HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – “The Great Gatsby” is a classic novel from 1925 that is often a required part of the school curriculum in North America. However, it has yet to become a classic film.
Several attempts have been made, though. These include a 1949 Alan Ladd vehicle, directed by Elliott Nugent; a costly 1974 flop directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford; and a little-noticed TV version in 2000 with natural redhead Toby Stephens (former “James Bond” villain and son of Dame Maggie Smith) as Jay Gatsby.
After “Australia,” his costly 2008 flop starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (born Mark Anthony Luhrmann) has chosen “The Great Gatsby” as his comeback — his first full-length feature in five years.
“It’s timeless,” the 50-year-old tells The Japan Times. “Each era has its own ‘Gatsby.’ Every ‘Gatsby’ movie tells you as much about when it was made, and who and what was popular then, as it retells (F. Scott) Fitzgerald’s story.
“Look at the ’70s version: It was so much more ’70s than 1920s (the time period the book is set in).” Indeed, the Redford/Mia Farrow flick was a soft-focus, pastel-hued attempt to recapture the romance and box office of Arthur Hiller’s 1970 film “Love Story.”
By contrast, Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” was shot in 3-D and flaunts his usual bright, brassy look and sound.
“You also imagine that, as a creative movie-maker, you can imprint the project with your own personal stamp,” he says. Luhrmann’s “stamp” has been recognizable since his vivid screen debut, with 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom.” (His parents actually took part in ballroom-dancing competitions.)
Surprisingly, the director/writer/producer hasn’t made many full-length features — only five in the past 21 years. His most successful were “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001). Both were innovative, colorful and memorable. His Shakespeare adaptation — reviled in some quarters, highly praised in others —starred Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, who was then in his early 20s. Now 38, DiCaprio plays Gatsby in what he calls “a doomed love story.”
Despite the title, Gatsby the character doesn’t dominate the film, though his aura permeates throughout. Carrying the bulk of the story are Carey Mulligan, who stars as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire, who takes the role of Nick Carraway.
DiCaprio has reportedly said he only decided to do the film — which he stresses is “definitely not a remake” — because he would have Luhrmann on board as director and best pal Maguire as his costar.
“The thing about Gatsby is he’s an outsider,” DiCaprio says. “Like, it’s not commonly known that originally the character is Jewish. He has become rich, and he tries to fit in by having this allure, a certain aloofness that money lets you have. But he’s a shell. He’s posturing, and it’s about the surface of things.
“I can relate to that, because so much of this (movie) business is about surfaces — like what people see, what impresses them, but not necessarily what they know.”
DiCaprio was born in Hollywood to a father who was an underground comic artist and a producer/distributor of comic books. His mother was German. (DiCaprio’s father, despite the Italian surname, is half German, so the actor — middle name Wilhelm — is but a quarter Italian-American.) At 10, Leo was reportedly advised to change his name to the “more American-sounding” Lenny Williams.
How much of a Hollywood product is DiCaprio? He sighs, pauses, snickers and sighs again before answering.
“I’m not big into dividing myself up into parts or analyzing myself,” he says. “It’s like acting: If you overanalyze, you can get stuck in details and trivia and stuff. Long ago a friend of mine went to an acting coach who said the central part of ‘analysis’ is ‘anal.’ So don’t become an anal-type actor or personality (laughs).
“One thing about me that fits with the Hollywood stereotype — but it is a stereotype — that I’m not the best at relaxing. I like to stay busy. Not just films of course, I have a production company but also I have a foundation.”
DiCaprio is well known for his work with animal- and nature-conservation projects, including being involved with efforts to save the white tiger.
“I could go into some of that,” he sighs, “but I know most of it gets left out — on the editing floor, as it were. Also, it can make me sound conceited, like I’m listing all my good deeds. But I do believe in giving back, in using the platform of fame to try and make the world a better place than it is. It can’t all be about selfishness or self-oriented activity.”
DiCaprio says he can relate to Gatsby in a sense, but there is one level on which he doesn’t relate to him at all.
