By Noah Berlatsky
“Come to lunch someday,” [Mr. McKee] suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is usually thought of as the story of… well, the great Jay Gatsby, poor boy made nouveau riche, and his efforts to win the aristocratic Daisy Buchanan away from her boorish aristocratic husband Tom. But the quote above is about Daisy’s cousin, the narrator Nick Carraway. In the passage, as you can see, Fitzgerald makes a flamboyant phallic pun (“Keep your hands off the lever” indeed), and then shows us McKee and Nick virtually in bed together. Many people skim over that scene—as I did more than once. But once it’s been pointed out, it’s difficult to see it as anything but post-coital.
Baz Luhrman’s recently film version of Gatsby makes a nod to this incident: Mr. McKee, a photographer, is very interested to learn that writer Nick is also an artist. But while McKee may still be gay, film-Nick (Toby Maguire) is adamantly not. In the book, Nick meets Mr. McKee at a party and goes home with him. In the film, he still goes to the party, but ends up canoodling and maybe probably having sex not with a man, but with a woman. Film Nick is first attracted to Gatsby’s parties by a glimpse of a lovely flapper flitting through the bushes. He seems visibly affected by the sensuality of Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress. In the book, he recognizes her appeal, but seems unmoved or even disgusted by it. In one telling passage while at the party, he notes that he “was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” In the next sentence, he says Myrtle pulls her chair over and “her warm breath poured over me.” A couple paragraphs later he’s sneering at her “artificial laughter.”
It’s not a shock that the film decided to erase the hints of gayness. Even in 2013, gay content is controversial, and gay characters can be hard for a lot of people to accept, in various senses. You could argue that it’s a cowardly choice, and I’d probably agree with you. But Hollywood is cowardly almost by definition. No surprises there.
What is surprising, perhaps, is how much eliminating Nick’s queerness matters. There are many, many things wrong with Luhrmann’s clumsy, ADD Gatsby. But the thing that is most wrong is Nick.
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