Friday, September 13, 2013


I saw Leonardo DiCaprio as The Great Gatsby.  I liked the movie but I didn't love it.            
That's not the actors' fault.  I didn't love it for the same reason I didn't love Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, two films also directed by Baz Luhrmann.  He gets in the way of his actors.  I wish he would trust his talented casts enough to let them carry the action.  I wish he'd stop overdoing the manic MTV music video-style of editing coupled with all the stuff he loves to pack into a frame.  I told a friend that Moulin Rouge! was like a Hollywood rummage sale with musical numbers.  I could tell he was trying to modernize the movie musical.  He tried to modernize The Bard with his 1996 Romeo + Juliet starring DiCaprio and Claire Danes.  It was too obvious that Luhrmann was out to woo young audiences by making the classic tale seem more Billy Shakespeare than William Shakespeare.  

There are three words that do not exist in the Baz Luhrmann directing style:  "Less is more."  His movies are visually stunning but the visuals eclipse the actors' work.  The visuals scream "THIS is a Baz Luhrmann production!"  To me, his version of Shakespeare's tragic love story was not as memorable and satisfying as the more faithful-to-period Paramount Pictures adaption, a box office hit in 1968 starring young actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Juliet.
Luhrmann's contemporary version didn't linger in my heart like an earlier modernization, one with wonderful music.  This was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961, the screen adaptation of the Broadway musical drama, West Side Story -- a modernization of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet now set in a racially divided New York City.

Then came Moulin Rouge!  Baz threw in more and bigger party scenes, more props and a jukebox soundtrack.  It had songs from previously made 20th Century Fox musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Sound of Music, the theme from the 1950s Fox movie drama Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing plus tunes by Dolly Parton, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Sting.  He even threw in "Nature Boy," a song that was a big hit record for Nat King Cole in 1948.  Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent made this familiar love story work.  The movie was pure eye-candy.

Luhrmann loves opulent party scenes.  He adores an extended extravaganza with festive extras.  If he wore a metal codpiece while directing one of those scenes,  his crotch would be clanging like Big Ben at high noon.  He's so overly stimulated when giving us a party sequence.  In many ways, this Leonardo DiCaprio movie could be called Moulin Gatsby!

When we finally see the mysterious character called The Great Gatsby, he's against a backdrop of fireworks with a full orchestra at his colossal party majestically playing George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.  What a party.  However, the action takes place in 1922.  Gershwin's composition, Rhapsody in Blue, was premiered in a 1924 concert.  "Let's Misbehave" by Cole Porter is the background song played to introduce us to Myrtle, the woman having an affair with Daisy's husband.  "Let's Misbehave" was written in 1927.

When Moulin Rouge! was released, Luhrmann told an entertainment journalist that he was greatly influenced by master director of Hollywood musicals, Vincente Minnelli.  I beg you, Baz.  Watch the classic Minnelli musicals and learn.  Watch that big gem in the crown of MGM musicals, The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant as performers trying to put together a hit for Broadway.  That is, if they're not done in by the "creativity" of their lovably egotistical director.  As one overwhelmed stagehand complains to the director (delightfully played by Jack Buchanan), "You got more scenery in this show than there is in Yellowstone National Park!"

Someone needed to say that line from The Band Wagon to director Baz Luhrmann.

Director Jeffrey Cordova, wearing a red cape and acting as the play's narrator, overloaded the show during out-of-town rehearsals because of his hunger for stylized visuals and special effects.  For his two stars, it was like trying to dance in a funhouse.
Jeffrey had to learn that less is more.  It's a funny scene.  Later, director Vincente Minnelli shows what made him a master of movie musicals with the simple, elegant and memorable "Dancing in the Dark" number performed by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  Notice that he doesn't cut every five seconds to another shot.  The dance tells a story.  It's a revelation of character.  It takes us to another level of the story.  Minnelli does not get in the way of his actors.  He lets you see and experience their artistry.

It's an old phrase but the "Dancing in the Dark" number truly is poetry in motion.  And that's followed by "The Girl Hunt" jazz ballet with this iconic movie musical moment.
Notice that these brilliant numbers are not chock full o' background actors, set decorations and special effects.

