The Great Gatsby is one of those books frequently described as unfilmable, and Jack Clayton's version is a good example of a movie that captures the letter of a great novel while missing its spirit. Fitzgerald's careful poetry is visited here only in snippets of voiceover narration. The structure of the book is well-observed, and its characters impersonated by good actors. Unfortunately, the likely response to the show at the fade-out is still going to be, "Maybe I should read the book someday."
Paramount's lavish production was its biggest offering for 1974, and one that fell flat at the box office. Fitzgerald wrote about the wealthy, superficial class of a bygone age, and all the period decor and costumes don't make them any more accessible to our emotions. Robert Redford and Mia Farrow are perfectly cast in many ways; yet the static, interior tone of much of the tale prevents either the romance or the drama from coming alive.
It's complete and faithful but The Great Gatsby just doesn't catch fire. Francis Coppola's screenplay has the same adaptational feel as his much earlier This Property is Condemned, right down to the literal transposition of the novel's symbolism. Fitzgerald's giant eyeglasses on the billboard are indeed the eyes of God staring at George Wilson's miserable gas station in the middle of a wasteland. You'd think that the Long Island rich would beautify the roadway going to their luxurious neighborhoods, and what works as a literary conceit in the book just seems too literal here.
The same goes for Fitzgerald's portrait of the vast wealth of the Long Island rich. The females are appropriately vain and superficial like Daisy Buchanan, and the men bigoted snobs like her husband Tom. On the page we might interpret the opinion of narrator Nick Carraway, but movies can't express opinions. These people are exactly what they are, living lives remote from reality and indulging their private fantasies.
Coppola can't help but make Jay Gatsby's possible links to the underworld plainly obvious. Even if no proof is offered, we see Gatsby associate with dapper Howard Da Silva, 'the man who fixed the 1919 World Series', and assume there's a crooked connection. We see Gatsby's gun-toting bodyguard. We hear Gatsby's evasions about his income and his past. If Nick Carraway doesn't draw conclusions, we certainly do.
If anything, Nick is too soft on Gatsby, who awkwardly uses both socialite Jordan Baker and 'poor neighbor' Nick to facilitate his affair with Daisy. Robert Redford plays the reclusive millionaire the only way he can be played, mysteriously. This Redford does perfectly well. It's just that when Fitzgerald's elusive character becomes an image on film, he stops making sense. The Gatsby we see is an incurable romantic who stares off across the ocean hoping to recapture a dream. Yet he's also meant to be the kind of man who could amass a huge fortune in three years in business, the kind of profits never reported in the papers. We could imagine an older Gatsby softening and trying to recover a lost past, but this man is young. We spend over two hours hearing about his romantic obsession for Daisy, but we don't feel it. Gatsby does so very little ... even the heavy dramatic scenes are mostly static. Yes, obsession makes one blind, but it's no fun watching Gatsby catch up with things we see right away. Daisy's a thoughtless narcissist who isn't going to let anything inconvenient interrupt her lifestyle; she lives in a fantasy world perfectly happy to do without the lost love of her youth. In real life, people don't always 'make sense.' In a movie, it's hard to respect or even understand a character like Gatsby. He's a character meant for the printed page.
The Great Gatsby is a multi-leveled reverie of a bygone age, with the amiable Nick Carraway providing our advent into an affluent, alien world. He's the author's representative, the fly on the wall and the spokesman for Fitzgerald's sentiments. In the movie, he's almost an obstruction. Nick's discreet presence in the famous scene where Gatsby shows Daisy his collection of shirts is almost laughable; as the two lovers wax ecstatic over the joy of haberdashery, Nick is moved to tears and exits as if from a sacred reunion. When Fitzgerald tells us that the atmosphere was charged with an inexpressable joy we accept it, but on screen we look for harder evidence. When Daisy runs her hand down sensuously down a long line of brass gelatin molds in Gatsby's kitchen, finally reaching Jay's hand, we're seeing the limitations of literal film. What's she so ga-ga about?
Producer David Merrick lined up a top cast who do remarkably good work under Jack Clayton's ponderous direction. Bruce Dern is solid, but we don't associate him with this kind of character and keep expecting him to revert to psycho mode. That's a shame, but it's true ... the few scenes we see of Dern as a likeable nice guy in Black Sunday make us wish he'd never been cast as a heavy. The losers played by Karen Black and Scott Wilson are almost the only people in the film who don't regularly dress in evening wear. Since we know perfectly well that the story won't show them any mercy, we're not surprised when the Buchanans utteryly destroy them. Poor Miss Black has so little screen time, we don't even sympathize with her - she's as embarrassing to us as she is to Tom Buchanan. Gorgeous Lois Chiles, later Roger Moore's playmate in Moonraker lacks depth; we thoroughly believe Nick wouldn't become interested in her, and not just because she's too rich and he's too poor.
The Great Gatsby is awash in production values that don't achieve the desired illusion of the past. The costumes and cars are photographed so flatly that they look just like what they are - costumes and collector's automobiles. The same year's Chinatown effortlessly established its depression era with a fraction of the trimmings. Gatsby doesn't have a feel for its period, even if the hairstyles are for once fairly accurate. Most of the songs we hear are flavorless standards with lyrics that are still familiar 80 years later; The Night They Raided Minsky's uses an unknown Victrola tunes here and there immediately transports us to 1925. I'm told that the score is the original with What'll I do ... readers have informed me that the original score hasn't been heard on video versions. The parties on Gatsby's lawn are like a nostalgic magazine layout - there's an element beyond the visual that's missing.
Paramount's DVD of The Great Gatsby is another of their featureless but better-than adequate discs with a very good transfer. Sound and picture are fine, and the widescreen enhanced image restores compositional sense to many scenes. Seeing Robert Redford in the role of Gatsby makes me want to catch up with the old Alan Ladd version, with its intriguing cast - Betty Field, Shelley Winters, and Howard da Silva (this version's Wolfsheim) as Wilson. Alan Ladd's brand of 1940s cool might have been a perfect fit for Jay Gatsby.
Sticking out interestingly at Gatsby's party are Sammy Smith (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and, at one of the long party tables, Brooke Adams. She's not listed in the cast or at the IMDB, but it can't be anyone else. I think.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Gatsby rates: