The Great Gatsby (1974)
Sam Waterston, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow; d. Jack Clayton; D
In my younger and more vunerable reviewing years, I had a theory about watching films that I shall never forget: Whenever you are watching a movie, especially remakes, adaptions, and sequels, I always said, just remember to watch each movie as its own and compare it later. In concequence, I have often found gold in movies that I, at first, dimissed unfairly because of comparison to other movies or books. Only the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, a movie adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful book , is exempt from my reaction - that, and The Godfather Part III. Gatsby, a movie that was an awful adaption of a novel for which I have undeniable love. No - not everyone can top Fitzgerald, not even I, so I'll stop trying and get down to the nitty gritty.
I can't for the life of me figure out why this is the most popular of the Great Gatsby movie adaptions. It is a horrible film and a horrible adaption of a book that I love unconditionally. The filmmakers must have assumed that since they were adapting a literary classic, all they would have to do was lift huge chunks of dialouge from the novel and accompany it with great cinematography and camerawork, lavish costumes, gorgeous sets, and the hottest lead actors you could find. Since The Great Gatsby was such a well-written novel, lifting the dialouge from it would most certainly guarentee a great script, right? However, I could lift dialouge from 1984, hire the best director, actors, and cinematographer that money could buy, and still make a bad movie with a bad script. It's not what words and events you take from the book that matter, it's what you do with them. And with The Great Gatsby, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Clatyon, and the rest of the cast and crew did nothing. This adaption of the novel is a hollow shell of a film in glossy wrapping, an adaption that merely skims off the top of the novel instead of reaching into the depths of it and coming back up with gold. There was a great deal of complexity, depth, and even voilence of the plot and characters of The Great Gatsby that was looked over by the filmmakers who were more interested in making a glossy "literary classic" film without any bite. They even glossed over the time period in which the story takes place, the Fitzgerald-coined Jazz Age. The parties at Gatsby's house seem like textbook versions of party life in the Roaring Twenties with equally textbook versions of the songs played during that time, and it's hard to believe that anyone could be having fun at such parties. Anyone, that is, who isn't a characture, thus making it believable that the one-dementional charactures who pollute the film would be having a blast at these parties.
The biggest dissapointment was the lack of depth in the character of Jay Gatsby, who is played lifelessly by Robert Redford. In the novel there is no wonder as to why Gatsby captures Nick's imagination and subsequently becomes "exempt" from Nick's "scorn" for the rich. Gatsby is a charismatic but mysterious character who seems to be different from the other rich characters, and a puzzle just waiting to be solved. From the instant Nick mentions Gatsby I was interested in learning more about him. Who is he, what does he do, where did he come from, why is he so rich, and why is he so great? The more I read, the more interesting he became. His entrance into the novel is mysterious, as Nick sees him from across the lawn, "embracing" loneliness in the dark, it seems, and then dissapearing. He becomes even more interesting as Nick gathers second-hand information about Gatsby through other characters who are probably just passing along gossip, and later when Nick finally meets Gatsby in person and becomes friends with him, and even more so when Gatsby reveals his obsession and desire to recreate the romance between he and Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby in the movie is as interesting as a pile of dirt, and the only reason why I even remotely paid attention to him was because, let's face it, Robert Redford just looked too darned attractive in this movie. After figuring out that Gatsby was criminaly underwritten, and Redford's performance would be even more so illegal, I decided there was no other choice for me but to just pay attention to his looks. The movie tries too hard to make Gatsby "great" that instead of a character the audience gets a statue. He's just a stiff figure surrounded by grand sets and costumes and accompanied by some of the worst movie music ever to be played on anybody's sound system. Many people think that Redford "captured" Gatsby but Redford was as successful as capturing Gatsby as he was groping whatever he was trying to get in that campy and theatrical gesture he gives at the begenning of the film. I found it hard to believe that he was in love with anybody or that he was even a human being because his performance was so wooden. The only geniune expression in his performance comes from his eyes, which is a pretty good acheivement. However, call me crazy, but aren't you also supposed to act with your voice and the rest of your body...?
The other performances also are as bad. Sam Waterston's problem is not that he "looked too old" to play Nick but that he just sat there for two hours and twenty minutes just looking like a lost puppy dog. Mia Farrow as Daisy is somewhat better but her faux-Southern accent that seems worthy of a Chipette gets annoying. Her performance isn't flat but it certainly is a characture. Bruce Dern, who I have seen in better roles, plays his character like he's confused half of the time. The only remotely good performances come from Lois Chiles and Scott Wilson as Jordan Baker and George Wilson. Chiles doesn't try to make something grand out of her flat character and plays it cool, while Wilson was given one of the novel's meatiest roles with the sympathetic George Wilson.
The only positive things I can think of for this film was the cinematography, camerawork, costumes and sets. But the bottom line is that the novel is much better than the book. Don't waste your time even thinking about seeing the movie unless you're forced to.
© Vert A Go Go Reviews 2001