Diversifying Gatsby: Luhrmann Boldly Invites Everyone to the Party
Race: the irking, lurking white elephant in American society. In all his work, Fitzgerald’s characters are whitey white, with a “Negro” bell hop; a Japanese butler tossed in for good measure. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is more inclusive, making the film far more culturally relevant.
Whitey whites were the ones reading Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. But they won’t be the only ones seeing it. And it won’t just be skinny girls with flailing limbs. True to form, Luhrmann steps beyond the “ideal” body type —or even one associated so poignantly with the era (boxy dresses on flat chests).
It is a grittier, sexier Gatsby, something that would intrigue and appall the prudish, pale-faced Fitzgerald. When an Australian interprets the social hierarchy of 1920s’ America, everybody gets to go to the party.
Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim – notoriously based on racketeer Arnold Rothstein —is “a small, flat-nosed Jew.” He, like Gatsby, is a parvenu—a fancy word that means you made or stole your money but it didn’t buy you social clout. “New money,” my grandmother, the daughter of an Italian immigrant, used to say with nary a note of irony.
Wolfsheim’s cultural weight is lost in an era when CEOs wear flip-flops and the African American First Lady shows her legs on vacation. Tom Buchanan and Nick’s Yale classmates were afraid of guys like Wolfsheim. American culture was changing, with pipelines to socioeconomic status that are the stuff of P. Diddy songs…or maybe Jay Z songs. Entrepreneurs, actresses, high-profile writers and artists ousted the old guard from their hegemonic perch. Things were not trickling down anymore, Dr. Veblen. When one of these come uppers, made it hyper big—especially from sketchy means—Tom and his boys really shook in their Franks Brothers shoes. Their power was dying, and they knew it.
Luhrmann’s Wolfsheim wears his tooth tiepin prominently. In the book, he has molar cuff links. For Luhrmann, this guy is tough. A ring on every finger and a collar chain, chosen over the more staid collar pin. The cut of his suit would make NFL commentator Shannon Sharpe blush, and the impeccable fit of the clothing tells us that this is a man who attends to details.
The film’s Wolfsheim is a not the schlocky Jewish gangster of Boardwalk Empire—the same historical figure, but they didn’t change the name. Lurhmann’s Wolfsheim has the looks of a Middle Easterner, with light eyes and perfect teeth (the name to the face is the De Niro of Indian cinema, Amitabh Buchchan). Modern audiences will graft another layer of meaning onto Wolfsheim—an Arab whose wealth can buy power and violence. In this choice, we can see Luhrmann’s “Australian” showing. An American filmmaker might not have cast the character so darkly—both literally and metaphorically.
Race scares us too much.
Images & stills Warner Bros., ibtimes.com & ibnlive.in.com