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

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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