Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Pros & Cons of Robert Redford's version of "The Great Gatsby" (1974)

With the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann's 3-D version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's prohibition-era drama "The Great Gatsby," it seems appropriate to take another look at what was, up until now, the most famous movie version of the book, 1974's "The Great Gatsby" starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  I saw the movie in my high school English class when we read the novel and distinctly remember how the class laughed throughout the film.  Because the movie slavishly recreated the novel without any appropriate sense of perspective or interpretation, the scenes Fitzgerald had created in his book came across to everyone in my class as campy and mannered.  The odd thing was, the movie seemed campy, but it lacked any heart or passion to it.  Director Jack Clayton created a visually beautiful film, but its beauty is undermined by a cold detachment that never allows you to become fully engaged with its potentially rich characters and situations.  I think that's the reason why the movie seemed campy and laughable to our class--we never grew to care about the characters the way we are supposed to and, as a result, we are left with little else but to chuckle at the seemingly strange actions and declarations by the characters because the movie never quite captures the subtle nuances that enriched the novel.  (For instance, the movie excludes the character of "Owl Eyes," the bespectacled party-goer at Gatsby's house impressed by the books in the library who, touchingly, proves his friendship to Gatsby by attending his funeral.  The character is nowhere to be found during the movie and his absence is particularly felt during the funeral scene.)  It's the perfect example of a Cliff's Notes movie version of a classic novel--hitting all the key plot points of a novel without ever fully capturing its essence.

I think the casting of the film is at the heart of the problems with this version of "The Great Gatsby."  Robert Redford is dashing and handsome as Gatsby, demonstrating his charm and charisma, but he seems too refined to convince us that he came from the poor, working class background that he was supposed to have come from.  Gatsby is supposed to be a self-made man who puts on a good act of being a sophisticated host, but whose rough, modest edges can still be discerned by perceptive eyes.  Redford comes across as someone who was to the manner born, from the same aristocratic world as Tom and Daisy, and never fully convinces us that there was a level of struggle and desperation to get where he is.  Moreover, there is never that air of mystery attached to Redford's performance that people continually attribute to Gatsby's character.  You never sense what it is about Gatsby that makes Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) so intrigued with his neighbor as to tail him throughout the novel.  Redford looks good, as ever, but plays Gatsby with an air of detachment that never truly brings the character to life.  Even though Redford's acting is perfectly competent in "The Great Gatsby," I think James Caan, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, or Jack Nicholson would have been more interesting in the role.

Similarly, Mia Farrow is also miscast as Gatsby's object of unrequited love, Daisy.  I like Mia Farrow and respect her work as an actress with an offbeat, otherworldly quality exemplified by her fine work in Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968).  But Daisy should have been a character filled with charm, good-humor, and thoughtless narcissism for Gatsby to have pined away for her all these years.  Farrow instills Daisy with a nervous, neurotic hysteria that makes us wonder what Gatsby ever saw in her.  The scene when Farrow hysterically cries out in panic when she sees George Wilson (Scott Wilson) arrive at her house to question her husband about who drove the car that hit his wife epitomizes why she was all wrong for this role.  It gives Daisy a sense of uncertainty that is at odds with the rest of her character.  I always felt that Daisy was so blithe to causing Myrtle's death, and secure in Gatsby's promise that he would take the blame for it, that she would never lose her cool like that.  Tuesday Weld, who I understand it was on the short list of candidates to play the role, would have been the perfect Daisy for Gatsby to have been obsessed about through the years.  Weld was always perfect at playing charmingly malevolent characters, too wrapped up in self-absorption to care about anyone but themselves.  She had already perfected this type of character years earlier playing Thalia Menninger on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (1959-60) TV series during its first season.  In that series, Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) spends every waking hour thinking of ways to become rich and successful to win Thalia's heart, only to have Thalia continually set the goal higher and higher for him to reach.  And, yet, we always understood why Dobie would break his back to please Thalia.  Her charm continually outweighed whatever drawbacks that straining to please her would entail.  We needed somebody like that playing Daisy to make us understand the nature of Gatsby's obsession for her.

