“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy. F. Scott Fitzgerald
The fourth film version of The Great Gatsby is out. This may as well be only the second version, since the first, a 1926 silent with the debonair Warner Baxter as Gatsby and the equally debonair William Powell as George Wilson is ‘lost,’ as they say–a victim of studio carelessness in preservation at a time when film stock was silver nitrate-based (thus, ‘the silver screen’), unstable and highly combustible. It’s safe to say that no one now alive has seen it, or at least remembers it.
The actual second version was the 1949 film with Alan Ladd as Gatsby and Shelly Winters as Myrtle Wilson. Howard Da Silva plays her husband, George, and would play Meyer Wolfsheim in the third version, made in 1974–the one most of us know as the definitive Gatsby– with Robert Redford in the title role, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Sam Waterston as Nick. The screenwriter was Francis Ford Coppola, by the way, fresh from his Godfather successes. The 1949 film still exists (a new print was struck from the negative last year), but because of copyright issues, is not allowed to be distributed.
This new Gatsby is perpetrated, I mean directed, by the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrman. Far from deepening the Gatsby story for me, watching it just made me dizzy. But, maybe because of this version’s pushy obviousness, I was struck by the story’s resemblance in theme to the Orson Welles classic, Citizen Kane (1941).
The similarities came home to me with one tragic word, uttered at the end of the story by the protagonist in the crushing moment when he realizes he will never have what has been eluding him all his life. In that one word is the whole goal and prize, the grail, the promise of the future and recovery of the past; it is that which has given meaning, he sees in a flash, to his entire existence. For Jay Gatsby, it is ‘Daisy!’–for Charles Foster Kane, it is ‘Rosebud!’
Both Gatsby and Kane have been called “great American”: Gatsby the great American novel, Kane the great American film. But there is nothing particularly American about the idea that our lives often are borne upon the wave of a singular hope…and not a solid, rational hope, at that.
Charles Foster Kane, torn away from a snowy but idyllic childhood and his famous sled, is thrust into the world of money and loses his innocence. Irretrievably. At the end of his life he understands that what he has wanted most, beyond the statues and paintings and ‘the biggest private zoo since Noah,’ is the time before he was extracted from hearth and home, however humble. He has wanted to go back to the past, and live there.
Money comes to Jay Gatsby a bit later in the form of a small inheritance from his millionaire boss, which he uses to amass considerable wealth. The money corrupts Gatsby as thoroughly as Kane’s fortune corrupts him. But it isn’t the money as such that corrupts; it is the dream of hope that money can fuel. As a young soldier, he had fallen in love with Daisy, but she had passed him over to marry the scion of an ‘old rich’ family. Now the wildly rich Gatsby uses his affluence to build a world around him that will impress Daisy and win her back to him.
He’s become nuts over it, and Nick tries to pry him from his dangerous delusion. But Gatsby persists: ‘Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!’
Well, no, not really. Not any more than Kane can return to a time before he was snatched away from his mother in the mountains of Colorado. This is what makes both stories tragedies, the greater the delusion, the greater the tragedy.
Why Gatsby and Kane persist in the collective imagination (Citizen Kane is consistently voted the greatest film of all time by critics) may signal something in us that yearns for the one thing we can never have. Can this hopeless trait in our common psychological DNA be what makes us truly human? If so, then maybe the great tragedies of art are given to us as reminders of our essential human nature–that though we are made ‘a little less than the angels,’ we are prone nonetheless to believe ourselves angelic.
We have been warned, but still we strive for the unattainable…in the hope….
Gatsby’s green light across the bay may be the evergreen of eternal spring, the liturgical color for hope; it is also the sign for ‘Go!’