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Gatsby glamour: F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale still appeals after nearly 90 years

By Alice Carter
Saturday, May 4, 2013, 6:07 p.m.
 

When an 88-year-old novel makes the Amazon and USA Today bestseller lists, it must still have something to say.

During the last week in April, F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby,” which debuted in 1925, recently hit No. 2 on Amazon sales charts and No. 5 on the USA Today bestseller list.

According to an article in The New York Times, its publisher, Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, typically sells 500,000 copies each year.

That's more than 20 times more than its first printing of 20,870 copies that reportedly sold sluggishly and merited a second printing of only 3,000.

Granted, recent sales are being driven by the interest in Baz Luhrmannn's film remake of “The Great Gatsby,” which opens nationally May 10 in 2-D and 3-D versions.

But the book has long been a staple of high-school and college reading lists.

“Fitzgerald was an amazing stylist, and this novel, a top-shelf distilling of his lyric voice and pedigree. Its plot echoes that of any great tragedy, placing human yearning and fallibility into humble and heartbreaking relief,” says Marc Nieson, an assistant professor on the master of fine arts creative writing faculty at Chatham University.

Cynics might suggest that the book's length — 180 pages in paperback — makes it popular with slackers looking for an easy read.

But Luhrmann's movie marks the fifth time it has been translated to the big screen, and there also are stage, opera and ballet versions.

So, what is it about this doomed love affair set in the fast-moving, heavy-drinking glitz and glamour era of the Roaring '20s that still draws interest?

“It's the age-old American dream. We have all wanted something and failed miserably at (achieving) it,” says Monica Stephenson, education director for Prime Stage Theatre, which produced it as a play for student and general audiences in March.

“There was a lot of interest. Initially, it was because it was on the reading list. But the students loved the play.” Stephenson says. Students from almost 20 schools attended matinees. “A lot of the girls hated Daisy and felt bad for Gatsby. The guys did not feel bad for Gatsby at all.”

“ ‘The Great Gatsby' was a cautionary tale,” Nieson says. “It remains a tale about what money can and can't buy you; about what, despite everything, still flickers and/or burns within the human heart; about what's fleeting, or, perhaps, already past us.”

Baz Luhrmannn

Film director Baz Luhrmannn makes movies that get attention.

His latest, “The Great Gatsby,” which opens nationwide on May 10 has already been featured with a spread in Architectural Digest; has a window at Tiffany's showcasing jewelry designed for the movie; and has been chosen as the opening film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

The Australian filmmaker made his film directing debut in 1992 with “Strictly Ballroom,” a brightly colorful, romantic fable with splashy choreography and a story about a risk-taking ballroom dance champion. The film created a buzz at that year's Cannes Festival.

In 1996, he updated Shakespeare's classic “Romeo and Juliet” by pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as his teen lovers speaking in Elizabethan English against a very contemporary Radiohead score and setting his “Romeo+Juliet” in a Versace-clad modern-day Verona suburb.

Five years later, his “Moulin Rouge” was an opening night attraction at the 2001 Cannes Festival. Despite being set in Paris in 1899, this ornately decorated musical placed Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Richard Roxburgh in a dangerous love triangle with a feverishly modern feel.

The following year, Luhrmannn confounded Broadway with his production of Puccini's opera “La Boheme” that ran a respectable 228 performances.

His 2005 historical adventure “Australia” did not fare nearly as well despite its stars Hugh Jackman and Kidman.

Luhrmannn is married to Catherine Martin who has collaborated with him as costume and production designer on most of his productions including “The Great Gatsby.”

— Alice T. Carter

Taking musical license

Giving a canonical literary text like “The Great Gatsby,” a soundtrack is a bold and perilous undertaking.

There are a few ways to do it.

First, this tale of the Jazz Age could be properly scored with jazz. Then, there's the riskier approach of having contemporary musicians try their hands at musical styles appropriate to the era.

Then, there's director Baz Luhrmann's approach, which is more about spectacle, surprise and juxtaposition than worrying about period authenticity. He's not afraid to use anachronistic contemporary pop music in large doses, and let the purists and naysayers grouse away.

