I can’t bear to watch movies directed by Baz Luhrmann. They are frenetic and dizzying and unpleasant. David Denby, reviewing Luhrmann’s new version of The Great Gatsby in this week’s New Yorker, says “Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.” Denby also notes that “when Luhrmann calms down, however, and concentrates on the characters, he demonstrates an ability with actors that he hasn’t shown in the past.”
Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a good fit for Gatsby, doesn’t he? I’m curious to see his performance but I don’t know if I could sit through the rest of it.
Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.
The enduring appeal of Fitzgerald’s third novel, as with many great novels, is partly dependent on a benign misinterpretation on the part of readers, a surrender to fascination with wealth and glamour, and the riotous frivolity of the jazz age. Fitzgerald was by no means an uncritical observer, as some have suggested; the most villainous of these characters are the wealthiest, and Nick Carraway is something of a middle-class prig, who, much as he tries to reserve judgment, is ultimately sickened by all the profligacy and the empty social rituals of his summer among the wealthy of Long Island. “I wanted no more riotous excursion with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” he says at the end. And yet Fitzgerald had a kind of double agent’s consciousness about the tinsel of the jazz age, and about the privileged world of inherited wealth; he couldn’t help stopping to admire and glamorise the glittering interiors of which his midwestern heart ultimately disapproved. Gatsby’s lavish weekly summer parties are over the top, ridiculous, peopled with drunks and poseurs, and yet we can’t help feeling a sense of loss when he suddenly shuts them down after it’s clear that Daisy – for whom the whole show was arranged in the first place – doesn’t quite approve. We shouldn’t approve either, and yet in memory they seem like parties to which we wish we’d been invited.
In Gatsby and his best fiction, Fitzgerald manages to strike a balance between his attraction and repulsion, between his sympathy and his judgment. As a middle-class, midwestern Irish Catholic from what Edmund Wilson called “a semi-excluded background” vis-a-vis the Ivy League and the world of eastern privilege, he seems capable of double vision, the appearance of viewing character, from inside and outside. Fitzgerald’s best narrators always seem to be partaking of the festivities even as they shiver outside with their noses pressed up against the glass. In this manner, Nick Carraway doesn’t entirely approve of Jay Gatsby, the party-giving parvenu with his pink suits and his giant yellow circus wagon of a car. But he deeply admires Jay Gatsby the lover and the dreamer, the man for whom the mansion and the bespoke clothes were only the means to reclaim his first love. Nick admires his fidelity to that first love and his ability to keep it pure and undefiled, even as he wades through the muck to pursue it, even if the object of that love isn’t, in the flesh, worthy of such devotion.
My life began to change for the better as soon as I caught a glimpse of Hollywood in my future. I believe that’s known as the magic of show business. Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers, being mostly very tall, as professional basketball teams inevitably are, did what they could to obscure my view by playing a game they appeared to be as uninterested in as I was. But we all had to be someplace that January night in 1985, so there we were. Afterward, out of desperation more than anything else, I tried, unsuccessfully, to coax a sentence or two out of Moses Malone. All Moses seemed to have in him was a few grunts, and a few grunts do not a column make.
It was snowing when I headed back to the Daily News wondering how I was going to tap dance my way through this one. Sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., I remembered the “Red on Roundball” feature that Red Auerbach used to do on the NBA’s TV games. One of his guests had been Moses, and when Auerbach asked him what the secret of rebounding was, Moses said, “I take it to the rack.” Though hardly as memorable as “Give me liberty or give me death” or “I can’t get no satisfaction,” those words became my inspiration for an ode to Moses, who, after all, would end up in the hall of fame as a player, not an orator.
Afterward, while driving home through the snow, I realized that (1) I had turned 40 while I was in the process of immortalizing that big sphinx, and (2) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this. In truth, I didn’t want to spend another day doing it. But I needed the dough, and besides, in just a few hours, I had an appointment to see Steve Sabol at NFL Films about his search for someone to replace the late John Facenda as the voice that would stir the soul as the game’s behemoths shook the earth. For what it’s worth, I wrote a column nominating Tina Turner. She didn’t get the job.
