Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Draper and Gatsby
It dawned on me when I was listening to Matthew Weiner's commentary on Season 1 DVD of Mad Men. He said, "We had a policy to audition everyone, regardless of how famous. And I insisted on casting no British actors." He explained that, despite the thespian quality of Brits, he is too sensitive about a minor deviation in the American accent. I have to suspect he insists on the casting policy out of principles, because Weiner said something akin to "This is fundamentally an American story."
That was when I made the connection to The Great Gatsby.
Since the beginning when the identity problem of Don Draper was revealed, I have been bugged by a sense of deja vu. Yes, there have been many previous examples of someone taking someone else's identity and go on to live a new life. The Talented Mr. Ripley was far from the only known sample. Although all impostors have some commonality, the vibe from the aptly named Don DRAPER is entirely different from the desperate Tom Ripley. Only when I superimposed his impeccably American man's image over Jay Gatsby did I realize where this whole thing is about. No wonder.
Mad Men is indeed the quintessential American mythology: the self-made man, the unique opportunity to reinvent yourself, to be anyone you want yourself to be and never be bound by your class or origin or who you truly are.
The Great Gatsby was told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, who seems to hold an overly romantic view of Jay Gatsby and the mythical American Man. Gatsby's own mind remains inaccessible to us all, including the quintessential American reader. Here, Weiner obviously wants to expose the real American Man from the inside, and it's not a pretty picture. Yet this is also why American audience, especially male viewers, finds him irresistible and admirable despite the merciless depiction of the hollow and fake reality of the American mythology. He is so flawlessly dashing and ruthlessly domineering. He inspires awe in them. They want simultaneously to be him and to worship him, to be ruled by him.
Don Draper is no longer an honorable gangster but an advertising man. He represents more acutely the modern American man and a society that runs on manufactured desire, the insatiable appetite to sell --- and buy --- more and more and more. Thus Draper is the Gatsby of our time, which began in the booming 1950s, just like the booming 1920s, before the whole dream came crashing down into a pile of rubble.
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