the gilded age

The grand old families of Long Island — the Buchanans of ‘East Egg' — and their disdain for the flamboyant nouveau riche of 'West Egg’ are the kingpin of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As you’ll know if you’ve read the book, or if you see the Baz Luhrmann adaptation — for which he wrote the screenplay in a loft suite at Ace Hotel New York — premiering today, West Egg’s prince of thieves is represented by the Prohibition-era rumrunner with an inferiority complex and a broken heart of gold, Jay Gatsby. Why would generations of Americans below tycoon-status be so drawn to a story in some ways so remote from their own lives, dealing as it does with an obtuse schism between rival factions of the over-privileged? Likely, it’s due to Jay Gatsby’s humble origins, and the shame he felt about them, coupled with his unrequited love — both of which make him universally relatable. He’s a prototype for the conflicted American social climber, most eloquently expressed today in hip hop. We don’t begrudge him his excess because he feels like one of our own. And none of it — the fancy cars, the lavish parties, the jazz orchestras imported from Harlem — can salve the wounded soul of this striver anyway. His hopeless inner struggle humanizes him. Even after the robber barons of the Jazz Age drove the country off a cliff there was still a place in America’s heart for Jay Gatsby.

The Gatsbys and Buchanans of today’s West and East Egg are less nuanced. The rumrunner tycoons are all gone. They’ve been replaced by investment banks that bundle predatory loans and sell them to your grandparents’ pension funds, then short sell against those same loans, to make a killing when families get foreclosed on in Jamaica, Queens or Cleveland, Ohio, and your grandparents lose their life savings. You know the story well — its choose-your-own-misadventure variations are nearly endless.

In our Gilded Age, if you’re more than a few rungs up, there’s little or no social consequence for ethically dubious schemes, as there was for poor Gatsby’s rumrunning. When a Gatsby of 2013 gets busted, he settles for pennies on the dollar and celebrates by treating himself to a Picasso. Our East and West Eggers’ soirées still depend upon the fruits of creative labor. Without artists, the party would be a drag. Even acute protestations end up on the penthouse walls.

As Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby hits screens today, we’ll face an invitation to inquire into how history repeats itself — how are tensions between landed gentry and lottery winners, between philanthropists and studio-squatters, between the desire to be an object of envy and the deep human need to struggle toward our fantasies, ideals and visions — how are these the sheer force by which a developed and developing world orbits? We’re human, imperfect, compassionate, greedy, and full of yearning. It looks good on the big screen — it’s fucking beautiful. Good sugar with a bit of vinegar between the lines of the great American novel.

I hope everyone treats Julian Fellowes the same way he’s treated Lady Edith and Lady Edith fans these past five years. I hope that his new show The Gilded Age fails as much as he’s made Edith fail. I hope the guilds and award giving bodies treat him the way Lady Mary treats Lady Edith. I hope that his artistic karma hits him in real life. The only way I’d wish Fellowes any kind of luck is if Laura Carmichael’s career takes off and she gets award nominations and wins for a few of her future projects, because she sure as hell isn’t going to get them outside of the Ensemble on Downton Abbey. Edith learning of Gregson’s death from her Editor would have been an awards season bait scene, but Laura Carmichael got the short end of the stick like Edith with this Marigold/Edith story line. If Laura Carmichael’s career is hampered or inhibited by Poor Edith and I don’t see more of her outside of Lady Edith type roles after Downton Abbey, then I want Julian Fellowes career to sink like the Titanic. I’ve given up on getting any kind of long lasting payoff with Edith on Downton Abbey. I can only hope that Laura Carmichael isn’t imprisoned by Poor Edith. Because if she’s not able to break it, then I want Julian Fellowes to get all the failures, breaks and treatment that he wrote for Lady Edith.
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Q. Are you approaching your NBC drama, “The Gilded Age,” differently for an American audience?

A. I’m going to do the pilot this year. I’ve got a list of potential advisers, and I am a big, big fan of Edith Wharton and Henry James and that period of history after the Civil War — the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys and all of those people. As for adapting what I write for American audiences, American audiences have enjoyed “Downton.” I try and make TV shows that I’m going to want to watch. And when I’m reading it, I’m saying to myself: “Is this boring? Are you still enjoying this scene? Shouldn’t it be over by now?” [laughs] I can’t imagine my departing from that principle very far.

Q. Are you starting to think about how “Downton Abbey” might end?

A. It’s not really my decision. I don’t own “Downton Abbey” now. NBC Universal [which owns Carnival Films] owns “Downton Abbey.” So I could walk away, but I wouldn’t walk away. It’s too much my baby. It won’t go on forever — I’m not a believer in that. But I can’t immediately now tell you where the end will be.

Q. So the idea of continuing with these characters into post-World War II Britain … ?

A. For me, that would be a different series. Maybe people would say, “Oh my God, that’s baby George, grown up!” But I don’t think it would be continuous, with Michelle Dockery with her hair covered with talcum powder.