Three years ago, Baz Luhrmann adapted Gatsby for the screen. This is an analysis of the book with some of the 2013 movie. Spoilers. Obviously.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a trippy novella about bad drivers on Long Island.
Taking place during the 1920s, Gatsby is the story of a poor boy named James Gatz (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant). He reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, becomes a soldier, and falls for a rich girl named Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Far from the Madding Crowd). Daisy turns him down for Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass), who’s a domineering but affluent ball of testosterone. Tom cheats on her like crazy.
The story is narrated by a half-lucid Midwesterner named Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire, The Amazing Spider Man).
Nick lives next door to Gatsby, who’s still in love with Daisy, who’s still married to Tom, who fools around with Myrtle (Isla Fischer, Now You See Me), who keeps this from her husband, who sells cars and practically doesn’t exist.
Luhrmann’s use of modern music, including pop and hip hop, was apt because it upped the feeling of raciness. Everything in this swinging, bootlegging world is edgy and new. Women are driving and voting. Jazz has been born. The economy is booming. For the first time in U.S. history, more people live in cities than on farms. Everything is defiant, changing, surreal, and half-formed. This stylized look at the twenties feels like a metaphor for adolescence. (I love that they got Jay Z in on prohibition.)
Catherine: Half Truth and Outright Lies
Speaking of half-formed, let’s talk about Catherine. That’s Myrtle’s sweaty sister. Obviously, when you go from a book to a movie, plenty has to change, but Catherine’s tone and aesthetic were not altered–they were developed. In the book, the main detail Nick notices about Cat is her eyebrows. They’ve been plucked off and “redrawn at a more rakish angle.” But stubble of her real eyebrows is growing in, making her face appear blurred. This effect is achieved beautifully in the film.
When I first analyzed the book, I figured the eyebrows were symbolic. (Bear with me.) Catherine’s character is, from the beginning, associated with falsehood.
When we first see her, she is in her element, flirting and swapping gossip. She plants herself on Nick’s lap and gives him the gory details of Daisy and Tom’s upcoming divorce. (Tom made all this up to pacify Myrtle.) Catherine is a vessel of Tom’s dishonesty. She gets cozy and conspiratorial with Nick right when they’re introduced, resulting in a kind of fake intimacy. She is offered a drink during the visit but says she feels “just as good on nothing at all.” She promptly gets bombed.
Later on, when Gatsby’s car rips Myrtle in half, Catherine, as her sister, is notified. She lies excessively about Myrtle’s life, more than supporting Myrtle’s lies, while crying and seeming to believe it all. The police take her statement and shove off. I think that the blurred appearance of Catherine’s forehead symbolizes the blurred state of her mind. She doesn’t know what’s real. Maybe this quality manifests in her hedonism. Maybe her perception goes through a filter to maximize her pleasure. She might not see reality as objective anymore.
What the movie did for Catherine was to make her character and her turf more visceral. She always has this intense look on her face–lips flushed, eyes narrowed, and, like I said, she sweats. Her skin shines with it. Her makeup blurs around her eyes. This suits the smothering, over-heated sensuality of Myrtle’s apartment.
Myrtle: Aliveness as Domination
In the book, Myrtle in her apartment is described as seeming to increase in size, to take up more space and become louder, as the apartment itself shrinks. She is dominant over her guests and even over the space. Nick sees Myrtle as having ‘vitality’—a smoldering aliveness and sensuality. She “wore her excess flesh sensuously, as some women can,” and seems to walk right through her husband, when she first greets Nick and Tom. Her husband, Wilson, barely exists. He is a weak, unintelligent ghost of a person. He’s never even suspected her affair, and she’s been obvious about it. Myrtle is sick of him.
Tom is power; Tom is masculinity. He dominates Nick and Wilson, and just about everyone but Daisy. Daisy is soft-spoken, subtle, fragile, and manipulative, and she wraps him around her little finger. In their little domestic drama, Daisy plays an archetypal woman. She has no overt power, so, to keep control of Tom, she uses guilt and his desire for her. Both husband and wife treat each other like children.
Tom dominates Myrtle, too. Having no other way to channel all that macho energy that Daisy finds uncivilized, he takes it out on his mistress. She’s the bad girl; she doesn’t deserve the respect his wife gets. So he yells at her and breaks her nose when she gets sassy with him.