During another Luhrmann party sequence with another big, thick bottle ejaculating champagne into the eye of the camera, I thought to myself "This isn't about Jay Gatsby at all.  Or Daisy Buchanan."
I thought, "It's not even about F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This is all about Baz Luhrmann."
It's rich and delicious eye-candy but I'm hungry for a good meaty script.  The Australian director's adaptation of a story about American excess was excessive.

Think of Vincente Minnelli's party scenes in Gigi, the neurotic waltz ordered by Louis Jourdan's character for Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary, Esther's party at home with family and friends in Meet Me in St. Louis, the artists and models ball in An American in Paris and the Hollywood party at the beginning of The Bad and the Beautiful.  Those scenes had style and substance.

DiCaprio worked hard.  He's a good Gatsby but not a great Gatsby.  Rarely has DiCaprio been photographed with such romantic, Old School Hollywood love.  He looks like a movie star here.  But, Baz's attachment to MTV music video-style editing works against the actor.  Let me go back to Minnelli.  The "Dancing in the Dark" number from The Band Wagon, Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis and Lana Turner's auto-hysterics in The Bad and the Beautiful are not chopped up with fast, frantic cuts every three to five seconds like in music videos we saw in the 1980s and '90s.  Why?  Because the main purpose of many music videos was marketing. The videos sold an artist's image, the music, and product in the video such as clothing, jewelry and champagne.  Think of how brilliant Madonna was at marketing herself in music videos.  She was a master of reinventing her image in those videos, a master at selling her new music.  Compare the raves for those to her overall film acting career (Shanghai Surprise, Dick Tracy, Body of Evidence, Evita, Swept Away).  Playing a character and sharing a dramatic scene with someone else is different.  Just ask Best Actress Oscar winner, CBS TV star and pop music diva, Cher.  The purpose of a Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Judy Garland musical number is to reveal character and emotion.  Luhrmann cuts his film like a music video.  That makes much of The Great Gatsby seem less like F. Scott Fitzgerald and more like a dazzling long-form Chanel for Men commercial.
Carey Mulligan was so right for the Daisy role and yet you didn't come away thinking "Best Actress nomination" like you did when you saw her in An Education.  I feel that she and DiCaprio needed something more from the screenplay, which was co-written by the director, Baz Luhrmann.  I don't know if Baz had a full grasp of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story.  Here he is guiding his two lead stars, DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.
Tobey Maguire played Nick Carraway, the narrator and Gatsby's friend.  For one-third of his performance, he's a wide-eyed man-child in a reckless big money wonderland.  He does wide-eyed very well.  And, in this film, often.
There was one performance in The Great Gatsby that made me go "Wow."  It made me watch the movie a second time.  I gave the actor a mention in my previous blog piece.  Joel Edgerton co-starred with Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2005 comedy.  As the charming young gent who inherited a shoe factory, he just couldn't master the art of walking in Kinky Boots as gracefully as the drag queen, Lola, had.  But he tried.

He sports a much more butch pair of boots as the wealthy, brutish, unfaithful Tom Buchanan, husband of Daisy Buchanan.  Gatsby is in love with Daisy.

Joel Edgerton owned that role.  His physical carriage, his vocal cadence, his grooming.  He fully got Tom Buchanan.

Joel Edgerton is excellent as the privileged bully in The Great Gatsby.  He deserves Best Supporting Actor Oscar consideration for that performance.

I've got more notes on Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby that I'll put in future piece.  In closing this one, let me just wish once more that he spends a weekend watching, paying close attention to and learning from Hollywood classics directed by Vincente Minnelli.  If he really has been influenced by Minnelli, it has yet to show.  With his penchant for overhead shots, visually stunning yet often overstuffed musical numbers and women meeting a tragic end, he's more like a modern Busby Berkeley.  Look at the title number in 42nd Street (1933), Berkeley's "No More Love" number in Roman Scandals (1933) and, most famously, his "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggers of 1935.

In Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby you get young love, a female's tragic death, fabulous fashion statements and great big colorful party scenes.  In fact, they get bigger with each picture.  You have the feeling that Baz is off-camera shouting to the background actors, "Faster, Pussycat!  Dance!  Dance!"  Did you see it?
I'm convinced that by scaling back, taking the attention off himself and putting it on his good actors, Baz Luhrmann could stretch himself as a director.

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