy—including Jack Nicholson, who was considered for the role of Gatsby but objected to his potential costar. A new wrinkle: During filming, Farrow turned out to be pregnant with her and pianist André Previn’s third child, but her figure was disguised in elegant flowing costumes. Five years later Farrow and Previn parted ways, and she became involved with Woody Allen. Farrow famously became the director’s muse, and the two went on to make 13 films together, including Zelig, Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo, three period pieces in which she plays a range of Jazz Age and Depression-era characters, from psychoanalyst to aspiring radio starlet to housewife cinephile.

The Aviator  (Martin Scorsese (dir.) | film | 2004)
to  The Great Gatsby (2013)  (Baz Luhrmann (dir.) | film | 2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio must be getting used to playing rich Jazz Age eccentrics, given his roles as real-life American billionaire business magnate Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Jay Gatsby in the Baz Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby. Both characters are ridiculously wealthy recluses (the former more extremely so), dangerously fixated on accomplishing difficult goals and possessing elusive objects, and their obsessions bring about their downfall. But there are profound differences between the two: Gatsby pursues wealth as a means to an end (his stalkerish love for Daisy Buchanan), while Hughes thought becoming the richest man in the world was a goal in itself. Gatsby is single-minded in his pursuit of Daisy; Hughes pursued women, wealth, filmmaking (as a producer and director) and flight (as a pilot and an inventor) with equal enthusiasm. But what binds the two characters is not only their determination. Both men are symbols for the shallow joys of wealth and the trite truism that money doesn’t buy happiness. DiCaprio ought to be careful: When asked about Hughes and Gatsby’s similarities, he said they share “that relentlessness to achieve what they are going after.” He continued, “I see that in myself, too.”

The Aviator  (Martin Scorsese (dir.) | film | 2004)
to  F. Scott Fitzgerald  (1896–1940 | American writer)

F. Scott Fitzgerald started out merely upper-middle class, but Howard Hughes (1905–1976) likely ranked among those very rich who fascinated him. Hughes parlayed his family’s drill-bit fortune into a sum that made him one of the world’s wealthiest men, illustrating part of a lyric Fitzgerald borrowed (while altering its punch line) from the popular song “Ain’t We Got Fun?”: “The rich get richer and the poor get—children.”

Scott and his wife, Zelda, had only one child, but they never got rich. Instead, they became literary and social celebrities. As Hughes grew wealthier—and more obsessive—he increasingly became the sort of person to attract Fitzgerald, who famously wrote that the very rich “are different from you and me.” He meant that seriously. Fitzgerald envied the rich, whom he first encountered with jealousy as an undergraduate at Princeton University, and thought they squandered their tremendous opportunities by failing to work hard. Hughes, however, as we see in films like The Aviator, squandered nothing, not even his own urine, which Hughes (an OCD sufferer) stored in jars. Rich or not, as is said of Gatsby near the novel’s end, death makes each of us a “poor son-of-a-bitch.”

Ernest Hemingway  (1899–1961 | American writer)
to  Woody Allen  (b. 1935 | American filmmaker)

In Midnight in Paris (2011), one of director Woody Allen’s larger targets is the overblown Ernest Hemingway, who speaks in staccato clichés about courage and truth. It could be said Papa brought this mockery on himself, since his hypermasculine, plainspoken, hard-drinking persona became such an integral part of his fame that it grew exaggerated until other facets of his character faded away. Hemingway was one of the first American celebrities to become a parody of himself and, as such, was an easy mark for Allen, who has some gentle fun in the film with this macho, womanizing adventurer.

And not for the first time, either. At New York University in the early 1950s, student Allen wrote a parody of Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which apparently had the class in stitches but landed Allen a failing grade and signaled the end of his college career. The joke was on NYU, however, since Allen went on to become one of the most acclaimed and successful directors in film history, a legacy he established in the 1970s with Annie Hall and Manhattan, the latter starring a teenage Mariel Hemingway, beautiful granddaughter of none other than Ernest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald  (1896–1940 | American writer)
to  Ernest Hemingway  (1899–1961 | American writer)

F. Scott Fitzgerald told his estimable editor, Max Perkins, that Hemingway was “the real thing,” but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Hemingway, for instance, claimed he never “had any respect” for Fitzgerald, except for his “lovely, golden, wasted talent.” Hemingway had misgivings about Fitzgerald’s manner and his “crazy” wife, Zelda (a writer and former dancer who was later institutionalized). Unlike her husband, Zelda thought Hemingway was “bogus” and returned the animosity. None of this stopped Hemingway from befriending Fitzgerald at the Dingo Bar in Paris, circa 1925, or from letting Fitzgerald edit his work and boost his career by introducing him to Paris literary circles.

A very public rift opened between the two in 1936 after Fitzgerald published his personal essay collection, The Crack-Up—from Hemingway’s perspective, a self-demeaning admission of weakness. Hemingway countered with the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” whose protagonist, Harry, is a misguided writer ruined by a frivolous woman. Harry fails to write about what is brave and true, instead concentrating on the foibles of the rich. Yet Fitzgerald remained generous to his friend. After reading Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, he wrote, “I envy you like hell, and there’s no irony in this.”

Gatz  (John Collins (dir.) | play | 2005)
to  F. Scott Fitzgerald  (1896–1940 | American writer)

When John Collins, director and founder of the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service, couldn’t get permission from the F. Scott Fitzgerald estate to produce Gatz, his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, he went rogue and staged it underground. As with admission to a 1920s speakeasy, audiences had to be in the know to catch this superliteral marathon-length version, in which every word of the novel is uttered onstage. Collins couldn’t exactly claim fair use when his company was ultimately caught staging the unauthorized play.

When another stage version of Gatsby closed, however, the estate finally gave Collins the green light, and Gatz opened to serious advance buzz—and some substantial concern that it couldn’t help but fail to live up to its hype. How could a six-hour staged reading be entertaining, even with the included dinner break? When comedian Andy Kaufman read from Gatsby as a stunt in his 1980s stand-up routine, audiences exited. But Gatz entranced theatergoers and critics. Ben Brantley of The New York Times said, “Suddenly, before you knew it, more than six hours had passed and you had that drugged, transfixed feeling from waking up from a really great read.”