Thursday, September 5, 2013

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on ‘Gatsby' Golfer Jordan Baker)

“Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn't able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

I never got around to writing about the latest adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece when it was in the theaters. But did you think I’d pass up the chance to discuss it now that it’s on Blu-ray? Not a chance, old sport. 

Actually, I saw the film in its opening weekend—that’s how eager I was to see how Baz  Luhrmann, with his famously flamboyant visual style, treated what many (myself very much included) consider The Great American Novel. The Australian director’s past work—especially Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge—offered enough clues about how big his many risks can pay off, and how often they can descend into preposterous bombast.

I’ll end the suspense for you immediately, Faithful Reader: this was a sadly misguided adaptation, even though, as with the director’s prior work, it has many good things. On the plus side: Joel Edgerton, as Daisy Buchanan’s womanizing, old-money husband, Tom: buff, bullying, ignorant, insecure—a portrait well within the novelist’s conception of the character. On the minus side, the film’s perverse framing device: Nick Carraway writing and narrating his account of the title character from a sanitarium, where he is being treated for acute alcoholism.

(The novel not only had no such scenes, but not even an implication that this outsider had fallen victim to the same excesses as the era he chronicled. The device, of course, is a nod to Fitzgerald’s own physical and soul sickness, with even the name of the institution—Perkins—an allusion to his legendary Scribner’s editor, Max.)

Now, in the comfort of my home, I could listen to Luhrmann and his collaborators try to justify themselves. Alternatively, I could examine at length where they went wrong. But having opted, with regret, to fork over $4 more to watch their film in 3D, I’m not going to waste my time as well as money. Instead, I thought I would concentrate on one aspect of the movie: its treatment of golfer Jordan Baker. She provides a way to understand both Fitzgerald’s preoccupations and Luhrmann’s faulty understanding of them.

Filmmakers don’t seem to know what to make of Jordan, either physically or psychologically. Elliott Nugent’s 1949 version, starring the egregiously cast Alan Ladd in the title role, ended with Jordan (played by Ruth Hussey, who probably would have been better as Daisy) married to Nick. The 1974 version starring Robert Redford featured as Jordan the former model (and future James Bond girl) Lois Chiles, who thought that her relationship with Robert Evans would land her the role of Daisy (her subsequent flat line readings reveal why the latter possibility would have been even more disastrous for that film than the finished product was.) This time, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce have eliminated any hint at all of romance between the female golfer and Nick. One change to the novel is as misbegotten as the other.

One of the things that supposedly makes Gatsby unfilmable is Nick’s passivity, an observer rather than actor. His relationship with Jordan, in the novel, goes some way towards refuting that notion.

But the affair does not simply give Nick something to do when he is not reintroducing Gatsby and Daisy, and witnessing the course of their second time around. No, the Nick-Jordan affair serves as a counterpart to their friends.

From first to last, Gatsby is in thrall to his ecstatic vision of Daisy, leaving him not only a prisoner of love but a prisoner of illusion. On the other hand, Nick’s eye, even when it first catches of Jordan, notices something vaguely off-putting about her. Her shoulders are thrown back “like a young cadet” (echoing his wish, after returning from World War I, that the world could stand at “a sort of moral attention forever”). He enjoys looking at her, he admits, but by the third adjective of his description of her “wan, charming, discontented” face, the sense of a dying fall hangs over every letter in the passage. In fact, it colors the reader’s view of her throughout the rest of the book.

Daisy is soft, girlish, flirty, even with her cousin Nick, a 1920s example of an evergreen type: the Southern belle, used to getting her way around men. None of that for Jordan. Hers is a “hard, jaunty body,” almost androgynous, signaling a new type of woman (or, at least, one noticed for the first time) in the Roaring Twenties: “fast.” (Indeed, even her name is a compound of two car models of the time.)

In a time that allowed American women greater freedom than ever before, Jordan equals in intelligence virtually any man she comes in contact with—and certainly Tom Buchanan, whose boorishness provides her (and Fitzgerald) with some of the novel’s slyest satiric passages.

But all that intelligence might not be enough. Immediately, on first acquaintance, Nick vaguely recalls hearing about her somewhere. It’s only later that he figures out where: in the papers, and the subsequent rumors that she was “incurably dishonest.” She avoids “clever, shrewd men” because they might figure out that she is not genuine.

The Great Gatsby is so densely packed with colors, symbols and allusions that it’s easy to overlook Fitzgerald’s use of sports as a vehicle to suggest encroaching corruption in everyday life in America. As a Princeton undergrad, he had tried out for the football team; his school’s football and hockey star, Hobey Baker, became his beau ideal of an athlete of enormous personal and athletic grace (as I described in a prior post); and 20 years later, down on his luck in Hollywood, he continued to follow the fortunes of his alma mater on the gridiron. (He appears to have based Jordan on Edith Cummings, a Chicago socialite who parlayed her golf skills and beauty into a reputation as "The Fairway Flapper"--and the first appearance of a female athlete on the cover of Time Magazine.)

Fitzgerald was the type of person, then, who should have been predisposed to think of the Roaring Twenties—the era of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, and Red Grange—as the so-called “Golden Age of Sports.” But perhaps this worship of athletes only raised his antenna about anything that could corrode the purity of sports.

And so, his great novel includes a rumor about Meyer Wolfsheim (widely believed to be based on gangster Arnold Rothstein) helping to “throw” the 1919 World Series; polo star Tom Buchanan using his “cruel” body to dominate his wife and mistress; and Jordan’s cheating to posit that not even sports, a realm where grace and dedication can shine, is beyond the moral malaise overtaking all other aspects of American life.

“It takes two to make an accident,” Jordan tells Nick in the quarrel that precipitates their breakup, as she tries to deflect some of the responsibility for the end of the relationship. The remark weighs especially heavily coming after the traffic accident that, in effect, seals Gatsby’s doom.

But both parties are not necessarily equally at fault in such matters, and certainly not in the one that kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. It is Daisy, not Gatsby, driving the vehicle that runs over Myrtle, yet Tom takes control of Daisy for good (and camouflages the evidence of his affair from Myrtle’s cuckolded, heartsick, not deranged husband) by claiming that Gatsby was behind the wheel.

Jordan’s silent complicity with the Buchanans is yet another signal that, despite their differences in temperament, she shares their poverty of values. (An earlier hint came in her first scene, when she turns to Nick and remarks, snobbishly, "You live in West Egg.”) In the end, the “incurably dishonest” female golfer is not that different from the two “careless people” who earn Nick’s disapproval.

(The image accompanying this post shows Elizabeth Debick, the actress playing Jordan Baker in the Baz Luhrmann adaptation. The director got Jordan's look fine--which makes it all the more astonishing that he got her function in the novel so wrong.)

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