By Danny Peary
Today concludes The Great Gatsby’s long run at the UA Southampton Cinema, where it even outlasted Star Trek Into Darkness. But while its time in the Hamptons comes to an end, late arrivals can still catch it in New York City or almost anywhere a plane lands. Worldwide it has now passed $300 million and is going strong Not bad for a film that was considered a financial risk, a potential flop. Even with Leonard DiCaprio in the lead, who wanted to see yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s class novel from and about the Jazz Age? Especially since it was made in 3-D and had hip-hop prominently on the soundtrack, clear signs that the target audience included young fans who never heard of the author. Having almost walked out of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a bombardment of the senses, I was among the skeptics. I was startled to like the film as much as I did and thought the 3-D actually enhanced the viewer’s experience, keeping the screen alive with images and helping maintain a rhythm that the comatose 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow never achieved. Oddly, Luhrmann’s version is surprisingly faithful to Fitzgerald and made me understand his characters more clearly than ever before. Before the film’s release, I asked the following questions about the film and its iconic characters to four of the stars–DiCaprio (Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) and Isla Fisher (Myrtle)–and their director, Luhrmann, for an article in the Australian magazine FilmInk. I think their responses will be of interest to anyone who saw or still plans to see the film.
DP: Gatsby has an “incorruptible dream” regarding how he sees his future with Daisy. Do you think he had affairs with other women after the war or was he saving himself for Daisy?
LD: Oh, he did for sure. He says it in the novel–I’ve been with many other women, but I never knew how wonderful a nice girl could be. He’s in love with this illusion that is Daisy. What was so fascinating to me in picking up the novel again as an adult was a completely different understanding of who Gatsby was and how he was representative of that time period in America, during prohibition. Of course he made his fortune in the underworld, but he was trying to emulate the great American tycoons of that time and was on the road to becoming a Rockefeller. He made the list when he was a young boy of achievements that he wanted to have, and then – boom – he let himself go. He met this girl named Daisy. Of course at that time, he wasn’t financially able to respectably hold her hand in public, so he went off to make something of himself, and she went off with Tom Buchanan [Joel Edgerton]. But she’s the stumbling block. She is something that has gotten in the way of his success and his journey to becoming this great vision of what an American tycoon should be. There are great lines in the book that give you so much more insight into that my life has got to be like this. But if he doesn’t contain or erase the past, he won’t be able to move forward. So reading the book now, Daisy became a completely different thing to me. Reading it in high school, I thought it was this completely traditional love story in which we ask, Why is he so in love with this woman? It’s a tragedy. But for me as an adult, she became more of an illusion than anything else. He’s finally got Daisy in his castle, and he’s holding her, and Nick says, his list of achievements had diminished by one, yet he’s still staring at the green light. He’s holding her but he’s still staring out at the illusion.
DP: It’s like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, saying he could have been a great man if he didn’t become rich.
LD: Yeah, Gatsby says he could have been a great man if he hadn’t met Daisy.
DP: Was there ever a discussion about Citizen Kane in regard to comparing Gatsby and Kane, two rich men who die alone?
LD: Yeah, we talked about Citizen Kane all the time and referenced it a lot. There are even certain visuals of Gatsby’s castle of who this man was trying to become really reminded me of that movie. We talked about the idea of Citizen Kane being incredibly influenced by the earlier, The Great Gatsby, actually. And we talked about Sunset Boulevard, too–there’s the sequence in which I’m floating in the pool and it’s shot from the pool’s perspective as the photographers are all shooting a floating body.
DP: And was Of Human Bondage an influence?
LD: Of Human Bondage?
DP: You said how Gatsby can’t rid himself of Daisy in his life, and that’s like how the successful physician in Of Human Bondage can’t push away the cockney waitress Mildred Rogers.
LD: Right. I would say Yes.
DP: With a whole group of great performances behind you, were you insulted you had to audition to play Daisy?
