You can’t really miss the references to Citizen Kane (1941) in The Great Gatsby (2013). From Gatsby’s ‘incoherent’ mansion folly to the snowfall imagery and Gatsby’s whispered ‘Daisy’ as he dies, you’re left in no doubt that the filmmakers want you to get the parallels between the two tragic heroes brought down by hubris. There are more subtle references waiting to be teased out, but even the most obvious ones carry layers of meaning, often relayed by the intricate set and costume design that, as usual with Luhrmann and Martin, is the result of meticulous research and flawless attention to detail.
Kane’s secret, Rosebud, symbolising the loss of childhood innocence, blossoms into a full-blown visual metaphor in The Great Gatsby through the profusion of flower imagery. Exotic flowers and other natural iconography are central to the art deco style that dominates the set and costume design; they also echo the nineteenth-century Symbolist and Decadent art movements. Daisy’s black and white peony robe and the headscarf worn during the fleeting, nostalgic afternoon she spends with Gatsby and Nick Carraway recall Aubrey Beardsley’s designs for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894), while the oversized corsage on Myrtle’s outrageous red number is like something out of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).
Myrtle and Tom’s fantastically gaudy, colour-saturated Harlem apartment, scene of illicit sexual liaisons and desperate hedonism, overflows with flower imagery (note the Fragonard prints on the pink sofa) – you can almost smell the cheap floral scent mingling with booze and other illegal substances as the giddy party people spiral towards oblivion. Gatsby’s mansion and the Buchanan house are the other side of this seductive vision of decadence: the Buchanan’s place has elegant silk floral wallpaper that whispers ‘old money’ while Gatsby’s overblown flower arrangements and the daisy motif inscribed on his art deco floor advertise his newly-rich status (and his obsession). At the other extreme, the cottage where Nick Carraway lives, also festooned with blooms, appears innocent and idyllic, a haven amid the corruption and decadence that surrounds him.
The sets are designed to conjure up a fairytale world, and it’s no surprise that the film’s floral motifs evoke popular myths and stories surrounding flowers, many of which relate to love. One meaning attached to the daisy is loyal love; at the same time, it forms the fickle centre of the game ‘She loves me, she loves me not’, in which its petals are torn off one by one until the player gets the answer to their question. There could hardly be a more resonant metaphor for Gatsby’s insecure relationship to Daisy. The white roses cascading over Nick’s porch symbolise innocence, but also (appropriately for a character who guards so many secrets) silence and secrecy. A white rosebud invokes youth and beauty: the buttonholes worn by Tom and Nick at Gatsby’s party underline the passage of time and loss of innocence at the heart of The Great Gatsby‘s romantic vision. At the tea party staged to impress Daisy, Nick’s relatively austere place is transformed by Gatsby’s anxiety into a florist’s emporium overwhelmed by orchids, which connote love and beauty, visualising the translation of his excessive (and impossible) desire into things.
In this scene, with Nick as a witness, Daisy and Gatsby’s love is apparently rekindled and hope revived. Daisy’s association with flowers is marked in her lilac dress and gloves made of floral-patterned lace – but what are we to make of the epaulettes and skirt fashioned from drooping pieces of grey fabric that look like fading petals? The motif of dropping petals is echoed in other gowns worn by Daisy: she first appears in a white concoction fashioned from falling petals, and in the Daisy character poster (top of page) she’s wearing a rosebud-pink version of the same dress. This emphasises her own fragility, her elusiveness in Gatsby’s imagination, the passage of time and the inevitability of death.
When Daisy and Gatsby slip away from the party to meet secretly in his enchanted garden they are shrouded in shadow. Blue light picks up the flowers and Gatsby’s suit, echoing the blue hydrangeas on the terrace, one of whose meanings is heartlessness. In contrast to the lush vegetation, Daisy’s dress and jewels glitter with a hard, metallic sheen, intimating the carelessness that Nick finally sees in her. The Tiffany jewellery mirrors the flower imagery, signalling Daisy’s attachment to wealth and status and her brittle outer shell.
The flower symbolism in The Great Gatsby adds layers of meaning to this richly textured film. Together with the haunting music it visualises themes of love, hope, death and melancholy. A distinctive style feature, it’s there in the credits and in the Bazmark logo that appears on screen, marking its importance in the overall design concept.
© Pam Cook
The ever-young Vintage Festival kicks off again in July: you could be there!
Sydney journal part two
Wednesday 15 June 2005
The next morning I decide that the outfit I wore yesterday (black cropped trousers, black T-shirt, snakeskin jacket and blue sneakers) was a bit too casual, so I wear the Indian embroidered jacket bought on Monday at a local boutique. I have coffee in the morning at the Paradiso, and go over my notes to decide which areas I need to follow up with Baz at the second interview at 3pm today. Although we covered a lot of ground yesterday, there are still a few questions that need answering. I take a taxi and get there a bit before 2.30pm, so take some movie footage of the House from Darley Street. As I do so, a woman comes out in a black car, and looks at me suspiciously. I go into the House for the third time, still experiencing it as entering a magical environment.
Sky shows me to the Red Room, where there are people having a meeting. He asks me to wait, and goes to check with Amanda. He returns eventually to say they will find another room for the meeting, and asks me to wait again. A little later, the meeting is moved, and Sky ushers me in to the Red Room. It has a high ceiling with even more elaborate coving than Baz’s office. The walls are painted red, and there is a large brass modern chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. Sky leaves me alone to look around. I ask if I’m allowed to take photographs, but he says I should check with Amanda. I decide it would be too intrusive and take detailed notes instead.
