Film Column: What Baz? What Gatsby?
Originally published in The Lifted Brow Issue 18.
Move the glittering marketing collateral aside, step over the empty bottles from endless inspired cocktail menus, bypass the clutter of arguing reviewers, and you’ll find a quiet nook of the Gatsby party that’s obsessing over the “Australianness” of the film. Amid the cacophony of chatter, some are singing about stats and local records being smashed, toasting to “Our Gatsby’s” $6.789 million opening weekend. Others are having less fun, grumbling about taxpayer dollars with clenched hands in their hip pockets, decrying the fiscal absurdity of the federal government investing $40 million (plus) in the blockbuster. Then there are the few who stare out the window and—like Nick Carraway—right back in, wistfully wondering how Sydney became New York with such flair.
Any which way you hear it, between the lines or explicitly, you’ll find it whispered again and again: just how Australian is Baz Luhrmann’s latest?
Let’s be clear for the numbers game: Baz Luhrmann is an Australian expat. His version of The Great Gatsby was shot in Sydney and it qualified for the Producer Offset incentive, so received federal funds via Screen Australia. The government screen funding body stipulates that in order to qualify for the tax offset, a film must satisfy their “Significant Australian Content” (SAC) test. These have become buzzwords in the surrounding dialogue, positioned as the antithesis to another three words related to Gatsby: The American Dream. Here, the economic SAC versus cultural TAD debate rages like Jay Gatsby’s parties because F Scott Fitzgerald’s original text is one from the Yankee Doodle Canon while the money comes from us/Oz.
Fitzgerald’s masterwork inherently salutes the American dream myth as if it were the Star Spangled Banner so it’s an audacious prospect that an Australian—an Australian—would appropriate the text for screen.
But wait, is Luhrmann even classified as an Australian anymore? What even is ‘Australia’? I mean, we all complained—the entire population of Earth complained—when he made Australia, a film that could be deemed Orstrayian to the point of caricature, with faces and places (and a revisionist history) flying off the souvenir tea towel and onto the silver screen.
But Baz has a point. He says, “Hollywood has been taking foreign books for years—War and Peace, anyone? Russia’s greatest novel. The Thornbirds?—and making them in their home territory. There’s nothing wrong with that…”
Then there are questions around international release and marketing—why was Australia one of the last territories to see the film? And so questions unfold, arguments unravel, becoming equal parts parochial and complex.
Let’s take a breath and consider that perhaps this can be written off as a community boon, that increase in employment can override the fact we saw it after 53 other countries and the drink of choice is Moët and not VB? Maybe, just maybe, we can let it slide when it’s deemed an Australian film? I mean, I thought we were allies! It’s a small global world after all; can’t we just get along.
To me, The Great Gatsby is a glamorous Australian Hollywood film that I, an Australian, saw in a Melbourne cinema shortly after its release. And yes, my personal Australianness—for lack of a better word—definitely informed my viewing experience, but not for reasons national pride. Rather, I was distracted by the many Australian actors in the film; I felt like I could see my house from the front row of the cinema, processing and comprehending the film like a game of Your Own Backyard Bingo or Where’s Wally, if Wally was that water-wasting terry towel clad bogan from those mid-80s ads. (‘Don’t be a Wally with water!’ Useless fact: Wally’s neighbour is called Baz in the campaign.)
Unlike Australia, there wasn’t a sickening dose of tourism thrust upon me while watching Gatsby. This was a more participatory viewing experience; there was less resistance as I took a personal tour through my knowledge of Australian performers and pop culture. All audiences are active consumers, and star studies remind us that each Big Name actor brings the connotations of their constructed public personas as well as the provenance of the roles they’ve played before. When a champagne-wielding DiCaprio appeared as Gatsby, I thought of Jack from Titanic (1997) (and couldn’t help but reflect on his characters’ knack for dying in bodies of water). I saw the heartbroken girl from An Education (2009) in the disenchanted gleam of Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) eye. And it’s hard to feel like Tobey Maguire will ever step away from the shadow of Peter Parker and Spiderman (2002), particularly when he continues to take on similarly insipid characters like Nick Carraway.
But more often than not, I was distracted by the many local faces that appeared, because if the Australian content is significant anywhere in Luhrmann’s Gatsby, it’s in the barrage of local actors flickering about onscreen, which clung to my retinas like glitter on skin. I found myself pondering their positions in the narrative with ultra-curiosity; I was deliberately comparing their roles in Gatsby to those held in the local scene, scrutinising their performances in relation to their wider antipodean—and on some occasions international—slate.