Luhrmann apparently is going all-in on this aspect — in a statement to Rolling Stone magazine, he said, “in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”

“The Great Gatsby” soundtrack features Jay-Z collaborating closely with composer Craig Armstrong (who scored Luhrmann's “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge”), and musical contributions from Jack White, Gotye, Llana Del Rey, will.i.am, Florence + the Machine.

Already, there are signs of hubris, despite the incredible assemblage of talent. In particular, Beyonce and Andre 3000 seem to miss the point on their dubious Amy Winehouse cover, “Back to Black.”

However, the subtle, slow-burning intensity and swelling orchestral accompaniment of “Together” by The xx could be just what “The Great Gatsby” needs.

— Michael Machosky

Gatsby at the movies

“The Great Gatsby” has been made into a movie at least five times with varying degrees of success. The earliest film was made a year after the book's publication in 1925, with Warner Baxter (who later won an Oscar as the Cisco Kid in “In Old Arizona”) in the title role. Alan Ladd played Gatsby in a 1949 version, while a 2000 TV movie boasted Mira Sorvino as Daisy Buchanan, Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway and Toby Stephens as Gatsby.

But the most well-known incarnation of the film was in 1974, with Robert Redford, who was at the peak of his fame between “The Sting” and “All the President's Men,” in the title role. Other stars included Mia Farrow as Daisy, Sam Waterston as Nick and Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan. The movie didn't get very good reviews — Roger Ebert wrote, “The Great Gatsby is a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie with nothing much in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel” — but it continues to pop up regularly on television. It's worth watching just to see Redford in his prime.

— Susan Jones

Other versions

The popular musical styles of the 1920s are the extra attraction of “The Great Gatsby” for ballet and opera.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presented a colorful version by choreographers John McFall and Lauri Stallings in October 2008. Performed to music by George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin, this version featured extended dancing and compressed plot presentation, but missed the voice of narrator Nick Calloway.

Other ballet adaptations have been made by Septime Webre, David Nixon and Ron Cunningham.

John Harbison's opera “The Great Gatsby” received its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1999, with a deluxe cast and conducted by James Levine, who declared it “one of the greatest new opera scores I've seen in years.” Calloway is present as a character, but does not have the impact he does in the novel. A recording of the original production — the score has since been trimmed — was issued as part of celebrations of Levine's 40th anniversary at the Met.

— Mark Kanny

Dress like a flapper

The Gatsby-era of the Roaring '20s personified glamour, sass and romance with flapper-style dresses, glitzy accessories and rich textures. Dresses from that time were adorned with glass beads and sequins and layers of fringe. Other styles included plunging necklines and drop waists.

With the much-hyped “The Great Gatsby” film coming into theaters, women are seeking that same glamorous and romantic 1920s style with a modern twist, says Robert Barnowske, bridal-design director, David's Bridal.

“Our team at David's Bridal knew this time period would be the hot trend of the year, especially when it comes to wedding fashion,” he says. “Brides can incorporate this vintage look into their big day with dresses and accessories that include exquisite vintage detailing, like lace and feather textures, beautiful ribbon trims and intricate hand-sewn beading.”

Fun accessories include sunglasses such as those from Lafont, called “Leo,” in honor of star actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The company already has a pair named “Gatsby.” Add some bling with gemstone and pearl-encrusted bracelets and headpieces, some of which are adorned with sequins and rhinestones. Tiffany & Co. has launched a Great Gatsby-theme jewelry collection. Items include a $200,000 diamond-and-pearl headpiece, a freshwater-pearl necklace, art-deco rings and embellished brooches.

— JoAnne Klimovich Harrop

Or dress like Gatsby

Of all the “Gatsby” partnerships, Brooks Bros.' 53-piece menswear collection may be the most high-profile — and most authentic.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald was actually a Brooks Bros. customer,” says Arthur Wayne, vice president of global public relations for Brooks Bros.

Thanks to the “Brooks Bros. for ‘The Great Gatsby' ” collection, which hit the clothier's retail stores and website April 15, a fellow wishing to follow that advice can avail himself of a range of colorful, 1920s-flavored tuxedos, suits, suit separates, shirts, neckties, shoes and accessories directly inspired by Catherine Martin's costumes for the Baz Luhrmannn film — costumes that were, in turn, based on pieces in Brooks' own archives.

