The Great Gatsby and When Movies Do Drag


A lot of the critical discussion surrounding Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—perhaps still the closest we have to a consensus “Great American Novel”—could be seen coming from a mile away. I suspect a fair number of critics were salivating at the mere thought of eviscerating the film the moment they heard the adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel—which was deeply skeptical about the gild and glitz of the Jazz Age—was being helmed by Luhrmann, who could never be mistaken for a skeptic of anything with a bit of sparkle. Luhrmann’s films are lusty and lustrous; they are passionate exercises in stylization and acts of hedonism, not condemnations of these things.

Luhrmann’s penchant for all things decadent seems to make him a counterintuitive choice for the project and so the outrage was predictable. But such outrage presupposes that adaptation must be faithful, and this is most certainly not true. Adaptation can subvert or parody, adaptation can twist and switch and morph its source material into all sorts of new and sometimes startling permutations. This is why I was intrigued when Luhrmann was announced as director. I suspected that his own grotesque extravagance might create a certain dynamism when paired with Fitzgerald’s vision.

The final product bears out my hypothesis, though I still find that, as a whole, it fails to scale the sort of heights toward which some of its moments hint. It’s as though the film is a guide that points to these tremendous and fantastic peaks and says “we could go there” but then fails to lead the way. The moments that are best in this new iteration of Gatsby are the moments when it feels the most Luhrmann. When it feels like this wants to be a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge! (where Jazz Age New York stands in for fin de siècle Paris), the movie soars and a fascinating frisson occurs between Luhrmann and this story. And when I was watching these delirious moments, it struck me that Gatsby—and perhaps Luhrmann’s filmography in general—is best when approached with a drag sensibility.

When I make that statement, I am obviously not talking about Luhrmann’s movies being about drag. I am talking about reading this film and Luhrmann’s others as drag. That might strike one as a strange statement. How exactly does a movie dress in drag? Fair question. I’m speaking more about the spirit of drag, about its aesthetic and aims, and how these can be echoed in certain films, of which Luhrmann’s are certainly prime examples.

This, of course, raises more questions: what is  drag’s aim and what is drag’s aesthetic? These are queries to which there is no easy or singular answer. Drag queens and kings come in all shapes and styles. Many who dress in drag are cis, but not all are. For many it’s a hobby, for some it’s a way of living—whether economically or personally. All this is to say that this essay will be making certain generalizations, but they should be recognized and admitted as such.

One of drag’s aims is to exaggerate. Drag, as performance art, is often agitation through exaggeration. A drag queen doesn’t just wear a wig. She layers and combines wigs until she has a towering and imposing spire of hair. A drag queen doesn’t just throw on mascara. She puts on false eyelashes, sometimes multiple pairs. A drag queen doesn’t just don a sundress and call it a day. She’ll be corseted and padded until she has an impossible hourglass figure, and then she will sport a train so long the end of her dress is in another time zone.

It’s through exaggerating aspects of perceived femininity (or masculinity for drag kings) that drag seeks to destabilize not just gender, but all categories of identity. Through exaggeration and farce, through embracing excess and artifice, drag renders visible the constructedness of identity. Gender, sexuality, and even race and class are all made manifest through the adoption of discrete signifiers. The operative word here being adoption. In the drag paradigm, identity becomes a wardrobe we can rifle through, taking what we like and discarding what we do not. It’s this view of identity that sometimes contributes to drag’s complicated relationship with feminism, critical race theory, and the trans* community—drag delights in exploiting, mocking, and enacting stereotypes, and wields its political incorrectness like a weapon. As many scholars and writers have noted, drag simultaneously subverts and reifies certain hegemonic principles. This inherent and internal contradiction is perhaps a key piece of evidence in demonstrating that drag represents a terminally queer worldview—when these hegemonic principles are in turns perpetuated or flouted, seemingly on a whim, it becomes clear that drag is not setting out to attack or support them, but rather, drag has no regard for them whatsoever.

Drag also operates largely within the camp sensibility. Camp itself is often rooted in exaggeration and extravagance. And as Susan Sontag noted, camp is a sensibility that tends to approach things viscerally, as aesthetic experiences. Which brings me back to the beginning of this essay where I said that many of the criticisms lobbed at Luhrmann’s Gatsby could be easily foretold. I’m talking most specifically about a particular phrase—“style over substance.” This is a fundamentally flawed criticism; it takes for granted that “style” and “substance” are separate and distinct pieces of a work of art, but this dichotomy is completely constructed and ultimately false. How would one go about defining the “substance” of, say, an Ellsworth Kelly painting? In art, style is substance. Fitzgerald’s novel illustrates as much: if you simply look at the core plot of Gatsby, you’re left with a rather banal melodrama. What makes it special is the elegance and economy of Fitzgerald’s prose. But where standard readings and standard adaptation might be invested in the moral implications illustrated through Fitzgerald’s style, a camp adaptation is not.

