Friday, February 22, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY 1974

You pretty much know what you’re in for in this, the third screen adaptation of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, when the film begins with a series of loving, beautifully lit, perfectly framed, Architectural Digest-worthy shots of property and objects. Instead of a haunting rumination on romantic obsession as an attempt to recapture the past poetically framed by a bitter indictment of materialism, the American Dream, and the emotional recklessness of the rich; this is The Great Gatsby as told from the perspective of nostalgia fetishism.
The Great Gatsby suffers a bit from a confused point of view. When the camera lens is trained on Gatsby's beautiful objects, I suspect we are supposed to feel the hollowness of materialism. Unfortunately, the images are so arrestingly beautiful that viewers are likely to ohh and ahh over their lavishness. In essence, to see these things from the possessive, money-enamored perspective of Daisy. A bit of a problem given that she is one of the more superficial and morally corrupt characters in the film.
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 (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that 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, one finds that the paradox of this nearly $7 million mounting of The Great Gatsby is how it is able to so 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) yet still manage to leave out both its passion and 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.
How this came to be can perhaps be traced to the film’s troubled genesis, recounted in fascinating detail in Bruce Bahrenburg’s book, Filming The Great Gatsby (my own yellowed and tattered copy, purchased in the heat of 1974’s studio-generated “Gatsby Fever”). Originally conceived and developed as a wedding present vehicle for Ali MacGraw by then-husband Robert Evans, The Great Gatsby was derailed when MacGraw threw a gold-plated, 14-carat monkey wrench into the works by falling in love with her The Getaway co-star, Steve McQueen. While the hunt went out for a new Daisy (in which several credible applicants like Faye Dunaway and Candice Bergen were passed over for, in my opinion, the absolutely incredible choice of Mia Farrow), an ailing Truman Capote was fired as screenwriter and later sued the studio, and the beautiful but inexpressive Lois Chiles was entrusted with the showy role of Jordan Baker simply because she was the girlfriend of the cuckolded Robert Evans, and studio head Charles Bluhdorn figured the poor guy needed to catch a break.
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 instances where it looks as though an inordinate amount of time and energy had been invested in engineering a marketable property, not making a film. We still have the basic story of a millionaire with the shady past who attempts to reignite an old love affair with the idealized socialite who threw him over years ago when he was poor, but that's almost all we have. There's very little that's effectively done with the story's themes involving class, idealism, and morality. One never gets the sense that anyone involved in the making of The Great Gatsby had even read the novel, much less understood any of the book’s themes or tried to figure out what Fitzgerald was trying to say about our culture. Otherwise surely someone would have pointed out 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, hoped to combine the crowd-pleasing sentimentality of Love Story (1970) with the big-boxoffice, romanticized nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) and never gave a thought to much else.
Hype Gripe
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 mechanized piece of Hollywood machinery The Great Gatsby turned out to be, I nevertheless get quite a kick out of the film—in spite of not finding it to be particularly good—due to a few Gatsby-esque reasons of my own. The pleasure I derive from watching The Great Gatsby these days is directly (sentimentally and nostalgically) 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 read the articles, bought the soundtrack album, dragged my family to see it…I did everything short of insist my mother purchase and serve our meals on the limited-edition The Great Gatsby dinnerware by Corelle® they sold at the local department store.
At that time I hadn't yet read Fitzgerald’s novel, so I didn't have any expectations waiting to be dashed. Nevertheless, in spite of my enthusiasm, I was underwhelmed when I finally got to see the film. It was nothing like the touching romance I was expecting, but it was a great deal like a film adaptation of a campy, self-serious Harold Robbins novel. Then, as now, I find it a gorgeous film to look at and in each passing year I grow ever fonder of the old-fashioned movie magic of large crowds of extras, big sets, period detail, all accomplished with no CGI. But it's impossible for me to regard it seriously and it remains on my DVD shelf, a treasured guilty pleasure.
A Fine Romance
If Gatsby and Daisy failed to sizzle, their lack of heat is nothing compared to the non-romance of butch professional golfer, Jordan Baker and Tony Perkins-esque narrator Nick Carraway. According to IMDB trivia, original screenwriter Truman Capote wrote Nick as a homosexual and Jordan as a lesbian. Sounds about right to me. 
I wish it were otherwise, but 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 that 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 quandary...were they upset by her death, or because she left such a big, ugly dent in that perfectly lovely automobile?
Author Tom Wolfe: "I'll never forgive the 1974 version of 'The Great Gatsby,' which was the Fitzgerald novel as reinterpreted by the garment industry. Throughout the picture Robert Redford wore white suits. They fitted so badly that every time he turned a corner there was an eighty-microsecond lag before they joined him."
PERFORMANCES:
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 tend 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 that bland could harbor an obsessed fixation on anything other than Miracle Whip.
Most of the acting in The Great Gatsby falls into one of two categories: stiff or fussy. As garage owner George Wilson, actor Scott Wilson (so good in In Cold Blood) somehow manages to combine both as he's allowed to go through the entire film with the exact same watery-eyed, self-pitying expression you see here. The exasperation expressed by wife Myrtle (Karen Black) is pretty much on par with my own.
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. Whether falling down stairs, shoving her hands through plate windows, or bugging her eyes with rage, hers is a black comedy performance (pun intended) that's true 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 an 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.
Very Pretty People Capable of Very Ugly Things
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Trusting a 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 a 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.
OK, so I guess you can tell what I think is so great about this particular Gatsby.
Because in my heart I consider The Great Gatsby to be a book of ideas and moral concepts poetically dramatized, I have my doubts as to whether it’s the kind of book that will ever lend itself to a satisfying screen adaptation. I must say I’m intrigued by the little I've seen of Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation (although I'm not sure if I'm up for another one of Tobey Maguire's stare-a-thon roles), which, in its considerable visual dazzle once again raises the issue of whether or not it is possible for a film to simultaneously condemn and chronicle extreme wealth. If not, I guess we'll be left with another example of the past repeating itself...in 3-D, no less.
Gatsby reaches out towards the light at the end of Daisy's dock.
Nick: “You can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.”

