When I was young I was a voracious reader. If you saw me there was a book nearby. I developed a habit early on as a reader held me in good stead when I started designing sets –– casting and then creating the locations described in the book in my head and having my characters inhabit my cranial creations. It made books very real for me.
Frame from Original 1926 Trailer for Gatsby, all that remains of the film
That’s exactly what I do now when I read a script. Styles and shapes and colors start to coalesce, then props and art and –– well, you get the picture. The casting director in my head has gotten a bit out of shape since I usually know who’s going to be in the movie by the time I get a script but when I saw The Great Gatsby was going to be made again my casting director self bristled because I have never never, never been satisfied with the casting or the production design for one of my favorite books–– nope, never.
DiCaprio and Mulligan 2013?
Redford and Farrow in 1974?
Ladd and Field in 1949?
Baxter and Wilson in 1926? (this isn’t fair, the film is lost so hard to tell)
I still haven’t gone to see the new version but I know I will (even if I am not over-the-moon with the casting). Baz Lehrmann movies always have a great look when his wife, Catharine Martin does the costumes and the sets and she does fine work (Moulin Rouge, Oh Yes).
When I watched an interview with her, I enjoyed the way she waded through the script and designed intelligent visual storytelling through her costumes and in sets and decoration. That she had a few years to work on the project shows in all the astonishing details.
Even the cars are consistent with her interpretation of the novel and the script and for all of it she decided to play with styles throughout the 20's and not be locked in to 1922 (the famous Paris Deco Exhibition was 1925, '22 wasn't up to Deco speed yet). When Martin and Luhrmann didn’t like the way cars looked in 1922 (they felt the cars looked too Beverly Hillbillies-Keystone Cops boxy or Muntster’s ghoulish hearsey), they went to a 1929 Duesenberg since the look suited them better (Fitzgerald mentions a Rolls Royce carting people around as Duesenbergs weren't yet hot in the early 20's).
1929 Duesenberg used in the film
Wardrobe was also matched to the characters with Daisy clinging to the hem of the early part of the century with a more gauzy look and Jordan looking forward as a modern woman with pants and dresses that were backless or cut on the bias.
Headache band from original 1917 Tiffany design
When deciding what Gatsby’s house would look like they visited many old mansions on Long Island and looked at photos of historical houses (the only way to see them –– sadly, many have been demolished). Fitzgerald described Gatsby's house this way:
The old photos come from the Old Long Island site –– a treasure of historical documents and new photos of old estates as well as great history – it’s addictive.
Oheka Castle, Photos from Old Long Island blog
Otto Kahn’s Oheka Castle,Photos from Old Long Island blog
Beacon Tower,Photos from Old Long Island blog
Beacon Tower, Photos from Old Long Island blog
From these and others, Miller ended up shooting in a Gothic Revival building, the former St Patrick’s Seminary in Sydney and added the towers digitally
St Patrick’s Seminary, Sydney
Miller/Luhrmann fantasy version of Gatsby –– part St. Patricks Seminary, part Beacon Towers, part Oheka Castle and a little Disney.
The swirling ballroom is a visual stunner, especially with the pillow pit out of Arabian Nights – Gatsby drinking orange juice like Diamond Jim Brady!
Gatsby’s bedroom with another swirly staircase, master-of-the-universe bed and the library of shirts.
Gatsby’s enormous party seems like a peacock fanning it’s tail to attract his mate --- Gatsby overdid it to get Daisy’s attention.
When you move to food within the book, the pickings are spare. For the most part, the book and the films are about champagne and cocktails like the gin rickey (gin, lime and seltzer) –– there’s a good deal of drinking and Jazz Age hedonistic partying and a lot of orange juice.
Aside from a late night plate of fried chicken at the kitchen table and sausage and mashed potatoes at a NYC eatery, there are only 2 other scenes where food is mentioned. This makes sense in a historical context. With Prohibition, fine food fell down a well. How do you make fine French food without wine? Almost every sauce has wine. Restaurants without liquor tabs couldn’t make a go of it and many of the great names went out of business. What happened was food seemed to take a back seat to booze –– food was a necessary evil. You had to eat but didn’t much matter what. American versions of Italian and Chinese food became popular.
Still, Fitzgerald freighted his party table with meaning. Nick, his narrator describes it:
The food here is all about ostentation. The homey ham and turkey are gilded for Gatsby and the description is about display not taste (I imagine they are en croûte - pig and turkey shaped pastries would be a bit odd).
The scene that I loved is smaller and it is the tea at Nick Carraway’s charming arts and crafts bungalow in the new film.
Gatsby has sent a whole florist’s shop of flowers to decorate the place for the tea with Daisy.
I love that Nick sent his housekeeper to the delicatessen to get teacakes! Gatsby would have had gold-plated pastries brought from NYC for this meeting with Daisy for the first time in 5 years. The new film added quite a few more desserts than the little lemon cakes!
That’s what I wanted to make, Nick’s lemon cakes not for show but for simple good taste. I found a recipe from a wonderful book from the first decade of the 20th century by Janet McKenzie Hill. I have an incredible little book of hers called The Book of Entrees that is chock full of photographs of dishes from the 1920s. She also wrote a book called Cakes Pastries and Dessert Dishes. In it I found a recipe for Lemon Queens. Small lemon cakes like the ones that Nick might have had on the tea table.
1/2 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
grated rind of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon (about 2 1/2 T)
1 1/4 c flour
1/4 t baking soda
1/8 t salt
4 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks
candied violets and herbs (optional)
Cream the butter. Beat in the sugar, yolks, rind and juice. Sift the flour salt and soda. Fold in the egg whites and put into 16 well buttered cupcake tins or something like -– mine had decorative flutes so my cakes were upside down. If you use a regular cupcake pan, turn them the regular way. Bake 350º for about 20 minutes.
Cover with boiled frosting and violets.
Boiled Frosting for Lemon Queens
3/4 c sugar
1/4 c boiling water
1 egg white, beaten to soft peaks
1/2 t vanilla extract
Boil the sugar and water together till it reaches 238º. Pour slowly into the egg whites, beating all the while. The frosting will be soft.