Star-packed adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel isn’t all that… well,…
Depending on when in your life you read it, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby was either a haunting, romantic indictment of the American Dream or the best sleep you got junior year. Considered by its admirers as a likely choice for Great American Novel if ever such a thing existed, it’s a timeless story that’s also the summation of its era, and a troubled love story by an author who lived most of his life in the grip of disappointing love.
The 1974 film adaptation represented the third time Hollywood attempted to bring the story of doomed bootlegger Jay Gatsby to the screen. The first, in 1926, came immediately after its publication but has been lost to time. A 1949 version starred a well-cast Alan Ladd but is also unavailable. The 2000 A&E Network version, starring Mira Sorvino as Gatsby’s blue-blooded love Daisy Buchanan and Paul Rudd as his friend and celebrant Nick Carraway, is what it is. But the 74 model, with its script by Francis Ford Coppola and boasting an all-star cast for its period, is the version that towers over the others. That is a shame, because it seldom deserves such status.
At least it gets the setup right: Gatsby’s (Robert Redford) story takes place over the summer of 1922, in the tony Long Island neighborhoods of East and West Egg. The old-money aristocrats, including Daisy (Mia Farrow) and her troglodyte husband Tom (Bruce Dern), live on East Egg; the less fashionable, including Gatsby and Carraway (Sam Waterston), live across a narrow inlet on West Egg. As Carraway narrates, Gatsby has purchased an elaborate mansion directly across from the Buchanan house and devotes himself to throwing lavish parties, the better to attract Daisy’s attention. The two had loved each other years before but Gatsby’s poverty made marriage impossible. Now, thanks to a distinguished war career and the help of a gangster, he’s ready to win her love over again. But their reunion is short-lived, and an attempt at confronting Tom ends in the accidental killing of Tom’s mistress (Karen Black), the frowsy wife of a sad sack garage mechanic (Scott Wilson).
Directed by Jack Clayton (Something Wicked This Way Comes), the film gets all the Jazz Age period details right but doesn’t have any idea how to translate the admittedly complex structure of Fitzgerald’s novel to screen. Instead, Clayton’s style is shapeless, almost indifferent, and at times the camera placement seems randomly selected: Gatsby and Carraway seem dwarfed by the indoor spaces around them, and the raucous parties often feel staged but lifeless, like tableaux. Scenes of intense emotional pitch play out in static close-ups that display the characters’ overheated faces but not much else.
Coppola’s script plays up the melodrama of Gatsby’s reckless and implacable passion for Daisy but misses the subtext of what she represented given his impoverished upbringing and his desire for upward social mobility. Instead, the film presents the plot’s events in more or less straightforward order, sacrificing the elliptical and foreboding layout that gave Fitzgerald’s narrative its poignancy but amplifying the screen time of minor characters to the point of distraction. Coppola has seldom understood subtlety and restraint in his long career, but that shortcoming is here especially stark in contrast to the felicities of the source material. Watching the events unfold is like hearing a delicate ballad played at stadium levels of noise.
The cast is hit and miss. Following turns in The Candidate and The Sting two years before, Redford must have seemed a slam dunk to play a maverick iconoclast in the Roaring Twenties. He looks the part, his glacial reserve seeming cool even while the other characters swelter – literally, for much of the film’s second half – while giving Gatsby periodic flashes of both innocence and anger. But his performance rarely gets beneath its lovely surface, so that opportunities to explain Gatsby’s obsession or to translate it to a larger point remain missed. Waterston fares somewhat better, giving the more expressive Carraway alternating degrees of wonder, haplessness, and everyman decency. In the novel it falls to Carraway to learn from Gatsby’s life and death; here he’s the center of the plot around which things spin.
The rest of the performances are problematic. Dern is miscast, lacking the athleticism and weapons-grade entitlement complex that made Tom blandly, casually evil. Wilson is affecting as the doomed garage owner with the same name, but too many repetitious images of him looking anguished make the third act ponderous. Worst of all is Farrow, a risky choice for her role under the best of circumstances. Her performance is terrible, as brittle as tinsel and with about as much depth; she often seems at a loss what to do except squeal or look overwhelmed.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and thirty-five years later it’s simple to second-guess or cherry pick the talent of the decade and speculate how they might have treated the material. Producer Robert Evans offered Robert Towne the screenwriting chores, but Towne turned the commission down in favor of writing Chinatown; Truman Capote submitted a script that wasn’t used. It’s difficult, too, not to wonder how Sydney Pollack, given his fascination with social outsiders - and his partnership with Redford, then at its zenith - would have treated the material. British director Clayton was an odd choice to direct, and the film’s critical failure contributed to his ensuing eight-year absence from the industry.
Fitzgerald himself famously said that there are no second acts in American life, that nobody gets a second chance at realizing their potential. Fans of all great novels feel an almost innate need to see their work successfully translated to film. Few American novelists understood disappointment quite with the same exquisite sorrow as Fitzgerald, and to see this most American of works mistranslated as the country looked towards its bicentennial must have seemed especially unfortunate. A book this beautiful and important deserves another chance – every chance it can get, until Hollywood gets it right.
- Michael Kabel