In this Jack Clayton directed (The Innocents, Room at the Top) adaptation of an overly-reverential screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, the unrequited love affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan takes a back seat to the love affair the camera has with all the 1920s Art Deco knickknacks, gimcracks, and gewgaws on display throughout. This The Great Gatsby is a fashionista’s orgy of breathtaking period costuming, a production designer’s wet-dream of glittering Jazz Age opulence, and an antiquities museum curator’s idea of a motion picture. Lovely to look at, yet emotionally arid, antiseptic, and hermetically sealed.
|Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby|
|Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan|
|Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan|
|Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway|
|Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson|
|Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker|
Miscast, misguided, and overproduced (the latter an odd thing to say about a movie which revels in the excesses of the wealthy), that this film ranks at all amongst my picks of memorable movies to write about for this blog is largely due to The Great Gatsby being one of my top, all-time favorite novels and this version being a particularly faithful big screen adaptation. Painstakingly so, in fact. Indeed, the paradox of this nearly $7 million mounting of The Great Gatsby is how it is able to faithfully replicate so many intricate details of the novel (including sizable chunks of dialog and virtually the entirely of the book's events and characters) while still managing somehow to leave out both the book's passion and its pathos. It’s like one of those lifelike celebrity waxworks at Madame Tussauds: identical in every superficial detail, but falling short of being a true representation of life because it lacks a soul.
|Daisy & Gatsby|
Mia Farrow (absolute perfection in Rosemary's Baby) is an actress I greatly admire, but for me she was totally out of her depth as Daisy Buchanan. Lacking the ability of say, Julie Christie, who can somehow play shallow and self-absorbed as interesting and sympathetic, Farrow's Daisy is mostly annoyingly fey and shrill. To be fair, F.Scott Fitzgerald's daughter, Frances, told People magazine at the time, "Mia Farrow looks like the Daisy my father had in mind." However, this was said during the filming. I've no idea what she thought after seeing the finished product.
Most movies have tortuous paths to completion, but The Great Gatsby is one of those films which gives the appearance of an inordinate amount of time and energy being spent on engineering a marketable property, not making a film. We still have the basic story of the millionaire with the shady past who attempts to reignite an old love affair with the socialite who threw him over years ago when he was poor, but that's almost all we have. Very little of what can be deemed effective is done with the novel's themes involving class, idealized romance, and morality.
One rarely gets the sense that anyone involved in the making of The Great Gatsby had even read the novel, much less understood any of what Fitzgerald was trying to say about the corrupting allure of the shiny side of American Dream. Had more than a few seconds of thought been afforded these concerns, surely someone would have noted the contradiction inherent in making an ostentatious, large-scale behemoth about the pernicious vulgarity of the rich. I have a hunch that Paramount, in having made a fortune with Erich Segal’s Love Story, merely saw Fitzgerald's book as a "great romance." I'm sure it was their hope to combine the crowd-pleasing romanticism of Love Story (1970) with the moneymaking, sentimentalized nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973), and never gave a thought to much else.
The amount of publicity surrounding the release of The Great Gatsby was near-suffocating and ultimately off-putting to the public. In 1974 Warner Bros. had Mame waiting in the wings, Paramount had Gatsby (both released in March and featuring eye-popping period costumes by Theadora Van Runkle) as well as Chinatown. The entire country was swept up in a nostalgia craze that even the decade's eventual disco-fever couldn't quell.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
For all my complaining about what a prefab piece of Hollywood machinery The Great Gatsby turned out to be, I nevertheless get quite a kick out of the film. This in spite of my not finding the film to be particularly good, yet feeling a certain attachment to it due to a few sentimental, Gatsby-esque reasons of my own. The pleasure I derive from watching The Great Gatsby these days is chiefly nostalgic in nature, and directly related to the memories I have of my sixteen-year-old self in 1974. Back then I was caught up in all things movie-related and willfully swept up in the Gatsby hype. I bought all the magazines containing Gatsby articles, purchased the soundtrack album, and dragged my family to see it several times. I did everything short of beg my mother to purchase and serve our meals on the limited-edition The Great Gatsby Corelle® dinnerware they sold at the local department store.