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. Nevermind the dent in the car, what about the destruction of Gatsby's rather expensive flotation device?

    All kidding aside, it's a great way to make Gatsby look positively juvenile. One step away from having him swim around in the pool with an inflatable plastic duck around his chest.

    I watched this several years ago, without having read the book, and I too noticed how little emotional impact the whole shebang delivered. It's a watchable film, but your points about its various misjudgements are well taken, Ken.

    Having just seen the trailer for the latest "Gatsby" on the big screen, I'm not sure if Baz Luhrmann has followed your train of thought on how the story ought to be presented (no surprises there). In fact, I'm sure that he hasn't. It appears to be a celebration of excess more than anything else--with modern pop music, no less! Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't seem to be playing it straight, either. I doubt anybody did.

    Speaking of not playing it straight, I seem to recall Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles) as a Babe Didrikson type (the female answer to Jim Thorpe who seemingly could excel at any sport, and was rather well known for her golf swing).

    On that note, Truman Capote needn't have bothered trying to write the Jordan Baker character as a lesbian for the film adaptation. For crying out loud, even in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Jordan is a woman who plays golf. Once you give a woman that occupation, the subtext writes itself. The only way Capote could have made it anymore obvious would be been to make Jordan a High School Gym Teacher.

    Finally, how many times does Gatsby say "old sport" in this thing? It's actually rather amusing--even funnier when one character (Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan, I believe) expresses how much this annoys him. I'm amazed that you got through an entire review without mentioning the phrase!