But Myrtle respects this. She tells us (adoringly) of the time she met Tom. They met on a train and she kept staring at him. He knew she wanted him, so, when she played coy and told him to get lost, he stayed put. He pushed his luck, practically forcing her to get into a cab with him, and she loved every second of it. Myrtle isn’t a masochist, exactly, but she does associate masculinity with dominance. You see this clearly when Wilson finds out about the affair and locks her in her room. (About time he put two and two together.) “Beat me!” she screams, banging on the door. “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!”
She thinks Wilson is weak because he doesn’t know how to put her in her place. She sees herself as a second class citizen, and she wants a leader, not an equal.
But it doesn’t end with masculinity. She has “vitality,” she’s hedonistic, and, as evidenced by the “sensuous excess flesh” thing, she lives life IN HER BODY. This suits the physical nature of Tom’s assertiveness over Myrtle and the immediate physicality their affair. She is very much alive. Life connects with her through visceral physical sensations. This brings a horrible sense of pay-off to her death. It had to end violently, physically. Can you imagine Myrtle dying of old age in her bed? Yeah, me neither.
I think Myrtle associates aliveness with domination. She’s living life to the fullest, so she gets to boss everybody around. Tom outdoes her; he has more daring and physical power, so he’s the top dog. Again, Gatsby’s car smashing into her and tearing her body open exemplifies this. Car beats Myrtle. Myrtle beats Wilson. She lives her life on a food chain.
Jordan Baker: Change
More than any character in the film, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) stands for the changing times. She is a professional golfer and in her element in the morally ambiguous glamor of the ‘20s.
In the book and, less overtly, in the film, Jordan is Nick Carraway’s girlfriend. But their dynamic in the movie is not that of traditional couples.
Jordan is more assertive than Nick; she dominates their interaction and is even more imposing, physically. Debicki is elegant, feminine, and 6’3 to Tobey McGuire’s 5’5. She towers over him, more at ease in the racy new world. Nick has more old-fashioned values and is easier to shock (like when Jordan tells him at the dinner table that Tom has “got some woman”).
But their relationship ends (more overtly in the book). Nick rejects Jordan, sick of her and the lifestyle she and the Buchanans stand for. Nick notes disdainfully that “there were several she could have married at the nod of her head.” But Jordan wants Nick. She says at one point in the book that she and Nick are both different. She sees something in common with him, something she can respect. But he dumps her and leaves for the Midwest. So, maybe this new-era woman doesn’t come out on top after all.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. This is also true for Gatsby.
Gatsby and Myrtle: Getting Above Themselves
Gatsby goes from destitute and invisible to famous and obscenely wealthy, completing this transformation while still in his prime. He shows how far an American can go in the ‘20s. But Gatsby is punished for his rise to wealth and power. He dies in his own swimming pool.
Gatsby is shot by Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, who is a much poorer man–just as Myrtle is punished for daring to believe Tom Buchanan would marry her.
Myrtle pretends to be a grand hostess when Tom comes over, just as Gatsby plays the royal host at his mansion, hoping that Daisy will show up at one of his parties. Myrtle and Gatsby both come from modest backgrounds and try to reach above them. Both end up dead.
Myrtle is killed by Gatsby’s luxurious car, driven by Daisy. Gatsby takes the fall for her. Daisy gets off scot free, having taken out her competition without even realizing it. Daisy was born into privilege. She has what Tom calls “breeding.” This entitles her to win. Daisy does everything wrong but always comes out on top.
- She rejects the man she loves because he’s poor. He comes running after her, wealthy, to give her a second chance.
- She cheats on her husband with her now-rich lover. Her husband forgives her, and when she chooses Tom over Gatsby, Gatsby promptly dies.
- She accidentally kills her husband’s mistress, and Gatsby takes the blame.
That’s her birthright.
The same goes for Tom. He cheats on his wife and abuses his mistress, and he walks away unscathed. Even Wilson is a casualty of Tom’s selfishness. Myrtle’s deception of Wilson by cheating with Tom drives Wilson to a murder/suicide. Myrtle and Tom are equally culpable, but only Myrtle suffers for it. Daisy and Gatsby are equally culpable, but only Gatsby suffers for it.
The poor are sacrificed on the altar of the rich. The more things change, the more things stay the same.