“Think of it as life imitating art imitating life,” Wayne says.

The pale pink linen jacket with subtle white stripes ($698) and matching linen trousers ($298) worn by DiCaprio in the film certainly wouldn't look out of place at a garden party circa 2013, and thanks to the overall timeless nature of men's formalwear, neither would the tuxedos (one-button, peak-lapel, center-vent jackets with silk faille details, $848, matching tuxedo trousers, $248) or ties ($60 to $98.50).

— Wire reports

Gatsby dinner

Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville will host a Gatsby Dinner Party on May 8, featuring 1920s attire, jazz, cocktails and food.

“It's all about the vibe.

“That period is all about extravagance, and, yet, there's this elegant simplicity to it as well, especially when it comes to cocktails and cuisine of the era,” owner Jeff Catalina says.

The event will feature a five-course dinner inspired by the “Great American Novel,” which will include an amuse bouche, Waldorf salad, Oysters Rockefeller, Delmonico Oscar and Baked Alaska.

Cocktail hour begins at 6:30 p.m., with seatings for dinner at 7:30.

Cost is $60 plus tax and gratuity, which includes dinner and a welcome cocktail. Bar and lounge seatings are $35 plus tax and gratuity, and include hors d'oeuvres and a welcome cocktail. The restaurant is at 4300 Butler St.

Details: RSVP at 412-402-9522. For more information, visit www.tenderpgh.com.

— Rachel Weaver

Prohibition drinks

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gin Daisy, Stone Sour, Crème de Menthe, Old Fashioned….there is something effortlessly sophisticated about the way the names flow when spoken.

“I think people have had all the bells and whistles and frou-frou drinks and they just come back to the tried-and-true,” said Lisa Saftner, owner of the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy on the North Side.

Although minimal in ingredients, pre-prohibition-era libations maintain their status as art forms to this day; a lesson in the uncomplicated utilization of the basics. “They're kind of heritage drinks,” said cocktail historian David Wondrich, who is also the drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine. “They're exceptionally put together from a taste point of view.” Gin, whiskey, rye, rum, absinthe and bitters remain as strong reminders of the Roaring '20s that have withstood the test of time.

“It's just pure and simple stuff,” he added.

Some other places to drink like Gatsby in Pittsburgh: Acacia, South Side; the Speakeasy at the Omni William Penn, Downtown.

— Kate Benz

Grand setting

Baz Luhrmann's movie was filmed in Australia, but several of the exteriors and interiors built for “The Great Gatsby” were based on great houses on the north shore of Long Island in the early 20th century.

One of them has a Pittsburgh connection.

The exterior of the Charles II-style, red brick mansion where Daisy and Tom Buchanan live was inspired in part by Westbury House, which served as the primary residence for John S. “Jay” Phipps, whose father Henry Phipps built Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland as a gift to the city of Pittsburgh.

The house where John Phipps, his wife, Margarita, and their four children lived is now known as Old Westbury Gardens in Old Westbury, N.Y. The 44-room house and its 200 acres have been open to the public since 1959.

Details: 516-333-0048 or www.oldwestbury gardens.org

— Alice T. Carter

Cover art

F. Scott Fitzgerald's publisher commissioned a full-cover, illustrated dust jacket for “The Great Gatsby” a full seven months in advance of the completed manuscript.

Spanish-born artist Francis Cugat's “Celestial Eyes” included images that Fitzgerald claimed to have written into the book, according to Charles Scribner III's publisher's notes in 1992.

The iconic painting — a master stroke of Art Deco — includes reclining female nudes in the irises of the sad eyes, a fluorescent green line of tears and rouged red lips above a bright carnival scene.

In this season of Gatsby, we can find the painting on any number of items, from T-shirts to tote bags to iPhone covers.

The iconic cover of the book “The Great Gatsby” is available as an e-reader case ($45).

Find it all at www.outofprintclothing.com.

 

 
 


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