The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay

Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as guileless heterosexual—but in the novel, his sexuality's ambiguous, and he's linked to Gatsby & co. by their shared need for deception.
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tobey maguire as nick carraway.jpg
Warner Bros.

"Come to lunch someday," [Mr. McKee] suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
"Where?"
"Anywhere."
"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.

Specifically, Nick in Luhrman's film is a wide-eyed innocent. He's bowled over by the excess and the excitement of New York, and particularly by Gatsby's amazing parties. Maguire as Nick wanders from scene to scene with vapid wonder in his smile. What Nick loves about Gatsby, it's clear, is his hope, his aspiration, his true love of Daisy. He becomes so enmeshed in Gatsby's story because he is just too goldarned open-hearted to have a life of his own. He's a puppy.

In the book, Nick does say that "I am one of the few honest people I have ever known." But if he's asserting his purity there, he's also revealing his world-weariness.

And both that world-weariness and that purity are complicated. Nick says he is honest because he is going to break up with the girl back home before he starts dating Daisy's friend, the golf-pro Jordan Baker. But Nick also says that he has been signing his letters to that girl back home with "Love"—even though obviously, he doesn't love her. His honesty, then, follows its own queer rules—rules developed to live in a society where one is despised, marginalized, and under threat of violence and ostracism.

Those same rules govern Nick's relationship with Jordan Baker (which is much truncated in the film). In the book, Nick insists that Jordan is "incurably dishonest"—but that dishonesty doesn't put him off. On the contrary, Maggie Gordon Froehlich, an assistant professor of English at Penn State Univeristy, argues in a fascinating journal essay that it is Baker's deceitfulness that draws Nick to her. Froelich suggests that Jordan can be read as a lesbian herself—or at least, since she is a pro-golfer, as someone who is operating precariously outside the gender expectations of her day. Either way, Froelich points out that in the narrative, Nick's realization that Jordan is not what she appears corresponds to his growing romantic interest in her. "As a homosexual man..." Froelich says, "Nick understands the necessity of deceit in a society that defines one's desire and agency as illicit."

What Nick is attracted to in Gatsby isn't that Gatsby is the "single most hopeful person" Nick's ever known. Rather, it's that Gatsby is a glorious sham.

This is also, I'd argue, why Nick is attracted to in Gatsby. It's not that Gatsby is, as the movie Carraway insists, the "single most hopeful person" he's ever known. Rather, it's that Gatsby is a momentous, glorious, incandescent sham. If Jordan is deceitful, Gatsby is even more so. And just as he falls for Jordan and her dishonesty, so is Nick riveted by the transformation of poor, nobody from nowhere Jimmy Gatz into the wealthy somebody Jay Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby are alike not in their innocence, but in their capacity for subterfuge.

In one of the film's stupidest choices, Nick ends up in a sanitarium after Gatsby's death. His pure heart is so repulsed by the cruelty and corruption of the city that he is driven insane. In the book, though, Nick doesn't see Tom Buchanan and Daisy as decadent. He sees them as dangerously innocent. "I felt suddenly," he says of his last meeting with Tom, "as though I were talking to a child." Tom and Daisy, with their old money, can afford to be careless; they don't need to know who they're running down. But folks like Gatsby, or Nick, or Jordan Baker, who live life on the margins, have to be more careful.

Pehaps that's why the book The Great Gatsby, despite its blaring title and filthy-rich protagonist, feels so restrained. Nick never tells you everything. The film, in robbing him of his queerness, also robs him of his reserve, and not coincidentally, of his intelligence. The result is a loud Hollywood celebration of hopeful desire. Fitzgerald's Nick, though, knows that desire must often hide behind ellipses, and that even hope can be a kind of mask.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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