Talking ’Gatsby’ with Baz, Leo & Tobey
The struggle for marriage equality may just have found a new poster couple in 50-year-old Australian director Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin who's been his wife for more than fifteen years and his production designer for more than twenty. If their union can survive the constant percolating bicker that ramps up to just south of War of the Roses when they've got an audience, then goddammit, we've all got a crack at this marriage thing.
And in their latest concoction, the umpteenth (actually, the fourth) cinematic interpolation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's minimal masterpiece The Great Gatsby, this time in 3D, no less, gives them much to disagree over. For instance, Lurhmann, a fan of zooming camera and CGI flyover, sees Manhattan as a mere twenty-minute jaunt from the north shore of Long Island. Martin begs to differ.
"My wife is the fact checker," Luhrmann cracks, "I'm in the story-telling business." Indeed he is, but Martin can stop some of those stories dead in their tracks. When the director sets the scene for how he came across the classic Fitzgerald property by beginning: "Fade in, a small country town," Martin pushes her thick, black-framed glasses up her nose and immediately interrupts. "Oh, really," she sighs, "really? I don't think the people are ready for this."
Check & balances
But the people assembled in the champagne ballroom of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel for the early morning press conference are quite ready for anything. The Sunday morning event reunites the principal cast of one of the summer’s most eagerly awaited films with its creative core. And it is Lurhmann who finally offers to supply his answer in bullet points before trailing off altogether. The whip has been cracked.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Fitzgerald’s mysterious titular millionaire, rushes into the breach, eager to detail how his real-life friendship with co-star Tobey Maquire cemented the on-screen relationship between Gatsby and his much more modest neighbor Nick Carraway who also narrates the piece.
"We’re always extremely honest with each other," DiCaprio says of Maguire, "and I don’t know if this project would have happened if we didn’t have that kind of relationship. We needed those checks and balances and we needed to have a contract with each other to be continually honest with one another."
Lurid party scenes?
When the narration of a sweaty, drug-fueled party scene in the film veers into the lurid: "There were clothes coming off and feather fights," Lurhmann relays, "and I grabbed everyone and pushed the Stedicam operator into the bedroom." In signature, Luhrmann style, cue Jay-Z and Kayne West’s "Niggas in Paris" on the soundtrack, which the director abbreviates as "NIP" here.
"I’m married with children," Maguire interjects stopping his director cold, "don’t go too far!" (Maguire met his wife jewelry designer Jennifer Meyer ten years ago. They have two children, daughter Ruby Sweetheart and Otis Tobias.)
In the film Maguire plays Fitzgerald stand-in, a writer-turned-financier Nick Carraway, who vacillates between Jordan Baker, a woman who could only be described in contemporary parlance as a golf dyke, and extra man to whomever his cousin’s husband, Tom Buchanan (Aussie actor Joel Edgertown), is shacked up with at the moment.
Tom, Nick & Gatsby
In the book, it’s only Nick’s description of Tom, a man he despises, that truly sizzles as he goes on at length about the "enormous power" of Tom’s body: "he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage."
And it should also be noted that the party scene Lurhmann describes above ends with Nick waking hazily in his underwear on the bed of someone described in the book as "a pale, feminine man."
Of course, all of this just seems like a windup for Nick’s description of Jay Gatsby, whose smile he calls, "one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you might come across four or five times in your life."
"The Nick and Gatsby relationship is an interesting one to explore," Maguire allows, "because I’m looking through the eyes of Nick and searching through the book as Nick, and Nick in relationship to Gatsby in particular."
A key moment (improvised)
"The way we made the movie and the way the book is written," Maguire continues, "he’s looking back over his experiences, so there’s both the experiences in real time as he lived them and then Nick’s relationship to them later looking back through who Gatsby was to him personally and as an idea. That inspires Nick to go off into his own future, Gatsby had an agenda for Nick, but ultimately it unfolded into a real friendship, and perhaps Gatsby’s only friendship. That was very meaningful to Nick and I definitely have an affection for Leo, so it’s easy for me to have an affection for Gatsby as well."