Once again, I have the strange sensation of being in a dream. Here I am, at the heart of the Bazmark operation, thousands of miles away from home. The Red Room is full of memorabilia from the films and theatre productions, the walls are covered with photographs and objects, including the original Hawaiian shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, suspended behind glass. There are also black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Bureaux and shelves along the walls display all the trophies and awards (apart from the Oscars), together with personal photographs of Baz and Amanda’s late father with his second wife, and their glamorous grandmother. There’s a nice photograph of Tristram Miall, the producer of Strictly Ballroom, and a soft-focus, black and white glamour photo of Nicole and Baz on the Chanel No. 5 shoot, signed ‘Karl’ [Lagerfeld]. A framed faded newspaper article reports the controversy caused by the 1981 television docudrama Kids of the Cross devised and co-directed by Baz (he obviously had attitude from an early age). I like the fact that this is not just a trophy room, but has a personal memory dimension. I notice four BAFTAs displayed prominently at the front, and five fake bottles of Chanel No. 5, from small to large. I’m just writing this down, when Amanda comes in and talks me through the items and the function of the room. She points out the shield from early work on Alexander the Great hung on an unused door, and a piece of signage from Romeo + Juliet — black-on-yellow ‘Add fuel to your fire’ from the petrol station scene. She also describes how the Hawaiian shirt was bought at a Fox auction.
She tells me the room is used for meetings, and for film screenings. There’s a projector in the room, and a drop down screen in the bay window at the opposite end, which also houses video and DVD equipment. The bay window is covered by blue and red striped silk curtains, which are pulled to, presumably to hide the room and its contents from intruders in the back garden. The room is lit by electric light. In the centre is a red velvet couch and an armchair facing one another. There is another small red velvet couch against the wall, under some Strictly Ballroom posters and artwork. I ask about the room being used for rehearsals and recording. Amanda says that they do occasionally use it for sound and music recording (Moulin Rouge!), after taking everything out. She leaves me there, and I continue looking around until Sky comes to get me (it is by now 3.05pm).
He shows me in to Baz’s office, and Baz gives him some stuff to photocopy. After exchanging friendly and warm greetings, Baz asks me if a meeting with CM has been organised: ‘She’d love to talk to you’. I say I’m not sure, and we get down to the interview straight away. Baz is far more rumpled today, wearing a blue argyll sleeveless pullover over a long-sleeved shirt, and definitely unshaven. By contrast, I am a bit more dressed up in my new jacket. We go through my questions, and in the middle of the interview he gets up and goes across the room to get some of the concept books to show me. I’m worried that the recorder won’t be able to pick up his voice, but decide that he projects well enough. Baz brings over two leather-bound books, one very large, and sits on the arm of the couch to show me images from the pre-production and workshop period of Romeo + Juliet, including shots of Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio under water, and later images of Claire Danes and Leonardo together. I have seen copies of the book in the archive, but the real thing is amazing. Baz also shows me the larger book, relating to Alexander the Great.
During both interviews, Baz gets up a couple of times to act out what he is saying. In the second interview, I ask him about the ‘One day I’ll fly away’ film on the Special Edition DVD, where in some parts Nicole has a different hairstyle from the one in Moulin Rouge!, and Ewan has a moustache. Baz shows me the concept book for Moulin Rouge!, in which there are early pictures trying out different hairstyles for Nicole and a moustache for Ewan. He moves closer to me, to the arm of the couch where I’m sitting, and later he sits next to me to show me the early concept book for the next film, the Australian epic. Although I’m slightly disconcerted by this, I’m struck by the fact that he does not intrude on my personal space, and that I feel comfortable with his actions. I suspect this is the key to his good relationship as a director with actors.
As Baz shows me the concept book for his next film, it becomes clear that it will be a western, on an epic scale, dealing with the history of Australia’s indigenous people and the Chinese immigrants. He describes a more classical narrative structure, and the history of Australia’s own ‘Pearl Harbor’. The book includes images of landscape, and it has Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe appearing on several pages. Sky comes in at 5pm, and again Baz indicates that we can have a bit more time. I wind up the interview shortly afterwards, and Baz asks Sky if he has managed to set up an interview with CM. Sky says he has mentioned it to her, and Baz asks me whether I can do it now, or am I too tired. I say I am tired, I can do it now, but doesn’t CM have childcare responsibilities (thinking of their daughter Lillian). Baz looks quizzical, and asks about Thursday am. I say I have to be at the airport at 1.15pm, but if CM could spare me an hour in the morning, that would be great. Baz telephones CM then and there, and asks her if she can see me between 11am and 12pm tomorrow, and she agrees. Baz also asks Sky to give me anything I may need: the Red Curtain box set, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack etc. I thank him, and he says he recognises my commitment to the project, and the fact that I want to get it right. We say goodbye, he shakes my hand, saying ‘I enjoyed it’. I thank him for giving up his precious time and for his pearls of wisdom. As he goes up the staircase, he says that CM will probably question what he’s said, and ask whether he even understands the meaning of the words he used.
Sky sees me out and helps me to get a taxi again. I get back to the hotel, unable to believe my luck. I’m actually going to talk to one of my all-time heroes.
© Pam Cook