NEW YORK -- Women in bob cuts and extensive hair plumage and men in bowties and exaggerated facial expressions were dancing and throwing their arms in the air, 1920’s style, amid the crowd of Manolo-clad partygoers, who were eating seafood hors d’oeuvres and snapping photos with their iPhones.
It was a fitting set of contrasts Wednesday at the Plaza Hotel and its premiere party for Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby.” A few hours earlier at Lincoln Center, a similar dichotomy played out on screen, where Jay Gatsby’s West Egg was exactingly re-created--with the help of some 21st century hip-hop and “Avatar"-style technology--in Luhrmann’s spin on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic.
“Fitzgerald’s book is great because it can be done many times in many different places in many different ways,” Luhrmann said at the screening, looking as if he wasn’t sure whether he should explain his movie but deciding maybe it was best to do so anyway.
The director, already bearing a reputation for putting modern twists on classic eras (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet”) had been doing his share of defending since he first announced he would be making “Gatsby” back in the fall of 2008.
As the financial crisis exploded, the country was dealing with the hangover from its own Gilded Age. This movie, Luhrmann had told me in an interview at the time, would be the jeremiad it needed. “If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, ‘You’ve been drunk on money’ they’re not going to want to see it,” he said. “But if you reflected it on another time, I think they’d be willing to see it.”
Whether that message will land with audiences here remains a question. There is little hint of an impending Depression in Luhrmann’s film, which plunges viewers into the world of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), and the trio he observes in Eggs East and West: Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, making great sport of phrases like “old sport”). The first half of the movie concentrates on setting up the glamorous, garish world of Gatsby and his parties, while the latter section ups the emotional stakes as Tom and Gatsby vie for Daisy’s affection — a portrayal that, as Hollywood has done across many eras, puts the love story front and center.
“I was reminded of Fitzgerald’s phrase,” Luhrmann said in introducing his new interpretation. “He said I wanted to make something new and extraordinary and valuable.... That was our guiding light.”
The Avery Fisher Hall audience reacted warmly after and even at points during the film (DiCaprio’s first appearance. e.g.). That a mainstream audience follows suit remains key for Warner Bros. and its big-budget bet (an estimated $100-plus million) when it arrives in U.S. theaters May 10. The studio hopes the star power and flashy visuals help the film compete in a moviegoing season not known for period adaptations of literary classics.
Arriving at this place wasn’t easy for Luhrmann, who had plumbed through Fitzgerald letters and other archival material to forge his characters; Sony Pictures, after all, had backed out of making the film. At the screening, Luhrmann shouted out to Warner Bros for “knowing what a greenlight really is,” a possible allusion to the project’s history.
Though a fitting nod to Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” the afterparty’s mixture of throwback glory and modern luxury was also a way to kickstart the publicity effort. It’s a process that will be repeated in two weeks at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie’s European launch will be celebrated with its own mix of flappers and feathers amid the fest’s yachts and tuxedos.
Premieres on two sides of the ocean is a double-barrel strategy. Each event, principals say, has its own logic. “This city had adopted Fitzgerald’s wife and child and this city has adopted my own wife and children,” Luhrmann said. “That’s why we had to open it” here.
Previously, Warner Bros. marketing chief Sue Kroll had described the south of France as an ideal setting too. “I’ve always thought Cannes is perfect for this film, which is sumptuous and audacious and a real experience, and Cannes is a place of romance and mystique.”
That sumptuousness was plenty on display at the New York event, which, among other things, struck one with the realization that, though you may not have quite thought of it before, it really is nice to enter a room as two heavily made-up winged women hold giant feathers and swing them open to let you pass. Fully committing to the West Egg theme, the party offered an emcee who presided over the affair with talk of what “Mr. Gatsby” wanted guests to feel, as bands and dancers performed all around. “Speakeasy!,” a few shouted, as a conga line of costumed performers weaved through the crowd holding large flaming bottles of Moet above their head.
A few minutes later on a side area of the party floor, Florence, of the English pop group Florence and the Machine, began engaging in her own dance with a willing if less dynamic partner. The dog days, at least for tonight, were over.
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