“He’s presented as this clothes-horse kind of guy,” he says. “To impress the world he has to look the part. Like they say, ‘Clothes make the man.’ So in every ‘Gatsby’ version, you see the guy dressed to the nines.
“Me, I like to be comfortable. To me, looking good means being healthy — you know, eating good, some exercise, maintaining a decent weight. I don’t give much thought to what I wear, and even for formal or industry occasions, there’s usually — for men — this sort of uniform you slot yourself into. It’s the actresses who have to choose from dozens of (wardrobe) options.”
Luhrmann says that he also recognizes this aspect of DiCaprio’s personality.
“Leo is himself,” the director says. “He’s totally down to Earth. He’s not out to impress, except, perhaps unconsciously, in terms of his talent. People have to take him as he is, and he’s easy to take. The difference between Leo now and all those years ago when he played Romeo is slighter than that between the young and near-mid-aged versions of any other star I can think of. Stardom hasn’t warped or spoiled him.
“In a way, he’s very un-Gatsby-like. Gatsby chooses — and to some degree is forced — to develop a veneer, a façade society will be attracted to and respect. The movie, in a way, is about creating a new image for oneself, a mystique. And how that doesn’t really buy or bring happiness.
“Leo has a mystique, even while remaining completely himself. Partly he does it by not sharing too much of himself with the media. He does have a private side. He does have friends he’s kept for a very long time, and his circle is a tight one — I mean they’re loyal to each other. They’re not publicity-mongers, not a ‘brat pack.’ “
Rumor has it that Luhrmann didn’t choose a bigger name for the role of Daisy because he felt DiCaprio’s pulling power was sufficient for the picture to ride on his shoulders. Unlike “Australia,” “The Great Gatsby” is certainly not proving to be a flop.
However, critical responses to the film have been mixed, with some saying the party scenes are its best feature. Others have remarked on the low-wattage chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan. The film’s sartorial excellence has been widely commented on but is unsurprising, due to Luhrmann’s other works — various of the eight short films he directed in 2012 focused on fashion and such couture icons as Schiaparelli and Prada.
“I thought about what I could bring to (the film) that hadn’t been seen before,” Luhrmann says. “And of course I thought it would be great for Leo, though it did take some convincing. In the end, he does like challenges.”
DiCaprio has never been one to shy away from demanding roles. He has played such diverse historical characters as French poet Rimbaud (“Total Eclipse,” 1995), tycoon/germophobe Howard Hughes (“The Aviator,” 2004) and FBI chief and rumored closet case J. Edgar Hoover (“J. Edgar,” 2011).
Considering that company of characters, how challenging was it to slip into Gatsby’s stylish shoes? “It wasn’t real easy; it wasn’t hard (laughs). Sounds like, ‘The best of times, the worst of times,’ right?
“Okay. Gatsby is basically hollow. He’s a shell. He’s putting it out there. But he also does have deep, private feelings. Daisy — that whole situation, the central relationship … I’d be interested to hear what Redford did (in the role) or anyone else, but I doubt most actors are going to reveal their thespic blueprint.”
DiCaprio has done six movies with director Martin Scorsese, whose previous muse was Robert De Niro, but declines to compare Scorsese with Luhrmann. Comparisons, he feels, are irksome, including those of actors.
Nor does he like to discuss future or past projects. “I’m pretty busy and involved in the now,” he philosophizes. “This guy who once visited Japan for several weeks came back and was asked what he got out of it. He said, ‘I’m learning to live in the present.’ He said that was a very big lesson that most people in the West haven’t really explored, let alone learned. I try hard to explore and learn it.
“The past is over, you only revisit it to reminisce or hopefully learn from some mistake. As for the future, that never really arrives. It’s always the now.”
For someone as busy as DiCaprio, it might be a good way to live. Whether or not future generations are able to look back on Luhrmann’s as the “classic ‘Gatsby’ film,” however, remains to be seen.
“The Great Gatsby” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com or www.gatsbymovie.jp.
For a chance to win a “The Great Gatsby” T-shirt (M or F), visit jtimes.jp/film.