Not that I cared. I was too busy thinking about Hollywood. At first it was an abstraction, the way it had been when I was a kid so fascinated by movies–-never TV, always movies–that I drew crude versions of them on sheets of paper. If you want to be generous, I guess you could call what I did storyboards. The movies I chose to give my special touch were primarily Westerns, and not great ones, either. We’re talking about the bottom half of a double bill. I didn’t start thinking bigger until I picked up “The Craft of Screenwriting,” a book of interviews with heavy hitters like William Goldman and Robert Towne that my wife had given me for Christmas in 1981. In her inscription, she had said she expected me to be writing in Hollywood in five years. She was my ex-wife by this point, of course, but I realized that if I hustled, I still had a chance to make her deadline.
I’d been in Philly for less than three months, and I already knew it wasn’t for me. The only time I liked the city was when I was looking down at it from a plane bound for Los Angeles. Mike Rathet, the Daily News sports editor, was incredibly generous about giving me assignments on the West Coast. I must have made eight or 10 trips there in 18 months. In each of the two holiday seasons that I worked for the News, I spent three weeks in L.A., ensconced in an out-of-the-way hotel where somebody interesting was always in the lobby–Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones. I heard that Elvis Costello stayed there, too. Lots of rock-and-rollers did. God bless them, because the women they attracted made the rooftop swimming pool the eighth wonder of the world. But I was equally fond of the clerk who greeted me on one of my visits by saying, “Oh, Mr. Schulian, welcome back. Are you filming?” Only in my dreams.
The spoiler was always my return trip to Philadelphia and the low-grade depression that set in the moment my flight touched down. Once again, I would be trapped in a world where the good guys were becoming harder to find. They were still there, of course–the ones with the stories and the one-liners and the moments of insight and reflection–but there were more and more athletes, coaches and executives who were the writers’ enemy and reveled in it.
And so there came a night when John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, decreed that there would be no speaking to his two star players after they had mumbled a couple of forgettable clichés in a post-game press conference. This was in Madison Square Garden after the Hoyas had just beaten Chris Mullin and St. John’s. I marched down the hallway to Georgetown’s locker room, determined to either talk to the kids or get thrown out trying. And then I hit the brakes. Screw it, I told myself. There would be no confrontation with Thompson or that horrible crone he had watching over the team. There would be no more groveling.
I’d spent enough time choking on the cynicism in the press box at wretched Veterans Stadium, too. There wasn’t any place in the country that was its equal for toxicity. While the artificial turf curled like discount-store shag and the paying customers howled for blood, some immensely talented knights of the keyboard entertained themselves by, among other things, mocking a ballplayer with a speech impediment.
What I was sickest of, however, was my own writing. I’d read years before that someone–-I think it was Russell Baker, the New York Times’ op-ed page wit–said you spend your first year as a columnist discovering your voice and the rest of your career trying to get over it. In Philadelphia, where I was new to readers, everything felt old to me -– the anecdotes, the turns of phrase, the choices of column subjects, the striving to establish myself. I’d done it all in Chicago, and the prospect of doing it again felt like a death sentence.
Faulkner in Hollywood
Writing in Hollywood promised to be as different as fiction is from fact. There was a chance it might even be my salvation. That may seem a curious choice of words when you consider the fate of writers far better than I who have washed up on the rocky shoals of the movie and TV business. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the most beautiful prose America has ever seen, was baffled by screenwriting no matter how hard he worked at it. William Faulkner, weary of executives who thought he was loafing if his typewriter wasn’t clickety-clacking, simply went home to Mississippi and soothed his soul with bourbon. But I couldn’t be scared off by Fitzgerald’s fate, nor could I drink as much as Faulkner. This was about me and no one else. I had to close my eyes and jump.