CM (laughing): Insulted? Oh, yeah, I said, “Fuck no! I won’t audition!” But no, not at all. I’m never insulted to be in an audition, and I really like auditioning. I honestly believe I got a last-minute call to audition, I don’t think I was even on the original list. I was absolutely honored, and also convinced that I’d never get the job. I saw it as a really fun exercise and had so much fun because I had so little expectation of it. It was great.
DP: Typically when Daisy is interpreted, the word that is used is shallow. I don’t think you’d want to play her as totally shallow, so did you start with shallow and add layers to her?
CM: When I was cast, they said, Oh, Daisy’s just awful, but obviously I couldn’t feel that way about her. I think she’s a product of her time, and as a young woman makes the decisions that would have been expected of her. She grew up in a very wealthy family and was expected to marry for money, and so she did. I think if she hadn’t done it there would have been a huge scandal, so it was not strange of her to do that. Money is all she knows–she does enjoy those fine things–and she’s a little fickle and a little erratic. I think she married into a fairly loveless marriage with Tom Buchanan. She probably started the marriage positively, wanting to love Tom. It’s described in the book how she adored him until he was caught cheating on her with the chambermaid. So then she’s in sort of an abusive relationship for a long time, and then Gatsby comes back and represents everything that she lost when she married Tom. She’s nostalgic for a time when everything was about parties and fun and romance. I think she just never expected to make a decision for herself, because she wasn’t brought up that way. Some of it is not really her fault. And I think ultimately the decision she makes to stay with Tom is weak–it is weak to deny Gatsby, to deny what happened to him, and to deny the car accident– but she has Tom’s child. That’s is easy to forget because Fitzgerald doesn’t write about the child. She does have a 5-year-old child, and Tom offers to forget everything that happened and erase the past. She’s not an intellectual, but I don’t think she’s stupid, and though she comes across as being fickle, she does have a depth of feeling and, I think, she believes that she’s in love. She really is, in her mind.
DP: In the book and movie, Daisy talks about how it’s best for a woman to be “a beautiful little fool.” In a male-dominated world, is she content being that?
CM: I think she believes it when she says it, and I think that does show that she’s not a fool. She’s self-aware enough to see that her value is in being a trophy wife. I think she does believe that it’s easier for a girl to be brainless and pretty to be content in the world that she lives in. But I also think she’s kind of playing a character, and she tries to wrap into the idea of herself as a tragic heroine, because she enjoys the attention. In the novel, in the scene directly afterwards, she sort of smirks and laughs and obviously the whole thing is just sort of a game.
DP: Is Daisy capable of eventually finding true happiness?
CM: No, I don’t think she is. She finds herself in a loveless place, so I don’t think she can be happy. I think she’s very unsure. In the novel, when she’s younger and Gatsby disappears, it says that she needed some force to move her, whether it be wealth or a man, and that force was Tom Buchanan. Her ultimate tragedy is that she’s completely lost unless she has a man to lead her. And that’s why she goes between these two men. Tom appears to be the stronger force, but Gatsby comes along and sweeps her away. And when that relationship starts to disintegrate, Tom trumps the whole thing by revealing Gatsby’s desperation and near madness. Tom doesn’t have what she wants, but what she needs. So I don’t think she’s happy at the end.
DP: In the novel, Nick is a neutral character, an observer, but do you see him in the movie as more of an active participant?
TB: That’s one of the things that Baz, Leo and I talked about. What’s Nick’s role? He’s certainly an observer and a storyteller, and taking some of our cues from F. Scott Fitzgerald, we used a bit of Fitzgerald in the Nick Carraway character. But it was important to me how this whole experience affects Nick, so we created some scenes to help show that, showing Nick as the writer going back over the story as we watch what he remembers. That gave us some license with the language, so when I did the voiceover, I could use some of that more poetic language, and it would feel more natural.
DP: What’s Nick’s relationship with Daisy?
TM: The way I thought about Nick in relation to Daisy, is that they’re cousins. I think I made up some backstory for them. I honestly can’t remember exactly what I made up and what came from research, but I imagined them spending time together when they were younger, and maybe going on a family trip together, but not spending much time together over the past several years. But he still has a fondness for her that one might have for a cousin who is five or six years younger.