My DVD of the film is a treasured guilty pleasure, but I can't help wishing it were otherwise. A consolation of sorts is that the joys I currently find in this surprisingly joyless movie (Gatsby’s parties look well-populated and busy, but not the least bit fun) are of the so-bad-it’s-good variety. I honestly could watch this film every day, yet I wouldn't recommend it to a soul. It's a very watchable, amiable kind of failure. One which yields new campy treasures and glaring misjudgments with each viewing.
A couple of examples:
Daisy’s hair. In her memoirs, Mia Farrow felt her performance was “undermined” by the unflattering wig she was forced to wear, claiming that for the duration, “(It) felt and looked like cotton candy.” Can’t disagree with her there.
The clothes fetish. I know everyone in this movie is supposed to be rich and can afford fancy garb, but this is one of those movies where all the clothes have that distracting “never been worn” look. This also applies to the never-lived-in sets and all those pristine automobiles on display. These cars are so drooled over by the camera that when Myrtle meets her end at the fender of Gatsby’s gorgeous yellow Rolls Royce, I'm tempted to think audiences were left in a moral quandary...were they upset by her death, or because she left such a big, ugly dent in that perfectly lovely automobile?
According to Roman Polanski, his dream casting of the role of Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby would have been Robert Redford. Upon seeing the lack of chemistry displayed between Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby, I'm inclined to think he dodged a bullet there. Certainly the Clark Gable of the 70’s, Robert Redford is a strikingly handsome man (I could write a sonnet about the way the sun hits the blond fur on his upper thighs in his swimsuit scene); but he is woefully stiff and colorless as Gatsby. It’s unimaginable that anyone this bland could harbor an obsessed fixation on anything other than Miracle Whip.
By way of contrast, we have my personal 70s fave, Karen Black, giving what can most charitably be described as a ridiculous performance as 20s hotbox, Myrtle Wilson. Karen Black won a Golden Globe for it, so perhaps it’s just a matter of taste, but I don’t believe her Myrtle for a minute…which is not the same thing as saying that I don’t love her performance. Acting her ass off in an almost alarmingly mannered fashion, Black is terrible in that Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara way, and as such, she’s close to being the only life the film has. I'm not sure whose idea it was to make Myrtle so hapless (over the course of the film, Black falls down a flight of stairs, shoves her hand through a plate window, and suffers a rap across the mouth), but hers is a physical, black comedy performance (pun intended) very faithful to the idiosyncratic skills of the actress. Tone and tempo of the rest of the film be damned.
|Actress Brooke Adams, (l.) who would star in 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and actor Edward Herrmann (r.) who played FDR in the 1982 musical, Annie show up in bit parts as party guests in The Great Gatsby.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There’s not a lot that Mia Farrow does right in The Great Gatsby, but there is one scene where she so completely nails it that it almost makes her being so poorly cast worthwhile. It’s the scene that takes place in the Buchanan household when everyone is sitting around the dinner table complaining about the heat (taking place over the course of one summer, everybody sweats a lot in this movie…from the neck up,anyway. No one’s clothes are ever damp). In this scene Daisy forgets herself and speaks to Gatsby as if the others aren't there. “Ah, you look so cool. You always look so cool,” she says dreamily. Catching herself, she blushes and starts to rattle off a nonsense explanation that hilariously trails off to nowhere. Farrow seriously knocks that little bit of business out of the park. It’s the single most authentically character-based acting she does in the film, and she’s great. In that one minute I can see what kind of woman Daisy was perhaps supposed to be all along.
Trusting a sensitive book like The Great Gatsby to an industry comprised of individuals who wouldn't know a moral imperative if it tapped them on the shoulder and asked if it could park their Hummers for them, is a little like asking Donald Trump to act like a human being for five minutes: the desire may be there, but the tools to pull it off aren't.
This version of The Great Gatsby is almost valueless as drama, but it's the perfect kind of screen adaptation of a literary classic for showing in high school English Classes. For while it is a faithful visual representation of the body of the text, at no time does the film tip its hand toward revealing what the novel’s underlying themes are, leaving that to the students to discuss amongst themselves.
|Toned, tanned, & terrific, beefcake Redford provides a glimpse of what is |
so great about this particular Gatsby.
Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.”
Copyright © Ken Anderson