Sunday, June 10, 2007

Cinéma Jamais: The Great Gatsby

Watched the Cary Grant Great Gatsby this weekend. You can see why he won the Oscar for it, it’s the darkest thing he ever did, darker even than Suspicion and Notorious, and certainly the bleakest thing George Cukor ever directed, even including A Double Life. Orson Welles wasn't far off when he said, "If any movie deserves the title Heart of Darkness, it's this one." Everybody in it is a user -- Gatsby uses Nick to get to Daisy, Daisy uses Gatsby to get back at Tom, and Nick and Jordan use each other to get back at Daisy and Gatsby, because the way Gatsby constantly comes between Daisy and Jordan (which is shot-for-shot the way Daisy comes between Nick and Gatsby) gives the two rejected "friends" something to get a lot more passionate about than each other, which is probably why Nick and Jordan only kiss twice in this movie, once after Jordan bitches about Daisy and once after Nick rails against Gatsby. Jordan even tells Nick he's "the other woman" in so many words, and the look on Jimmy Stewart's face when Ruth Hussey says it is priceless. 

It's a commonplace now to say that you can see the seeds of Vertigo and the Anthony Mann westerns in Stewart's Nick, but what the original audience saw when the movie first came out was poor decent Jimmy playing second banana once again to suave Cary Grant, only this time it wasn't heart-warming and funny, it was bitter and disturbing, because decent and suave turn out to be the veneer on top of resentment and cruelty, like the shiny red skin on a wormy apple that's dark inside. Rotten dark inside. (Have I mentioned this movie's dark?) Plus when you look at it from a certain angle, it's the closest Cukor ever came to being honest about his own sexuality on film. As practically every French critic worth his sel has pointed out, the world of this Gatsby is a male preserve which is constantly under siege by the opposite sex, with the men always keeping to their mansions until one by one they’re lured outdoors and picked off by women who float in pools like lily pads and play croquet on golf-course-wide front lawns and appear out of the evening fog like threatening reefs, all of which gives the film more gay subtext than the Montgomery Clift/John Ireland gun scene in Red River

The film is dark visually too, thanks to John Alton’s stunning cinematography.  The constant play of deep shadow against bright light, the fog scenes, the three-shot of Daisy between Nick and Gatsby where Nick is lit from the front, Gatsby is lit from below, and Daisy is glowing from three different light sources at once -- all classic Alton. And the justly-famous deep focus shot of Nick and Jordan in the love seat, with Jordan telling Nick all about Jay Gatz while between their heads Gatsby slowly walks out of the West Egg fog with Daisy and then sweeps her up like they’re crossing a threshold, is still one of the most stunning uses of shadow and light in cinema. (There’s an obvious echo of it in the Alton-shot section of American in Paris, when Gene Kelly sweeps Leslie Caron into his arms in the misty fountain dance. But that one’s in color, which is not the same thing.)

The DVD has a great little documentary on the history of the film. I didn’t know, for instance, that Cukor directed the original stage play of Gatsby in ’26 and then got passed over for the silent film version when he couldn’t strike a deal with Famous Players Lasky. Or that (believe it or not) elegant William Powell, who plays Tom Buchanan in the Cukor version, actually played auto mechanic George Wilson in the ’26 film. Or that Cukor's version was originally planned as a casting sequel to Philadelphia Story, reuniting Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey and Katharine Hepburn, but Hepburn passed because she didn’t want Daisy to be at the wheel for the hit and run, and when MGM demanded that Cukor change the ending so that Gatsby lives and Daisy goes to jail, Cukor and Grant got independent financing and went hunting for a female lead. Luckily, they only had to look as far as Jimmy Stewart’s girlfriend.

The picture that used to be behind the bar at Daisy Buchanan's in Boston.

Gatsby is Cary Grant’s Oscar, but it's Martha Vickers' movie. She had just finished filming The Big Sleep, where she watched all her scenes cut to the bone because she was stealing the film out from under Lauren Bacall, and she was angry and hurt and had a fiercely determined “I’ll show you!” chip on her shoulder. Her screen test is lost, but there are archival interviews with people who saw it and never forgot it. Her performance in the movie is on the same level as watching Rita Hayworth in Gilda: when Vickers is on-screen, you cannot take your eyes off her. She’s warm, she’s distant, she’s wounded, she's invulnerable, and she is totally, alluringly crazy, but it’s not the babydoll-psycho craziness of Carmen Sternwood, it’s the kind of crazy that’s half-wild and the kind of wild that every guy in the world thinks that he alone can tame. The look on her face in the driving scene just before the hit and run, that sixty-second close-up of her smiling with the wind in her hair that seems to last forever until she finally licks her lower lip and you hear the thud of Myrtle's body hitting the car? If you could teach a panther how to operate a stick shift, this is how it would run over gazelles. You watch that and you think, “Wow!” and then she goes and tops it in the scene where she tells Wilson that it was Gatsby at the wheel when his wife was killed. It’s a major departure from the book -- in the novel, Tom Buchanan tells Wilson it was Gatsby -- but it works, thanks to Vickers. The look on her face when she finds out from Wilson that Gatsby was sleeping with Wilson’s wife is topped only by the look on her face when she finally says “It was Jay.” And then, when she finds out that it was Tom who was having the affair with Wilson’s wife, not Gatsby? It’s enough to make you go “Jesus, woman, whatever possessed you to marry Mickey Rooney and drop off the face of the earth for the next five years?”

"It was Jay."

Billy Wilder said it on the set, while they were filming the swimming pool scene. (It’s an open secret that Wilder got the idea for the opening of Sunset Boulevard by watching Cukor set up the shot of Gatsby’s body from the bottom of the pool; they got into a famous fist-fight over it at Ciro’s.) When Vickers wades into the pool, cradles Grant in her arms, twines her legs around his body and slowly, slowly, rolls over, and over, trying to drown herself, trying to kiss him back to life, Wilder turned to Cukor and said what every man who’s ever seen this movie has said: “Can I die next so she can do that to me?”

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