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    1. Hi Mark
      Funny you made the comment “It’s a great way to make Gatsby juvenile,” because a running theme throughout the book “Filming the Great Gatsby” is Robert Redford’s concern that Gatsby (in scenes where he’s supposed to show his excitement in having Daisy back in his life) would look juvenile. To the frustration of both Clayton and Coppola, Redford throughout the filming, devoted himself to emotionally subduing his character until he wound up with the stiff, absent performance we have here.
      Like you, I think most people who love the book are surprised at how little emotional impact this adaptation has. Jack Clayton has shown himself to be a marvelously sensitive director in the past, but Mia Farrow stated that the almost constant presence of producer David Merrick on the sets (along with production executive Robert Evan’s well-chronicled hands-on approach to his job) created an environment of too many cooks. Francis Ford Coppola has said that the finished film is NOT the script he wrote.
      As for the coming Baz Lurhmann version, it’s just my personal sense of the story that any adaptation of the book is getting off on the wrong foot if it makes us envious of the elaborate trappings of rich.I have no idea how a director can do it, but I think ifa director is honest, he/she at least has a chance. There is serious unhappiness behind the joyless excesses of the rich, and many of these Hollywood types know full well how empty their lives are. It may require a real artist, but I believe someone can show material excess for what it is, and create a moving drama about how easy it is to hide moral decay behind material wealth. In the disturbing film Funny Games, Michael Haneke brilliantly made a violent film that assaulted the audience’s love of violence. I think Gatsby needs a director creative enough to use the public’s mindless fascination with the rich, contextually, and to convey the disgust Nick comes to feel about those he once naively admired.
      And as for the “Old sport” thing, I had indeed considered referencing it in my post, but I wanted to use a panel from the Mad Magazine parody, “The Great Gasbag,” wherein Gatsby keeps getting the phrase wrong (“old spot”, “Old spit”) being unsuccessful in my online search for a graphic, I dropped it. Redford’s constant use of the phrase was definitely a giggle point in many a screening.

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  2. Ken, I suppose it would've been better if I hadn't already read and loved Fitzgerald's novel before I saw the '74 adaptation. Like you, I was swept up in all the hype of the time and had great expectations. What a disappointment - all form, no content. Mia Farrow is godawful as Daisy. Redford looks absurd and seems uncomfortable as Gatsby. Your description of Karen Black's performance, "terrible in that Patty Duke as Neely O'Hara" way" is priceless and precisely on target.

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    1. Hello Eve! Thanks you very much for stopping by!
      I got around to reading "The Great Gatsby" only as recently as 1998. Had I read the book before seeing this film, I would have been crestfallen at the lost opportunity. You must have been sorely disappointed. It really is all form.
      Gatsby is one of literature's great dreamers. He reminds me of the tortured characters in Theodore Dreiser's works. But in paying so much attention to recreating the 20's and all the superficial trappings, they emptied the film of the one aspect we who go to the movies can relate to...the hopeless longing for dreams that can't possibly come true.

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  3. I've been meaning to ask -- and Scott Wilson's appearance here gives me the excuse -- what you think of The Ninth Configuration. (I suspect it may not have enough women in it for your taste.)

    I must admit, a substantial amount of the fun coming here (and I always read them with relish, even if I don't post) is seeing actors I know but young enough that it's hard to recognize them. (Here, Dern and Waterston.)

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    1. Hi Allen
      Always nice hearing from you and I'm glad you get a kick out of seeing the baby-faces of some of today's veteran actors. Some (like Waterston and Tommy Le Jones), look like mere pups.

      I had to look up “The Ninth Configuration" on IMDB to even remember that it was a film I had indeed seen when (on cable TV or VHS in the 80s) but I have not a single memory of it. I seem to remember films I hate a lot or love a lot, but if they’ve made no impression, they fall into this memory limbo. I recall that there was a lot of public interest in the film when it was first released because everyone assumed, what with William Peter Blatty's involvement, it was going to be some kind of horror film. But I confess I only saw it once and it apparently went straight out of my consciousness.
      But you bring up a good point about this film and its all-male cast. I think I have less an aversion to movies without females in them as not particularly liking the way male relationships are portrayed in films. To oversimplify, there tends to be too much emphasis on macho conflict and a subconscious fear of male emotional intimacy. Films with a dominance of male characters feel to me like they lack a certain complexity allowed when a female is written into the script.
      I think Scott Wilson has a sizable role in “The Ninth Configuration”, is he particularly good? He's given only one emotion to play in "Gatsby."