Adaptation is a key word here because drag is also, at its core, an art of adaptation. Celebrity impersonation is one of the pillars of the drag world, as is the lip sync performance (sometimes to spoken word, often to pop hits). Songs, looks, and sometimes whole shticks are cribbed and reinterpreted in drag. Drag is transformative, but also highly referential—there is no beginning or end, only allusion. Drag references are likely to parody—albeit lovingly and with great reverence for the source material—or to altogether transplant the source material into a new environment where its original signifiers become unmoored from their signifieds. A drag queen doesn’t play Marilyn Monroe, but plays a breathy “Happy Birthday Mr. President” Marilyn at full force, as though that was what Marilyn Monroe always was, crystallized as one incandescent image in our collective imagination. Or take, for instance, a song like “MacArthur Park.” The original ’68 Harris version was commercially successful, but was also subject to a great deal of criticism for its odd and baroque language and metaphors. It wasn’t until the song entered a sort of queer chrysalis with the Donna Summer disco cover-version that it really clicked and blossomed into a staple drag lip sync song. Only a drag sensibility is able to completely untether that cake metaphor and allow it to rise to genuinely tragic heights, because it’s not understood so much as it is felt.

The Great Gatsby might seem a strange text to try and drag up since it is taken so seriously and seen as so great by so many. But the wealthy milieu it depicts, the fact that its bare-bones plot is pure soap opera, and a couple of perhaps overripe symbols in the green light and the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg (which, outside of some of Hawthorne’s allegories, might be the symbol-iest symbols in American literature) all make it a text that’s a natural fit for a “camp adaptation”—which I hope I have demonstrated is a phrase that could be used as one definition of “drag.” And that’s precisely what Luhrmann’s version is: it’s a drag performer dressed up in the clothes of Fitzgerald’s novel, lip syncing his words, and playing it to the hilt.

At least, that’s what it probably should have been. Because when it is dragging itself up, it is intensely compelling. Take, for instance, the first party at Gatsby’s mansion, which is shot as a riotous music video culminating in the introduction of the character of Gatsby against a backdrop of dazzling, perfectly-timed fireworks. It’s a scene so unabashedly gaudy and ostentatious that you can’t help but be hypnotized, compelled, awestruck, and yet partially taken aback by just how much it is (there’s a drag term for just such a feeling—it’s at times like this that Luhrmann’s movie leaves us “gagging”). The same happens during Myrtle’s death, shot at points in gratuitous slowmo, with the camera swooping grandly toward the all-seeing eyes of Eckleburg. It’s a “big” aesthetic that is starkly different from Fitzgerald’s own approach, but it would be hard to argue that it’s not a perfect fit for the cosmic and ludicrous coincidence that Myrtle’s death represents.

The problem is that Luhrmann doesn’t adopt this tone and aesthetic completely. There are scenes where he approaches the material this way, but they are interspersed with scenes that play things much more straight-faced (pardon the pun), as though Luhrmann’s film quits its exaggerated lip sync halfway through and starts to sing live—and it doesn’t sing badly, but nor does it sing well enough to justify dropping the lip sync. When Luhrmann plays it straighter, it just starts to feel like a typically Hollywood take on the material—glossy, but with neither the subtle elegance of Fitzgerald’s original, nor the shock-and-awe eleganza of its draggier moments. In the end, it tries to be too dignified and we are left with a film that has too much regard for Fitzgerald’s big themes to be a jubilant, Dionysian drag orgy, but too much of drag’s ambivalence toward those same themes to actually render a round and provocative examination of them.

What this movie does help illustrate, though, is that adaptation is not about slavish adherence to the source material. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that what we interpret as “adherence” and “faithfulness” may differ depending on our perspectives. Luhrmann’s is a faithful (even if not wholly successful) adaptation of Gatsby. The same could be said of his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (which “adapts” a significant portion of the Pop canon). It’s just that these are all faithful camp adaptations—they are all movies that sometimes dress in drag.