1970s icons Bruce Dern and Karen Black are also awkwardly cast as Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson.  In contrast to Redford, who seems too refined to play Gatsby, Bruce Dern never seems refined and aristocratic enough to play Tom.  You wonder why the status-conscious Daisy would think that marrying Dern's Tom was more socially acceptable than marrying Redford's handsome and charismatic, if poor, Gatsby.  Tom is supposed to be an arrogant, racist who graduated from Yale, yet Dern makes him look like an alum from the local junior college.  The casting of Tom also suffers from virtue of the fact that Dern can't help but come off creepy and psychotic in almost every role he plays.  When George Wilson shows up at Tom's house at the end of the film to find out who owned the car that ran down his wife, Myrtle, Dern has such a brutal quality about himself that you wonder why Tom didn't just beat George up and kick him out of his house without having to implicate Gatsby in his wife's death.

The less said about Karen Black's Myrtle Wilson, the better.  Myrtle is supposed to be a character desperate to escape her stifling existence with her husband George at his modest service station.  When I read the book, I found her sympathetic and tragic and felt sorry for her and her husband.  In Karen Black's hands, Myrtle comes across as simply vulgar and pathetic.  The scene early in the film at the small party Tom and Myrtle throw in their apartment in which they rendezvous where Myrtle shares with Nick her memories of how she met Tom should have been poignant, because it expresses Myrtle's hopes and dreams, but Black comes across so swarthy and sweaty in the scene that Myrtle seems self-indulgent and delusional.  Later in the film, when George has Myrtle locked upstairs at the service station, while Tom is filling up his car with gasoline, Myrtle smashes her hand through the window to try and alert Tom to her confinement.  This is a scene that was not in the book and was clearly created for the movie.  What does Black do, with Myrtle's hands and finger bleeding from putting them through the window?  She shoves it in her mouth and sucks on it.  Whoever thought that was a good idea for a scene should have had their heads examined.

Which leaves us with the two actors in "The Great Gatsby" who I think were well-cast in their roles.  As I have blogged about before, Lois Chiles has the right air of cool detachment and self-possession in the role of pro-golfer Jordan Baker.  Chiles brings an assured, low-key quality to Jordan that makes her the most interesting and appealing woman in the story.  Unlike Farrow or Black's misinterpretation of their respective roles, which are so shrill and overt that you never wonder what's going on inside of them because it's all spelled out for you, Chiles makes Jordan charming, mysterious, and even sympathetic.  By design, she's a shallow character, but Chiles plays Jordan as if she's aware of these shortcomings and has simply chosen not to do anything to improve herself.  Even though she associates with Tom and Daisy, she's not as cruel or thoughtless as either of them and I always sensed that the attraction of Chiles' Jordan to Waterston's Nick was genuine.  In this interpretation of the story, I always got the feeling that Jordan was drawn to Nick's inherent decency because it contrasted with her own selfish shortcomings as well as the shortcomings of the people she typically associated with.  Chiles and Waterston have a natural chemistry in the movie that makes it a shame they have not worked together again.  Chiles' Jordan is such a good sport that she isn't even offended when Nick breaks up with her at the end of the movie because of her continued association with Tom and Daisy, and the fact that she's too much like them for him to ever fully be in love with her.  I always felt that, in that scene, Jordan accepts Nick's judgement of her without any resentment or disappointment because she ultimately knows he's right.

Similarly, Waterston does a fine job with Nick Carraway, bringing depth to what could have been a difficult role.  Nick is the narrator of the story and the characters that the audience identifies most with in the novel.  Waterston brings the right quality of naivete, sense of awe, and compassion to Nick that the character never becomes a mere storytelling device.  He brings a clean-cut quality to Nick that demonstrates the purity of his soul.  Waterston's Nick has an essential decency about him that allows the audience to continue to be engaged in the story even as we realize that almost everyone around him are awful people.  More importantly, Waterston effectively projects the quietly mounting air of disgust that Nick feels for his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom.  We see how Nick has gone from being impressed by the opulence and splendor of the people around him to being disillusioned and disgusted by their moral corruption looming underneath the pristine surface.  I also like the subtle ways that Waterston plays Nick as someone who was subconsciously attracted to Gatsby and, as such, bestows upon Gatsby the kind of caring, reverence and respect that his cousin Daisy did not.  When Nick and Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz (Roberts Blossom), are riding out at the end of the film to attend Gatsby's funeral and Gatsby's father asks Nick if he was friends with his son, Waterston projects a telling air of sadness when he tells the father "We were close friends" that suggests his feelings for Gatsby ran deeper than he is willing to admit to himself.  I'm not suggesting that Nick, or Waterston's interpretation of him, was meant to suggest, as some reviewers have indicated, that he was gay, because I think Nick was genuinely attracted to, and enamored of, Jordan.  But I think a conservative reading of the character suggests that the character was probably, at the very least, bisexual and that he was drawn to both Jordan and Gatsby--Jordan for her self-confidence and independence, and Gatsby for his romantic sense of longing.  I think Nick admired Jordan and wanted to be as confident as she was, and I also believe he was touched by how deeply Gatsby remained in love with Daisy all these years that he eventually grew to care about him as a result.  Waterston's performance provides subtle hints that lend support, but doesn't conclusively prove, such interpretations of the character so that Nick remains intriguingly enigmatic as ever.  In fact, in Waterston's skillful hands, Nick becomes a much more interesting character than Redford ever is as Gatsby.

Even though the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" remains flawed and uneven, I still like it and find much to appreciate about it.  Like its titular character, it tries hard to please and impress with its lavishness and visual opulence even though, like Gatsby, it is sometimes lacking in substance and purpose.  Despite its flaws in terms of Jack Clayton's direction and the miscasting of many key roles, it still has good performances by Sam Waterston and Lois Chiles, as well as beautiful photography, handsome production design, and stunning locations in Newport, Rhode Island.  The potential was there to make a great film, if only the filmmakers had not compromised by emphasizing style over substance in some essential choices they made.  Nevertheless, its story of unrequited love, empty emotions and thoughtless materialism still has relevance and impact today.  It's a flawed film, but one that is tough to dislike in spite of its missed potential because it has its heart in the right place.  Even though some of the actors and performances are wrong, when I watch it now, I still care about the characters and feel sadness for Gatsby that his dream of happiness with Daisy remains an unfulfilled illusion, and disgusted with Daisy at how her narcissism has thoughtlessly destroyed the lives of the people around her.  F. Scott Fitzgerald's original characters still have power and impact in the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" even when they're interpreted incorrectly.  It will be interesting to see how Baz Luhrmann's new 3-D version stacks up against the 1974 version in the long run. 


  1. Interesting revisit of the '74 film. For me, Dern would have been better as Gatsby and Redford as Tom. But the stdio would not have stood for that. As for Farrow, well, at least she isn't Ali McGraw.

    The trailer for the Baz Luhrmann film makes it seem operatic and over done. The modern music is no help either, nor is the fact that the film is in 3-D. Does an F. Scott Fitzgerald work need a 3-D treatment. It all looks too busy and over-the-top. I will cross my fingers otherwise, but my senses from the trailer is that this new "Gatsby" is an expensive, baroque carnival of a movie. Maybe the actors can save it.

  2. I'm a high school teacher about to teach a lesson comparing the two versions of Gatsby to the novel, and your post made for good reading. I just saw the initial party scene, but everything you said rings true-- Nick and Jordan seem far more likable and interesting than Gatsby and Daisy, which is the exact opposite of how the book portrays it. Also, the events of the party scene seem like someone played telephone with the plot of the book rather than truly adapted it. The new version at least sticks to the script. Thanks for the insights.


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