Look, when I went into a screening of The Great Gatsby at The Ziegfeld yesterday, I wanted to like Gatsby more than anyone. I’ve been tweeting the novel in its entirety every night for the last three years. And I am sure I would have loved it, if the Jay Gatsby Baz Luhrmann created and Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed was not such an absolutely relentless jerk.
If there’s one thing you are certain of, throughout the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s that Jay Gatsby is a really good person. He is a gentleman where other man are depraved (Tom), he’s capable of seeing potential where other men sneer (Nick) and able to force himself to aspire beyond the circumstances he was born to (Wilson). He is, at all times, supposed to be the best of us. And in spite of that, he is really fucking kind. Nick, who is perceptive, if judgmental, says immediately after meeting Gatsby:
[Gatsby] smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
I will refresh your memory on how Leonardo DiCaprio smiles at the scene where, in the book, that line occurs:
It’s a smile that says “I sure am fucking awesome.”
That is not how Gatsby would smile.
The thing about Gatsby is that, on some level, he always seems a little bit ashamed of himself. He knows that he is not born to the wealthy class that Daisy, his inamorata, and Tom, her husband, were born to. He knows that he is lying about his upbringing – he tells everyone that he was the son of some very wealthy people, and had spent years hunting big game and collecting rubies in foreign capitals, when he was in fact a penniless soldier – and, more humiliatingly, on some level he knows that everyone else knows it, too. Nick talks about how upon hearing Gatsby recount his youth he laughed and thought of Gatsby as “a ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne.”
Gatsby lies outrageously about his past because he never feels his is good enough to fit into the world of the people he wants to be with. And his demeanor, should maybe betray that instead of him seeming like the cockiest, smuggest bastard in the world in every single scene.
You know who understood that? Robert Redford, when he played Gatsby. Here is a picture of his smile: