“The Out Take,” is a bi-weekly column dedicated to queer cinema.
Here’s the story, what we know. Truman Capote was the first writer brought on for the 1974 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” one of many talents to enter and then leave the film during preproduction. A whole bunch of names were tossed around to play the leads, from Candice Bergen to Warren Beatty. Ali MacGraw, then wife of attached director Robert Evans, was originally slated to play Daisy until she left Evans for Steve McQueen. Capote’s exit, however, came for reasons of vision. He wrote a whole script, sent it in to the studio, and it was promptly rejected. Rather than have him rewrite it, the controversial novelist was replaced by Francis Ford Coppola (who insisted that his own script didn’t make it out alive either).
So what was wrong with Capote’s work? This is where things get a bit vague. The oft-cited “creative differences” of Hollywood can mean any number of things. His draft isn’t available to read, though someone bought a copy for $17,925 back in 2007 at a Bonhams auction. The rumor (and given the nature of these things, a likely reality), is that the draft was too gay. Capote had not only placed Nick Carraway explicitly in love with Gatsby, but he’d also turned golfer Jordan Baker into a lesbian. Think of how scandalous that would have been in 1974.
Or, rather, think of how scandalous that would be now. This is not to say that audiences are opposed to gay characters, we’ve made plenty of progress on that point. Yet there’s an attachment to what are perceived as the fundamentals of character which can make a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s a problem that goes beyond the boundaries of any one work or identity – the most recent controversy within the comic book world is the casting of a black actor to play the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot. Audiences take basic elements of a character as sacrosanct, and when an adaptation tinkers with these things it often triggers some pretty ugly prejudice. It can even happen when it turns out to be the creator’s intention. Remember the hullabaloo over J.K. Rowling publicly stating Dumbledore’s sexuality? It seems ridiculous to talk about now, but there was plenty of anger.
This brings us back to Gatsby. What was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s intention regarding Nick? There’s often more open space for interpretation around sexuality in a novel, because we don’t actually see the character’s desires unfold. It can be left vague on purpose, and much can be read into things that may or may not be suggested. Salon’s Greg Olear, for example, is absolutely convinced that Nick is gay. His argument doesn’t come from an acrobatic reading of a single cryptic passage, either. Olear assembles observations about Nick’s background, the way he reacts to and describes women, and one particular scene involving a Mr. McKee. I won’t go into more detail with the evidence but do read his whole piece, it’s fascinating.
The most important aspect of this comes at the end, however, when Olear deals with the implications. This isn’t just a silly, selfish interpretation of the story that latches on to a fantasy as a means of hijacking the narrative. It’s a reading of the text. All of the best film adaptations of novels have a unique reading of the text, whether it’s Joe Wright’s theatrical designs on “Anna Karenina” or the minimalist approaches of Cary Fukunaga and Andrea Arnold to 19th century Romanticism. The reading of Nick as gay opens up his portrayal of Gatsby, and mirrors Gatsby’s own love of Daisy. It’s an extra dimension that, if expanded upon in a film, might alter and enrich our understanding of the original work.
Now, Baz Luhrmann has not done this with his new film. He’s updated it in other ways, perhaps most notably in his choice to use contemporary music, striving for the freshness of Fitzgerald’s originally contemporary novel. Obviously I can’t criticize him for not making Nick explicitly gay, nor would I. Nor can he be criticized for boring adaptations. His “Romeo + Juliet” is quite something, of course, but “Moulin Rouge!” and its rambunctious take on La Traviata is the peak of his creativity. And in spite of its narrative content, Luhrmann’s somewhat epic flamboyance has always seemed a little bit gay. I think it’s important to keep “The Great Gasby” and our understanding of adaptation in general in this context.
Reading books and films as queer, even perhaps queerer than originally intended, isn’t just a game. It’s an integral part of the way writers, artists and critics have looked at queer and non-queer texts for decades. Derek Jarman’s films, some of them now over thirty years old, took everything from the hagiographies of the early Catholic Church to Marlowe’s “Edward II” and read them as queer. His Sebastiane, Caravaggio and Edward II are clever, unique films that say something new and exciting by engaging with the old. “Queering” pre-existing genres is practically a genre of its own, at this point, whether it’s Todd Haynes’ and Pedro Almodóvar’s re-use of melodrama or Ulrike Ottinger taking on French sainthood with Joan of Arc of Mongolia.
At the end of the day, these characters are what we make of them. Gore Vidal knew that “Ben-Hur” was gay, even if Charlton Heston hadn’t the foggiest idea. Go see “The Great Gatsby” this weekend and interpret it however you like. Who knows, it might make Tobey Maguire seem much more talented.