Are you tired of hearing about The Great Gatsby yet? I kind of am! In its latest iteration, it’s a movie by a filmmaker I don’t like, based on a book that I have never—bear with me—been totally crazy about, set in a era that has always seemed, in the collective subconscious at least, more a flashy theme for a supermodel’s birthday party than one with any meaningful historical context or populated by living, breathing human beings.
And yet, I’m still going to see it, and not just because I recently realized that my deep emotional attachment to Leonardo DiCaprio remains the longest—if most one-sided—romantic relationship of my life. And I’m going to see it in 3-D. Not for the usual, joked-about reasons—Jay Gatsby flinging his many colored shirts right into the audience, the eerily protuberant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg popping straight off the screen and directly into your soul—but because I can’t resist the most delicious irony this spring since the Met Ball went punk.
Here’s what I mean: The Great Gatsby may be the Great Work of American Literature (and the only one I read in full when it was assigned in high school), but its characterizations are notoriously, and arguably purposefully, two dimensional. As my colleague Kathryn Schulz at New York magazine pointed out in a scathing critique of Gatsby’s so-called “greatness,” the Buchanans, the Wilsons, and the rest essentially function in the narrative as “types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent.” And no character is quite so much a “type” as Meyer Wolfsheim, the repellent Jewish gangster whose barest presence is meant to send a shudder down the spines of right-minded gentiles everywhere.
With his dark complexion, mangled English, copious nose hairs, and cufflinks fashioned from human molars (a cannibalistic touch worthy of a dandyish Bond villain at his most feral), Wolfsheim is even less substantial than the other attractive ciphers labeled Old Money or Class Anxiety; it’s not so much that he doesn’t seem like a realistic human being than that he scarcely seems like a human being at all. Tom Buchanan may be a bloviating idiot, but when he goes off on his tangent about the “Nordic race” being subsumed by sinister foreign interlopers, one can’t escape the sense that on this point, at least, the author at least in part agrees with him.
So, it’ll be interesting to see how Baz Luhrmann’s film deals with a personage that by modern standards seems so inherently problematic. Will he turn Wolfsheim into a kind of Roaring Twenties Shylock, assigning him sympathetic traits and hidden depths his creator (unlike Shakespeare) may not have intended? Wallow gleefully in the comedic offensiveness of it all, like a gaudy, Art Deco Borat? Perhaps the peculiar casting in the role of Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood legend and pivotal Slumdog Millionaire plot point, is instructive; in a curling mustache and Colonel Sanders beard, bejeweled rings twinkling on every finger, Bachchan’s Wolfsheim seems not so much recognizably Jewish as unplaceably exotic, an Orientalist construct so vague as to offend no one (or everyone, depending on how you look at it). We’ll see if the molars come leaping off the screen, ready to sink themselves into your neck, Twilight-style.
Those who crave some specificity and nuance—and if you do, what the hell are you doing watching a Baz Luhrmann movie?—would do well to cue up the HBO Go and check out Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as gangster Arnold Rothstein, the real-life man who “fixed the 1919 World Series.” Handsome, soft-spoken, inconspicuously dressed, bloodthirsty but logical, ruthless but oddly fair, Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein is everything his fictional counterpart is not. He’s also a distinctly modern creation.
But more enlightening might be some period-accurate anti-Semitism. For that, I’d suggest cracking open Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, one year after The Great Gatsby. Neurotic, whiny, entitled, simultaneously pathetically self-loathing and intensely superior (and of course, possessed of a seemingly infinite supply of money, none of which he has earned himself through anything like real work), Hemingway’s Robert Cohn is the archetypal nebbish, tolerated by his “friends” when they find it convenient, despised by them when they do not. Hemingway never let Cohn (or the reader) forget that he is a Jew and therefore inherently unlikable.
Yet Hemingway, unlike Fitzgerald, is willing to entertain the notion that the internalization of another’s hostility might go a long way toward accounting for some of Cohn’s less-appealing traits. How can you keep from being defensive, when you’re constantly under attack? How can you not be insecure, when nobody likes you? Why wouldn’t you be disloyal and self-interested, when no one’s looking out for you but you? Hemingway’s Cohn might be a period-specific lazily reflexive anti-Semitic stereotype. But unlike Fitzgerald’s period-specific, lazily reflexive Wolfsheim, he’s also a human being.
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