DP: Do you think Nick has a more realistic view of Daisy than Gatsby does? Nick doesn’t idealize her like Gatsby does, right?
TM: They have a totally different relationship. Nick tries to see the good in people and reserve his judgment. Daisy, like all of the characters, is a product of society and circumstances, and as much as people are responsible for their own actions, it’s very hard to buck the trend. When you’re conditioned in a certain way, it’s very difficult to go against the stream and live a different kind of life. It’s the hero’s journey to do that sort of thing, and I think Nick gives people a lot of latitude for trying to figure out their way in life. So I think he has a fondness for Daisy, as he does Gatsby and sees how she’s behaving but doesn’t condemn her for that.
DP: Were you presented Myrtle as being the opposite of Daisy? Tom loves two women, and one could say Daisy’s overrated and Myrtle’s underrated.
IF: Thank you! I never thought of Daisy’s character much because I was playing a mistress. As a mistress, for Myrtle not to consider the morality of the situation–the infidelity and breaking up a family–she has to concentrate just on her relationship with Tom. When I was playing my character, I didn’t think of Daisy, but now that you mention it, I think Myrtle has a lot of the characteristics that Daisy doesn’t and vise versa. Good and bad.
DP: You’ve spoke of how as an actress you fulfill your dreams by playing different parts, so did you identify with Myrtle in that regard? She’s stuck in her marriage but she seems to be the type who who would dream of being a movie star.
IF: Myrtle buys fashion magazines and she definitely would have loved to have been on the stage or screen. I definitely relate to Myrtle in the sense that when I was younger I dated a bad boy and believed whatever I was told. But I think there’s a bit of all of the characters in Great Gatsby in all of us, and that’s why the movie resonates with us today as much as it did ninety years ago, when it was set.
DP: Is this character in the film more aggressive than the character in the book?
IF: Yeah, a little more, because in the movie, as opposed to the book, the story is very much told through Nick Carraway’s eyes. And because of his relationship with Daisy, Nick sees Myrtle as being more grotesque and aggressive than how she is in the book. He’s drinking and not himself when he’s with her and that whole party scene is more heightened.
DP: She walks right toward him, aggressively.
IF: Yeah, she walks right toward him, aggressively. Listen, I did lots of different takes of Myrtle and it was up to Baz, the director, to choose the ones that he wanted and to create the Myrtle that is in the film. It was out of my hands.
DP: Nick finishes his book and titles it Gatsby but then writes The Great in front. Is your Gatsby a great person? Your big decision was how ruthless to make him if you wanted him to remain sympathetic.
BL: That is exactly right. Maybe it speaks to Fitzgerald’s brilliance–and I think it speaks to Shakespeare’s brilliance–that you can have the darkest of characters and empathize with them. Fitzgerald said Tom Buchanan was probably the best character he ever wrote. If there was ever a rogue and a bad guy, it’s Tom. But he’s kind of forgivable. In the he basically said, I didn’t want to forgive him but I had to it. It made sense in the context of his world. If your the question is what makes Gatsby great, I think that’s open to interpretation. And it will be interpreted many times in many ways. In Nick Carraway’s mind, the richest landed gentry, the aristocrats, are perfect. But pretty quickly, Nick leans that things aren’t so good in paradise. As Jay-Z said very well, being one of the first people to see the rough cut, was, “You know what–it’s not really about how Gatsby made his money, it’s about whether he’s a good person?” And if he is a good person who does have a moral compass, what about all those other characters? Do they have a moral compass? Tom and Daisy? They’re careless people. They smashed up people and things and retreated into their money. What makes Gatsby great is that he believes in a singular and absolute cause. For me, what makes Gatsby great to Nick is that he is the most hopeful person he has ever met and is ever likely to meet again. Great people may be wedded to calamity, but at least they aspire to realize their dreams.