When narrator Nick Carraway meets Jay Gatsby in director Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, the man who gives The Great Gatsby its name smiles and raises a martini glass. “I’m Gatsby,” says Leonardo di Caprio, while behind him fireworks go off, the music swells and all creation seems to explode with joy because Jay Gatsby has shown himself. Describing the charismatic hero, Nick (Tobey Maguire) says he had “one of those rare smiles that you may come across four or five times in life. It seemed to understand you and believe in you just as you would like to be understood and believed in.”
And thus was born a meme. Meet the Great Gatsby Reaction or the Leonardo DiCaprio Toast.
According to the website Know Your Meme, the Toast as a meme was born in the cradle of all things genuinely cool, the blogging website Tumblr. It appeared initially as a reaction image to American singer Fergie’s song, “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)”. Soon after, the website Meme Generator uploaded the still from The Great Gatsby (2013), and users could add superimposed text to it. From self-referential (“Hasn't seen you in years. Spent the time becoming a good provider and gives you dozens of flowers, because he loved you all along”) to retorts (“F*** you”), an assortment of texts adorned Gatsby’s blonde hair and tux accoutred torso. The bulk of the memes, however, were made as reactions in praise of something. Researcher Limor Shifman, who wrote the book Memes in Digital Culture, explained that a juxtaposition meme removes a facial expression or an activity from its context, and reappropriates it with an image and punchline to fit other discourses. In short, you don’t need to know The Great Gatsby; you just need to vibe with DiCaprio holding a martini.
Ten years later, the hangover of Luhrmann’s film and this particular moment from The Great Gatsby (2013) lingers on. When it first came out, the film received mixed reviews from critics but earned over $353 million worldwide. The Great Gatsby is still Luhrmann’s highest-grossing film to date, showcasing the director’s flair for spectacle and talent for using contrasts, like the way he used pop and jazz music for worldbuilding. Fans of Fitzgerald’s novel noted that the film did not delve into the layered portrait of new money, greed and social hierarchy, but in a strange way, the meme has ended up being part of the popular discourse, examining many of these issues with humour and succinctness.
The Toast has gone on to have a life of its own, independent from the film, with internet users using this moment as a GIF or a text-embellished meme to signal everything from wry acknowledgement to a sarcastic send-off. These memes are spectacles in themselves, staged to please the eyes (think Gatsby’s smoulder over the rim of the glass) and placate the mind (who can forget his benevolent smile?). Luhrmann harked back to the jazz age through Fitzgerald’s novel at a time when memes were entering mainstream media. Netizens dragged Gatsby to a present which was using modern technology to indulge in the act of collective remembrance. Befittingly, they chose a frame that captures not only the essence of Jay Gatsby but the zeitgeist of a decade when nostalgia and ambition found common ground.