Leonardo DiCaprio, A Daring Romantic Hero in ‘The Great Gatsby’
“Really, it wasn’t difficult to think of someone! Hmmm, I don’t know—complex, romantic, dark, glamorous, great actor…”
Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom Luhrmann had worked on “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” and whom Luhrmann counted as a friend and collaborator, was the obvious choice.
“I’d read the book in junior high school and I was very moved by the story,” says DiCaprio of the project. “When I picked up the novel again, it was when Baz had handed me a copy and said, ‘I’ve got the rights to this.’ It was a very daunting concept; there was a responsibility to make a memorable film that will be forever connected with one of the greatest novels of all time.”
At first, everything we know about Gatsby is drawn from “the bizarre accusations that flavored the conversations in his halls”—he is the fabulous but mysterious party-giver, the man who drifted “coolly out of nowhere to buy a palace on Long Island,” who opens the towering doors to that palace each and every weekend to anyone and everyone, but who no one has actually met. That is, until he invites his new neighbor and the narrator of the story, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), to one of his lavish parties. This begins a chain of events through which Gatsby will ultimately reveal and be ruined by his romantic obsession, Nick’s cousin, “the golden girl” Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).
“What is eventually revealed is that Gatsby grew up poor. When he was younger, Gatsby had this grand vision for his life. And then, one day, he happens to fall in love with this girl, Daisy,” says Luhrmann. “He’d known other women, so he thought he might just take what he could get from her and go off to the war, and that it’d be nothing. But she’s this extraordinary girl and he gets hooked. He goes away to the war, and she promised to wait for his return, but then the rich and powerful Tom Buchanan sweeps in and steals her away. Gatsby loses his girl, comes back from the war penniless, and so begins his quest to erase and then repeat the past more in line with that grand vision he has always had for himself.”
Gatsby hopes to win Daisy back by “making something of himself.” His entire existence—the ostentatious mansion, the extravagant parties, the library full of books he’s never read, the hundreds of silk shirts he’s never worn, the flashy fast car—is an accumulation for which he cares not, but with which he intends to recapture Daisy’s heart.
“Gatsby is an incredible character to play,” acknowledges DiCaprio. “I think he’s very much the manifestation of the American dream, of imagining who you can become… and he does it all for the love of a woman. But even that is open to interpretation: Is Daisy just the manifestation of his dreams? Or is he really in love with this woman? I think that he’s a hopeless romantic but he’s also an incredibly empty individual searching for something to fill a void in his life.”
DiCaprio sought to bring new depth and an arresting darkness to his version of Gatsby—a version closer to the character in the novel. “When James West first saw footage of Leonardo as Gatsby, he said, ‘Now, this is Gatsby, Gatsby’s dark obsession, his absolutism,’” says Luhrmann, who adds, “He’s the Gatsby who will not let anyone rewrite the script he has written for his life.’”
Although Gatsby is a tragic figure, his “incorruptible dream” and his commitment to that dream, are what ultimately make him inspiring, “worth the whole damn bunch put together” in Nick’s eyes. “Nick realizes that Gatsby, for all his flaws, is ‘great’ because Jay Gatsby has a gift for hope that is unparalleled; even if it is ultimately out of reach or doomed, his purpose is pure and real,” says co-screenwriter Craig Pearce.
“Characters like Gatsby are inherently wedded to tragedy,” Luhrmann observes. “What they seek to attain is unattainable. And they don’t change. We know that Fitzgerald was a fan of Joseph Conrad’s `Heart of Darkness’ (1899), which has that Orpheus-like structure where an innocent journeys into the underworld and meets an iconic figure; the iconic figure, in the case of Gatsby, doesn’t transform, he lives and dies with ‘Daisy’ on his lips. In the process though, he inspires us mere mortals to be better, to transform ourselves, to look for a purposeful life. And Nick does. Nick begins the story turning his back on his artistic inclinations in order to focus on making money on Wall Street, but ultimately comes to the realization, through finally writing a story about this guy Gatsby, that he, too, must pursue a meaningful and purposeful life, as Gatsby did.”
And what is it that Nick gives to Gatsby?
“I think Nick is Gatsby’s only real friend in this world,” says DiCaprio. “And that’s shocking to Gatsby… he has no real friends. Nick is the one guy who actually takes an interest in him as an individual, and not as this sort of mega rich spectacle that is ‘Gatsby.’”
Opening across the Philippines on May 17 in Digital 3D and regular format, “The Great Gatsby” will be distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.
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