Aside from a talent for spending money and throwing parties, Baz Luhrmann and Jay Gatsby, the tragic hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, have little in common. But after a customary six-month release delay, this May we finally get to see the flamboyant Australian’s $125 million Warner Brothers adaptation of the classic novel. So while, in the novel, Gatsby’s guests waft dreamily about his blue gardens, Baz says: ‘Great parties are like chemical equations that explode.’
The film’s fusing of American lyricism and Lurhmann’s visual fireworks has already inspired both controversy and expectation. Nobody but Luhrmann’s circle and a handful of studio executives has yet seen the film, but that hasn’t stopped the media from weighing in (the Daily News: ‘How Baz Luhrmann will ruin The Great Gatsby’; the New York Times: ‘A Pre-defense of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby’).
While the sceptics flag up the expensive six-month delay in the film’s release and the fact that the hip-hop star Jay-Z is scoring much of the film’s -soundtrack, Luhrmann optimists savour the prospect of the director’s creative spectacle meeting the book’s ‘epic grandeur’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description). The bigger question is whether Luhrmann’s version, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway, can improve upon Jack Clayton’s 1974 take starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Although it was neither a critical nor commercial success, it remains a cultural and style reference.
When I met Luhrmann in a stylishly subterranean basement in the Ace Hotel in downtown Manhattan, he was keen to stress that he was drawn to the project because of an appreciation for the book. ‘Universally, Gatsby’s a bit like Gone With The Wind and like Titanic. People vaguely know it and some people who are Fitzgerald nuts know it very well. It’s amazing how many people know the Redford film but therefore don’t know the book because they’re poles apart… The novel is exquisite. You learn the history of Gatsby, everything about his life during the journey and telling. You know where he’s come from, you know who he was and you know what he is.’
It could end up being the role of a lifetime for Leonardo DiCaprio, whose more recent screen outings have not always matched the subtlety of his performances in early cult classics (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries and, of course, Luhrmann’s own 1997 Romeo+Juliet opposite Claire Danes). DiCaprio was 22 when he first teamed up with Luhrmann. ‘Leo was a prince when we made Romeo+Juliet. Now he’s a king. Any time I’ve spent with him, he’s only ever had one focus in his life and that’s acting and the quality of it.’
For his own part, the director divides critics with films that include Moulin Rouge and Australia. He has a reputation within the industry as a perfectionist who haemorrhages money in pursuit of the ideal. In a navy-blue suit and with salt-and-pepper hair, on the surface Luhrmann resembles another commuter leaving Grand Central Station. In person, he sweeps you into his world with a gale force of charm — he is among the most charismatic men I’ve ever encountered. His powers of persuasion are legendary — whether it’s persuading the Fitzgerald estate to buy the rights to The Great Gatsby, or schmoozing the biggest musical artists of our time to let him use their songs in Moulin Rouge.
While blazing a trail in the Australian theatre scene, hich included directing La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, Luhrmann acquired the nickname of Count Von Groovy. These days the world is his fiefdom. ‘I have a philosophy — I dream in Paris, I have fun in London, I like to live in New York and I like to dance in Brazil. LA for work and Sydney is home.’
‘I love to affect culture,’ he says with typical understatement. Luhrmann may not be shy in highlighting his role as a trendsetter, but his esoteric cinematic recipes have resulted in mainstream cultural menus being transformed. ‘When I started with Strictly Ballroom, everybody kept saying ballroom dancing will not be popular in America. Strictly Come Dancing came directly from Strictly Ballroom. The graphics and clothes from Moulin Rouge have been absorbed by other cultures. They’re still doing bordello clips in pop. Every week there’s a new nightclub opening saying it’s Moulin Rouge-ish.’
Romeo+Juliet was loathed by many critics but won him powerful friends in Britain: ‘Some people said it was MTV Shakespeare. But Lord Puttnam said it’s done more for Shakespeare education [than anything else].’ And while Fitzgerald purists may flinch, as Shakespeare purists did with Romeo+Juliet, it’s hard to begrudge a new generation the chance to fall in love with another classic. There’s talk among his creative team that Luhrmann’s plans include another Shakespeare movie mash-up. ‘My problem is death. I have more things in my cupboard I want to make. There’s the Shakespeare canon, there are cinematic musicals, there are edgy psychological works.’ He even hints he’d like a shot at directing 007. ‘Sometimes having a brand is a burden,’ he says, ‘because sometimes I’d like to be a shooter and knock off a movie just for the fun of making someone else’s script or a Bond film.’
Should his colourful depiction of 1920s Long Island find favour with audiences and critics, Luhrmann will be able to do whatever project he chooses. But whatever the outcome of the Gatsby gamble, the celebrations promoting the film will be legendary. ‘Gatsby was someone who liked parties. So look out for that!’
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures