In Search of a Great ‘Gatsby’: Hollywood’s F. Scott Fitz and Starts

Helmer Baz Luhrmann

Hollywood’s history with Fitzgerald’s novel is a troubled one, but Baz Luhrmann looks to define it on new terms

Baz Luhrmann took me by surprise four years ago when he confided over lunch that he intended to shoot “The Great Gatsby” as his next movie — he explained that he had become obsessed with the “Gatsby” story. I told him that I, too, admired the great F. Scott Fitzgerald novel but could never quite figure out its story — nor could the three directors who’d made previous “Gatsbys.”

Luhrmann is a brilliant filmmaker and I’m eager to see his lavish 3D re-telling of the classic jazz age saga (it opens wide on May 10). I’m also curious to discover how Warner Bros’ smart marketers under Sue Kroll will sell this sophisticated New York epic to young filmgoers worldwide who expect their 3D fare to be “Avengers”-like and think jazz means Jay-Z.

The film depicted in its trailer is certainly “hot” — Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire cavorting across a pastiche of flashy period backgrounds against the music of Beyonce and Bryan Ferry (and, of course, Jay Z). All this promises an edgy contemporary movie about young people with big dreams.

It’s smart positioning; I lived through Paramount’s 1974 effort to capture the “Gatsby” magic — a project that turned out to be a New York fashion show in search of a movie. Luhrmann clearly has a different “Gatsby” in mind (indeed, he built a period New York in Australia).

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There will still be tie-ins with Prada, Tiffany and Brooks Bros. There will also be a major social media push to build on the female audience base. Mulligan already is portrayed in the May Vanity Fair and Vogue in haute couture dresses that look both period and “today.” DiCaprio poses in sleek white flannels supposedly representative of the clothes Fitzgerald wore at Princeton (but the outfit is also reminiscent of DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes look in The Aviator). A major jazz age party is planned for the “Gatsby” opening in Cannes to bolster the appetite of international filmgoers.

Overall, “Gatsby” has had a frustrating Hollywood history. He was first portrayed in a silent movie starring Warner Baxter in 1926, a year after the novel’s publication, then re-invented in 1949 as an Alan Ladd vehicle.

Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie Lanahan Smith, was sufficiently appalled by these movies that she banned further remakes. Only a major fusillade of persuasion on the part of Robert Evans and producer David Merrick induced her to change her mind and part with the rights one more time.

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The 1974 deal triggered epic battles over script and cast. The hottest writer around, Truman Capote, was hired to adapt the novel, but Capote was drinking heavily at the time and his script turned out to be a mere re-typing of Fitzgerald. Francis Coppola was then recruited for a tab of $350,000 and delivered a superb screenplay; indeed, the possibility of another Coppola-Brando co-venture was intriguing with Brando playing an older, brooding Jay Gatsby. Both, however, still harbored post-Godfather resentments and a deal didn’t come together.

In the end, corporate politics intruded and a youthful Robert Redford ended up with the Gatsby role, Jack Clayton was named director and Mia Farrow was cast as Daisy. While Coppola received screenplay credit, the nuances of his script were totally lost.

Still, the project riveted the attention of the fashion world. Ralph Lauren, then an ambitious young designer, created the roaring ’20s wardrobe and every brand from Ballantine’s Scotch to Kenzo lined up for tie-ins.

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Filmed for a mere $6.5 million — perhaps one-twentieth of the current film’s budget — the film overcame its flaccid reviews and rolled up solid numbers at the box office. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote that the film was “as lifeless as a body that had been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”

Luhrmann is the not the sort to be daunted by problems of the past. To his thinking, “The Great Gatsby” remains a great book, its film potential untapped. And as far as the world’s filmgoers are concerned, this will be their first and only Gatsby and the power of its style and vivid characters will prevail.

And F. Scott Fitzgerald and his fans finally may finally stop cringing at Hollywood’s efforts to embellish the “The Great Gatsby” legend.

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  1. Tommy boylan says:

    Scott Fitzgerald writing was so beautiful I think it will be hard to capture the wonderment that was
    his and no one else’s. Fitzgerald was smart, amazing and an American treasure. How can you achieve that again, I hope they do, but it’s been awhile since December 21, 1940 the day Scott died and the world has not produced another Fitzfgerald yet.

  2. LOL says:

    This will flop, badly. I myself am waiting for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Goldenshon’s THE NUREMBERG INTERVIEWS, which will be the ultimate presentation of camp inappropriateness.

  3. Warner Brothers has made this about 80 years too late. Think of a studio system “Gatsby” at Warner’s in the 1930’s: Cagney as Gatsby, Bette Davis as Daisy, Bogart as Tom Buchanan, Joan Blondell as Myrtle, Myrna Loy as Jordan, and as Nick – don’t laugh – Ronald Regan. A script by Zanuck, directed by Wellman or Raoul Walsh. Unless something would have gone very wrong (and Gatsby has been cinematically cursed) this would be the version against which we would be measuring the four remakes since.

    • WZ says:

      That’s film noir style casting not enough of an effete naive fit for a release that belonged in 70s diverse film. When old souls ran the studios, casts had a balanced mix of age demographic types and not all not mature old like in pioneer cinema or all hipster young as in today’s fiasco zeitgeist.

  4. INGRI:DAHL says:

    We’re beyond excited that the Gatsby 3D is (almost) finally here! We’ve been waiting for this ever since we first rumors that the 3D crew wore our 3D glasses on set :)

  5. WZ says:

    I was going to rant about this sad, sick, sorry millennial remake farce but the old school taste and class lesson was so good I’ll save it for a classic movie review instead.

  6. Gram says:

    No one can do it better than Redford did.

  7. cadavra says:

    It’s gonna be a tough road. Kids tend to shy away from period films, and adults will be put off by the anachronistic use of current music in a 1920s setting. I hope it works, but it’s coming up to bat with two outs.

  8. Katrin says:

    Well, this ‘version’ will have to outdo the ’70’s Paramount version. The costumes in 1974 were dripping with the syrup of greed and wealth-the ceaseless angst of Fitz and his Gatsby. Farrow looks like a bejeweled Faberge Egg in her ice blue 20’s headgear and cool, watery blue green flapper frock. Redford was as much of an enigma as Gatsby and clad in head to toe perfection. In short, they are gorgeous along with the production as their backdrop. Hopefully, in the new Gatsby we won’t have to suffer through a laborious parade of designer brand close-ups and jazz-disco-rap… whatever audio assualts.

  9. EK says:

    Fitzgerald’s art was in writing works that were like fine lace, delicate and beautiful, with an undercurrent of reality. He wrote for readers and his audience respected as well as enjoyed his writing which left them with the enjoyment of visualizing the imagery and characters he so brilliantly portrayed. His books have never really successfully transitioned to the screen because the cinematic medium destroys the very essence of his writing by removing its greatest quality: the immersion of the reader in his visions. This latest GATSBY looks, from the marketing materials so far, like a way over the top desecration of Fitzgerald’s delicately woven fabric and something so Lurmanized as to have practically nothing to do with the novel but emerges instead as a filmmaker’s vanity showcase, in 3D no less. Hope to be proven wrong but Fitzgerald’s gift for under statement looks for all the world to be trampled by the zeal of an admittedly creative director but one exhibiting little respect for his source material.

  10. Kathy says:

    This female isn’t buying it and methinks this has already been done in the form of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. It’s as if Baz and Joe met secretly and said let’s make similar films. Hence the pushback date for Gatsby.

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