"Can I add a tiny little thing to that?" Luhrmann can’t help asking even though Martin leans in ready to veto. "Only because these two gentleman cannot say this. It’s a little anecdote from our first day of shooting. It was in the flower scene and we were all very nervous because we were carrying a very heavy chalice and a great responsibility."
"It’s when Gatsby’s waiting with Nick for Daisy to arrive," Luhrmann continues, "and somewhere in there the nerves, the craziness, the flowers...too many? Too little? And I just thought, Wow, how are we gonna get going? So I put a locked camera on it, a wide shot, and just said, ’And action, you’re waiting for Daisy, but let’s not do the scene, let’s just improvise.’ So Leo says, ’The flowers are lovely, aren’t they?’ And Tobey says, ’Yes, yes.’ Then Leo says, ’Do you think it’s too much? And Tobey pauses and goes, ’I think it’s what you want.’"
"That moment was one of the purest and most connected moments in the film," Lurhmann sums, "and I think it came from the depth of relationship that existed before we began rehearsals. And it’s funny because it’s the first thing we ever shot and, for me, it’s one of the most truthful and wonderful moments in the film. So from a director’s point of view, there was a grand value in the depth of their friendship."
And it’s a friendship neither actor has been shy about trotting out into the lavender spotlight in order to promote this oft-delayed, 100 million dollar-plus prestige picture/summer blockbuster with accompanying lines at both Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. (These include a platinum Tiffany ring that will set the wearer back a Gatsby-ish sum of $875,000.)
In fact, the two recently appeared at the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles last month, DiCaprio to co-present an award with Charlize Theron, but Maguire to just stand around awkwardly with his wife backstage like a case of life imitating art before the threesome piled into Leo’s blacked-out Escalade at the end of the event, but certainly not the evening.
A truly American story
But if it’s Nick that gets the last word about Gatsby in the book, it’s DiCaprio who’s willing to open the discussion to a gay read on the relationship between his character and Nick. "Everyone has some connection to Gatsby as a character," DiCaprio admits, "he’s a character that has created himself according to his own imagination and dreams and lifted himself from his own bootstraps as a poor youth in the midwest and created this image that is The Great Gatsby."
"It’s a truly American story in that regard," DiCaprio continues, "here’s this emerging democracy that is America in the 1920s and he wants to emulate the Rockefellers of that time period. Of course, he creates his wealth in the underworld, but this is the new land that is America and it was a very exciting time. I think we can all relate to that dreamer in Gatsby, each one of us gets excited by the prospect of somebody that has, what’s the word? Ambition? Somebody that has that much ambition."
And even after he gets the girl, DiCaprio allows that Gatsby is still searching for something else. "One very telling sequence that we talked about a lot," DiCaprio explains, "takes place at Gatsby’s castle that he’s created in order to lure Daisy in. Nick notices that Gatsby’s holding her and yet he’s still staring out at that green light. He’s finally got her in his arms and yet he’s still searching for this thing that he thinks is going to complete him."
Nick’s last word
"And that was the Gatsby that I was incredibly excited about playing as an actor," DiCaprio continues. "As I got older, it took on new meaning and that’s what’s so incredible about this novel: everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these characters are, and that’s what’s very difficult about making a movie about it. Everyone has their own personal attachment to this book and they feel like they know these characters on a very intimate level. And, of course, when you’re making a movie you have to be much more specific."
But it’s Lurhmann who’s truly ready to take the bait on a gay Gatsby. "I used to come to set in the morning," he laughs, "and say, ’Please wake Mr. Gatsby. Mr. Luhrmann is ready to give him his close-up.’ And then a dozen servants would tap on Leo’s door and he would come down in a dressing gown and say, ’I’m ready.’"
But perhaps it’s only fitting to give Nick the final word on that readiness. When eulogizing Gatsby in the book, he recalls "a romantic readiness such that I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again."
The Great Gatsby is in theaters.
Watch the trailer to The Great Gatsby: