By John E. Hallwas. Posted May 26, 2013 by The McDonough County Voice.
The new film version of Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel “The Great Gatsby” (1925) has been showing at the Rialto Theatre — and across the country. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo di Caprio, the movie is well worth seeing — and not just because it sweeps you back into the Roaring Twenties. It also does better than the 1974 version (starring Robert Redford) at capturing the three problematic leading characters and conveying the author’s vision.
Di Caprio provides real intensity as Gatsby, a handsome young man who is obsessed with regaining the rich young blonde (Daisy) that he fell in love with when he was a desperately poor World War I soldier. He lost her then because he could not hope to be accepted by her elite social class, but to him, she symbolizes self-fulfillment through social and economic status. “Her voice is full of money,” as Gatsby says. That was her special charm. His recent wealth, achieved by becoming a big-time bootlegger and crook, is employed in an attempt to win her back, although she has since married the ultra-wealthy, upper class Tom Buchanan.
Part of Fitzgerald’s critique is centered on Tom, who shows how shallow and self-important ultra-rich people can sometimes be. He is arrogant about his aristocratic social background and obviously contemptuous of working-class people, such as gas station owner George Wilson, whose wife is Tom’s mistress. And his contempt for Gatsby soars when he discovers the glamorous crook’s impoverished background.
Tom Buchanan makes us realize that a sizable segment of the wealthy are as opposed to the notion of America as a “land of opportunity,” and a place of “equality,” as they can possibly be. To them, wealth somehow affirms their virtue and their character as real Americans, and working-class people are simply to be deceived, controlled, and used.
In a sense, the film is timely, for Tom’s self-importance-based-on-wealth, and his complete inability to identify with the non-wealthy, have been shown all too clearly, in our own time, through some figures that have emerged on the national political stage. And not since The Gilded Age of the late 19th century has money from the wealthy had such a huge negative impact on American politics (through PACs) and on our government (through money-providing, voter-subverting lobbyists).
Daisy is somewhat more appealing than Tom, but she is also extremely shallow and self-focused. When she is driving recklessly and runs down a woman in the street, she doesn’t even stop the car. And after Gatsby (supposedly her “true love”) is murdered, she doesn’t show up at his funeral—-or even send flowers or a card. Clearly, her intense self-focus makes meaningful relationships impossible.
Di Caprio does a better job than Redford at portraying the intense, driven, and inwardly disturbed Gatsby. That’s crucial, for after all, Gatsby rejected his own parents because of their poverty, focused on shallow Daisy essentially because she was rich, became a crook to amass the money needed to win her, constructed a tissue of lies about his background, and disregards anyone who doesn’t serve his purposes. It is not surprising that he doesn’t insist that Daisy show some concern for the woman she hits while they are in his speeding car.
The crowd that attends Gatsby’s parties doesn’t care whether he is a crook or not. He is simply someone to admire and, if possible, become acquainted with. And Nick Carraway, the likeable narrator who does the voice-over in the film, proclaims that Gatsby is better than the “rotten crowd” around him, including Tom and Daisy. After all, he at least had a “heightened sensitivity to the promise of life” — and the drive to pursue what he cherished.
While that may be true, Gatsby is still a troubled, self-absorbed, problematic person, who has been damaged by a corrupt American dream that has become focused on wealth as the ultimate measure of human value.
It’s always difficult for certain Americans to correctly evaluate someone who strives, rises, and becomes a noted success. When I was writing “The Bootlegger” (1998), that was one similarity I noted between Fitzgerald’s novel, which I often taught, and the story that I was working on. I realized that local people often wanted to see our county’s preeminent bootlegger in a positive light — as Nick Carraway in the book and the film wants to see Gatsby.
By that logic, Kelly Wagle was an American dreamer who rose and succeeded, who owned several cars and racehorses when others in his declining coal town were struggling, so he must have been remarkable guy. A small-town Gatsby, he incarnated the aspirations of many others in his town and county. No wonder some local people cherished his story.
Nick Carraway feels that somehow the uncorrupted American dream still survives in the small towns of the Midwest — where he is from — but as “The Bootlegger” reveals, the dream was already corrupt there, too. Do anything to succeed, and to protect your inflated self-image, was replacing the traditional dream that virtue and hard work would lead to success and self-fulfillment. That Wagle broke the law, intimidated and brutalized others, cheated on his wives, and murdered one of them shows that Nick was wrong about the Midwest in the Twenties.
Reflecting on the film, I wonder if modern movie-goers see it as a thorough critique of so many Americans, who have been spiritually damaged — reduced to shallow, self-focused figures who care only about themselves. “The Great Gatsby” is a movie not just about an obsessed guy who tries to win back a girl, or about the wild times of the 1920s, but about the severe moral decline, often associated with achievers of the dream, that is an ongoing American problem.
Author and local historian John Hallwas (below) is a columnist for the “McDonough County Voice.”
Mark McDonald & crew of ILLINOIS STORIES were in town last week, filming a short piece about the making of THE BOOTLEGGER. The segment will air on PBS starting tomorrow:
Thursday, April 18, 7:30 PM
Friday, April 19, 6:30 PM
Wednesday, April 24, 6:30 PM