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Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby won Best Film at this year’s Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, and scooped the pool with thirteen AACTA Awards. It was slightly controversial, because the AACTAs are for Australian films, and The Great Gatsby is an adapation of an American novel financed by Warner Brothers. It does call into question what makes a film “Australian”, but if Cate Blanchett can win an Oscar, surely Leo DiCaprio can win an AACTA?
The Great Gatsby is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the Roaring Twenties, with the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby at its centre. Gatsby is famous for his lavish parties and grand mansion, yet this decadence is only to attract the woman he yearns for. The Greek tragedy of their summer romance provides an opportunity for lyrical musings on the illusory nature of the Great American Dream.
It was probably always going to be controversial to have an Australian direct a movie based on a classic of American literature. Furthermore, while Fitzgerald’s novel is spare and subtle, Baz Luhrman’s films are about as spare and subtle as the Sydney Mardi Gras. However, while critics were underwhelmed, audiences were more receptive to its ornateness and fidelity to the text; the film is Baz Luhrman’s highest-grossing to date, at more than $350 million.
The Great Gatsby won Best Production Design and Best Costume Design at the Oscars, both awards going to Baz Luhrman’s wife, Catherine Martin, who also won two Academy Awards for Moulin Rouge! in 2002. Having now won four Oscars, this makes her Australia’s greatest Academy Award winner of all time, taking the top spot from costume designer Orry-Kelly.
The English surname Gatsby is after the village of Gaddesby in Leicestershire, which comes from the Old Norse personal name Gaddr, meaning “spike, sting, goad”. It therefore means “Gaddr’s homestead”, and from the name we can tell it dates from the Danish Occupation of the 9th and 10th centuries. Gaddr is the basis for the word gadfly, which refers to any biting fly, and gaddr was also used to refer to hard packed snow.
Jay Gatsby’s name is a self-chosen one: he was born James “Jimmy” Gatz. In fiction, it seems whenever a character goes by a different name, they are not all that they seem. Whether it is Strider from Lord of the Rings travelling under a nom de guerre, or James Bond villain Le Chiffre going by a criminal alias, some deception is taking place, whether it be gold not glistering or something more sinister. In the case of Jay Gatsby, his name change seems like that of Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine – an attempt to escape the past.
In real life, it’s quite normal for people to change their names, for all kinds of reasons. Baz Luhrman was named Mark by his parents, and legally changed his name to his childhood nickname (technically his “tease name”, as his schoolmates said his hair looked like vulpine puppet Basil Brush).
Gatsby has had rare use in the United States as a first name for both sexes, well before Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. There was a small spike after the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, and these were boys. Likewise, a few boys have been named Gatsby recently. Although Gatsby as a baby name seems problematic (Nancy from Nancy’s Baby Names specifically warns against it), it’s the name of an iconic Great American Dreamer who now has an Australian connection too.
Catherine is a variant of the name Katherine, from the Old French Caterine. Katherine comes from the Greek name Aikaterine, of debated meaning. The name became well known due to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a legendary saint whose tradition states she was a 4th century princess and scholar of exceptional beauty and intelligence who converted to Christianity as a young teenager, and refused to marry. She was tortured on a spiked wheel (the “Catherine wheel”) and martyred for her faith by beheading. There is no evidence she ever existed, and most likely is a composite figure of several women martyred in Alexandria at the time, with a few romantic touches added.
Christian writers connected her name with the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”, to reflect the saint’s virgin status, and the spelling of the Latin name was changed from Katerina to Katharina because of this false etymology. It’s not clear to me whether the original Greek Aikaterine was a name already in use, or made up by Christian authors. If invented, you would expect it to have Christian significance, but if so its origin has been lost.
Saint Catherine was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. There were shrines to her throughout France and England, and Saint Catharine’s College at Cambridge may have been founded in her honour as a patron of learning. She was especially venerated by young girls, who prayed for good husbands on her feast day of November 25. In France, women who hadn’t married by age twenty-five were called Catherinettes, and in English an unmarried woman was called a spinster, because Saint Catherine is a patron of spinners.
There have been several Queen Catherines in English history. One of the most popular was Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. This Spanish-born queen was descended from an English royal house and named after her English great-grandmother; Catherine was considered very beautiful, with fair skin, blue eyes and reddish hair. She was learned, with a love of literature, and because of her, it became fashionable for women to gain an education. She was also pious, and won widespread admiration for her efforts to assist the poor.
There was great public sympathy for Queen Catherine; first for not being able to provide an heir, then because she was put aside by her husband (who went on to have five more wives). Catherine of Aragon sounds like a Saint Catherine come to life – paintings of the saint often depict her with red hair, and rich clothing suitable for royalty. The queen and the saint seem to have become entwined in the popular imagination, because some of Queen Catherine’s charitable works were attributed to Saint Catherine.
There could well be another Queen Catherine one day, because the Duchess of Cambridge will become queen consort when Prince William becomes king. As the Duke and Duchess are about to visit Australia, her name has been constantly in the news.
Catherine is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #25 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1960s at #12. It left the Top 100 in the early 2000s, and reached its lowest point in 2010 at #268. It received a small boost in 2011 when William and Catherine were married, and in Victoria it is not far out of Top 100.
Catherine is a pretty, feminine name whose peak in the 1960s probably make it seem slightly dated, when in fact it is a timeless classic steeped in history, and still getting plenty of use without being popular. There’s something refined and regal about Catherine, yet it is unpretentious enough to sound like the girl next door. Catherine looks smart and professional on a CV, but has lots of cute nicknames, including Cathy, Cat, Catie and Cate.
Gatsby received an approval rating of 35%, while Catherine received a far warmer reception with a 74% approval rating.