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    2. Certainly Wilson has a big and crucial role, as the astronaut who's afraid to return to space. Particularly good? Maybe not.

      As the movie takes place in an insane asylum (a point which isn't made clear for some time!) it's got lots of room for wild performances from its very large cast. As I suppose one should expect from the Exorcist writer, the movie cares more about religious issues than I did, so that was a sticking point, but otherwise I found it an interesting story. (Overdetailed summary at the wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ninth_Configuration
      )

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  4. Lois Chiles, so beautiful *sighs* Sorry I can't be more constructive! Great post Ken

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    1. Ha! Trust me, that comment is all you need when it comes to Lois Chiles. She is absolutely gorgeous...especially in this film. My response would be identical (and just as brief) if you posted a pic of Julian Sands on your site.

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    2. Remembering this comment, I just had to direct you to http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/tale-of-vampire-1992.html

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  5. Great review, Ken! You always nail it when you describe how a film manges to engage the audience or not. I saw the film once long ago and did not feel that I ever had to see it again - for all the reasons you mention in your article.

    I had not thought of Redford and Farrow being the original choices for "Rosemary's Baby" and how it was just as well it never happened. Redford is handsome but I've always found him to be just as wooden and good looking as Paul Newman.

    I laughed when you wrote about the dent in the car! The only thing that makes me sort of want to watch the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby " again is to see Karen Black in it. She usually brings life to the films she's in and I am amazed that she may have overacted here!
    -Wille

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    1. Aw, thank you very much, Wille!
      I don't that I'm so adept at describing why a movie doesn't engage an audience, but yours of bellyaching about films has made me pretty good at gauging how a movie doesn't grab ME. :-)
      Did you ever see the Jane Fonda/Robert Redford film, "Barefoot in the Park"? Before Mia farrow was introduced by Robert Evans, that was Roman Polanski's ideal pairing for "Rosemary's Baby." Redford is still a bit of a stiff, but his chemistry with Fonda always struck me as better than with Farrow. Kind of interesting to ponder, huh?

      And you should check it out for Karen Black. She is VERY lively in the film and I'm not so sure she overacts so much as i can't make heads or tails of what effect she's going for. Her Myrtle is kind of twitchy (but as it's Karen Black, always fascinating).
      if you should see the new "Gatsby" film, drop a line and let me know what you think. I might just wait for the DVD. Thanks, Wille!

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  6. Wow, I didn't know Jane Fonda was Polanskis first choice for Rosemary!

    I probably won't see the new Gatsby as I am not the least compelled to see a Leonardo di Caprio movie. He may be a good actor but he looks too boyish to play an adult convincingly, in my opinion. Also, I tend to avoid Buz Luhrman films.

    I'd much rather watch the 1974 version again for Karen Black and Lois Chiles. Chiles career was a little odd. She was in some big films in the 70's and even in a James Bond but she never became a star.
    -Wille

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    1. Yeah, Tuesday Weld and Jane Fonda for Rosemary. While I think Farrow is pitch perfect, I like Weld so much that I would have loved to have seen her under Polanski's direction.
      I think DiCaprio is an amazing actor, but I swear, I'm with you in waiting for his baby face to catch up with his age. He always looks like a kid playing dress-up. It's not his fault, but I'm never able to get past that.

      As for Lois Chiles, I think she is an amazingly beautiful woman with a strong screen presence, but she was also incredibly lucky. She really landed a lot of high-profile parts. If Robert Evans' memoirs are to be trusted, she was more ambitious than talented, and it worked!
      By the way, i cracked up on hearing you say you generally avoid Baz Luhrmann films!

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