In a recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay,” Noah Berlatsky discusses the Baz Luhrman adaptation’s treatment of the character of Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, played in the film by Tobey Maguire. Berlatsky claims “it’s not a shock that the film decided to erase the hints of gayness” that the novel gestures at rather pointedly in its characterization of Nick. However loosey-goosey Luhrman’s adaptation, to “taint” what’s become a cherished classic of American literature (though it was hardly that in Fitzgerald’s time) with even a whiff of gayness would indelibly color the movie as being about gayness. In these supposedly tolerant times of marriage equality legalization and the overthrow of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, for a Hollywood film to have central characters who are gay still qualifies that film as “a gay film,” no matter the marketing campaign attempts to tout it as “a universal love story” (think Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right).
That said, Luhrman’s films from Strictly Ballroom to Moulin Rouge have always walked a wispy line between gay and straight erotics, and his Gatsby is no exception. The homoeroticism that Berlatsky finds undetectable actually suffuses the relationship between Nick and Jay as it appears on screen (in all its 3D glory), and is distinctly drawn to parallel the heteroeroticism between Jay and Daisy. Berlatsky admits as much when he notes the “capacity for subterfuge” that this trio shares, along with yearning looks and an enflamed desire for material wealth and the power it conveys.
In my book The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, I discuss a diverse group of films that collectively explore—and exploit—bisexual desire through the scrim of socioeconomic privilege and class envy. While these “bi-sexploitation” films range from the highbrow (Les Biches, My Summer of Love) to the lowbrow (Single White Female, Basic Instinct), they share a central character dyad I name the rich bitch and the dependent double, whose interactions illustrate the way in which desire and sexuality are predicated as much if not more on circumstances of power and need as on the gender of one’s object choice, more commonly understood as the primary determinant of sexual identity. The beginning of my discussion is excerpted below:
Sexploitation films often construct dual discourses on privilege—socioeconomic and bisexual—whose simultaneous negotiation at the narrative level implies a relationship between them. This bi-textual form of narration repeatedly enacts a power play of alternating dominant and submissive roles between an independent(ly) wealthy female character whom I call the rich bitch and her disadvantaged female dependent double (again lesbian desire proves admissible where male same-sex desire does not). Bisexuality operates as the primary weapon of the characters’ dual (and dueling) economic and sexual showdown, wielded on one hand as a spoil of affluence by the rich bitch and on the other as a leveraging device for socioeconomic empowerment by her dependent double. This bi-textual mode compulsively reproduces a metaphor of class privilege under perceived threat to allay those anxieties provoked by economically (and thus sexually) self-sufficient women and opportunistic, “two faced” bisexuals by relating them to and negotiating them through other, class-related anxieties: paranoia about the disruption of moneyed complacency versus frustration about class immobility and conspicuous consumption. Thus the resultant insight to arise from this metaphor concerns that of the elsewhere disavowed connection between sexuality and (late) capitalism.
As I note above, it is nearly always women who fill these dyadic roles, though an important exception is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, another novel about an envious young man, socially peripheral like Nick and similarly in love (or lust) with a golden boy and his fortune. But unlike Nick, Tom Ripley is not content to remain a hanger on. In the 1999 film adaptation directed by Anthony Minghella, Highsmith’s homoeroticism (or homophobia) is made explicit, though leaving the class envy intact. Comparing Ripley to Gatsby reveals yet another layer of dangerous desire between Jay and his old-money competitor for Daisy’s affections, Tom Buchanan, “mimetic” in that it is predicated as much on the desire to be as on the desire to have. Once you start looking for it—with “it” being what Berlatsky calls “gayness” and what I’d argue instead is bisexual fluidity—“it” is everywhere, even in the biggest summer movies playing at a multiplex near you.