The main Australian players are Isla Fisher and Joel Edgerton. Having watched her role as Rebel Alley in the Arrested Development Netflix revival prior to Gatsby, I was having a Fisher week. With her international star on the rise, her turn as Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, is a slight departure from previous roles. Known for her turns in light rom-coms—Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic—her comedic aptitude brings some lightness to a relatively dark and depressing character. As a secondary player pivotal to the plot, Fisher’s Myrtle attributes humour, while oozing a serious sadness and sexuality that, sashaying across the screen, is a perfectly hyperbolic fit for a Luhrmann film.
Myrtle’s particularly brand of fun-loving recklessness—notable during the apartment party sequence—helps step up the sense of excess.
Also featuring Australian Adelaide Clemens as her sister and fellow party girl Catherine, the apartment party is one of the best sequences in the film. A micro-bottle episode, shaken til it bursts with exuberance and hedonism (a technique called upon in the climactic Plaza Hotel sequence where the tension explodes in a dramatic reveal). There’s something particularly endearing about watching Fisher—the artist formerly known as Home and Away’s ginger brat Shannon Reed—work her melodramatic chops, pointedly flouncing around the apartment as the flashy and trashy Myrtle. Between this role and Rebel Alley, Fisher has graduated from an elflike student of Summer Bay High to hello-sailor sexuality.
Likewise I have a fondness for Edgerton, forever Will from Secret Life of Us, and enjoyed his hulking brutishness as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. Tom felt like a cartoon jock—typifying Luhrmann’s vision—dominating the screen with an apt bravado that verged on the stupidity next to Gatsby or Nick. Most impressive was recent VCA graduate Elizabeth Debicki playing Jordan Baker, who seemed to strut straight off Fitzgerald’s page and into Luhrmann’s film. An unknown Australian with masculine beauty, she was majestically akin to Fitzgerald’s stern yet alluring golf star to the point that I felt like Debicki had been handpicked from my imagination as a reader, years before Luhrmann’s vision was in the works.
However, it was the lesser-known actors that contributed to my viewing experience the most. Having read (and enjoyed) Brendan Maclean’s “Gatsby Diaries” essay about his time on set as the freeloader Klipspringer, I was geared up for that moment, equipped with added anecdotes and a knowing ‘behind the scenes’ nod that was fun and educational but also impeded on my viewing virginity. I found myself watching out for model/actor Gemma Ward’s single line with more intensity than it deserved, and contemplated exactly what I’d seen Jason Clarke in between this and Stingers. I silently mused how Teen Jay Gatsby (Callan McAuliffe) was going to do big things, having already notched Cloudstreet, a stint with Rob Reiner and now Gatsby on his eighteen-year old belt. And was and was always (forever) waiting for Jack Thompson to slip up his American accent. But Vince Colosimo threw me most; a local leading man, his Great Gatsby character Michaelis was a shadow in Luhrmann’s version. His lingering presence and singular line felt paradoxical to his usual abrupt and present persona to the point that it was odd, distracting and unintentionally humorous.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m familiar enough with the tale, having re-read the classic novel on numerous occasions that I didn’t lose a sense of what was happening in the plot, but these distractions at once detracted and enhanced my individual experience of the film. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the many Australian performers, and my pervasive awareness of this hyperactive spectatorship is partially because when you know you’re writing on a film, you’re eager to find threads to use while critiquing. But that’s not really the case; this piece wasn’t yet commissioned, and friends have had the same experience.
Luhrmann’s style is to highlight the melos in melodrama, with bombastic set pieces, blasting scores and, well, over the top everything. It’s a pompous format but doesn’t take itself too seriously, so was inevitable that his treatment of Gatsby was less earnest than Fitzgerald’s original (for this among many other reasons). Luhrmann’s Gatsby was knowingly kitsch and—even his characterisation of Gatsby himself—surprisingly humorous, there are elements of slapstick harkening to Moulin Rouge’s excessive flair. The most confusing and distracting Australian face that popped up on screen however was Baz Luhrmann himself. Not exactly the Hitchcock, this lack of subtly—positioning him as a waiter in close up—epitomises his style. So why not have a bit of fun – after all, Australian’s are good at being self-deprecating. And he is Australian after all…isn’t he?