The Great Gatsby
Director: Jack Clayton / Script: Francis Ford Coppola (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel) / Editing: Tom Priestley / DP: Douglas Slocombe / Score: Nelson Riddle
Cast: Robert Redford / Mia Farrow / Bruce Dern / Karen Black / Scott Wilson / Sam Waterston / Lois Chiles
The Never-Ending Dance…
The time and place? ‘Jazz Age’ USA. What else are we covering but an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby?
The years following the end of WW1, until the ‘Wall St. Crash’ of 1929, saw a tremendous upsurge in the US economy, as optimism & trade flourished. Popular culture boomed like never before as well, thanks to the emergence of cinema and, thanks to mass-produced 78s (& phonographs on which to play them), a new wave of jazz music, inspiring a new wave of decadent dances such as ‘The Charleston’ and looser, more liberated fashions for women, embodied by the ‘flapper’ dress.
The popular novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald documented this ‘new society’ in The Great Gatsby, a novel that on its surface, appears little more than a tale of unrequited love but which, the deeper you consider it, becomes a scathing social commentary of its day, embodied within the unending battle of ‘old vs. new’ money. Perhaps the picture’s most telling scene, is its last: a decadent group of ‘Bright Young Things’ disembarking from a luxury motor-cruiser and hopping-straight into their luxury cars: the cast of actors might change, but the roles are forever.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Gatsby – the man – is an elusive figure. Rumours among the Long Island partygoers have him ‘killing a man’. Or doing deals ‘with the Kaiser’ en-route to acquiring his wealth. In this version (the fourth of five adaptations to-date) we’re never explicitly told what Gatsby’s been up to: only that it’s afforded him a mansion, with a view across the bay of an enigmatic green light, marking the boat-dock of a distant house. Of course, the other (and most obvious) – reason for Jay Gatsby’s reticence, is that he’s ‘new money’ moving in an ‘old money’ circle and has to tread warily, for fear of being alienated from said society: a condition we gather, he’s already experienced…
Fitzgerald’s classic tale is viewed – and told – through the eyes of Nick Carraway, played in this version by the capable Sam Waterston. Nick is a ‘country-mouse’ from the Mid-West, who’s living on Long Island while he forges a career as a ‘bond salesman’ back in the city. Nick rents a modest cottage in the grounds of Gatsby’s imposing house, though he’s never met the man. From his intimate vantage point, though without ever intruding, he witnesses Gatsby’s lavish Jazz parties that fill the Summer months; that is, until he receives an invitation to come over one evening and meet the man himself…
Eventually, he also makes contact with Daisy Buchanan, a 2nd-cousin, who married into the (old money) Buchanan family, courtesy of its scion, the ‘brutish’ Tom, played here by the stalwart Bruce Dern, who gives a fair stab at a complex role. In this adaptation however, it’s Mia Farrow’s choices for her take on Daisy, that left me baffled. In this adaptation, she’s too vapid a personality to warrant attention of the kind Fitzgerald had written for her. The marriage might be one of convenience, but surely Daisy must have more fight in her – more spunk – than that imbued by Farrow?
I don’t think it’s miscasting per-se; rather, a result of directorial decisions taken by Jack Clayton, in interpreting a script by none-other than Francis Ford Coppola…
A British director with a limited filmography, all of which had been screen adaptations of novels: I wonder if Clayton was cowed by the production’s lavish scope, as it would’ve dwarfed the low-budget British offerings he’d been used to… Whatever the reason, watching Farrow trying to emote in this picture, is like watching someone trying to emote through layers of clingfilm.
Redford’s okay as Gatsby. He always looked good, which was something of a saving grace, but he wears his pastel-pink 3-piece with a degree of panache and has a veiled disdain for those who’s patronage he seeks. However, he holds himself back a little too far in Coppola’s script (at least that bit of the script to have survived selective filleting by the director). It’s one thing to cultivate an air of mystery, if you’re given enough clues as to its origins and another if you’re only ever given vague hints as to the truth; if anything, Redford’s given too little to build-on. Still, I like seeing a semblance of conflicting emotions scud across his noble features, as his façade is gradually discarded; noticeably, in that first meeting with Daisy, when he appears in a mirror like an unfocused ghost looming out of the ether.
The rest of the cast? Nick’s would-be-girlfriend – Jordan Baker – is played by the beautiful Lois Chiles, who’d later migrate to the immortal role of ‘Holly Goodhead’ in Moonraker, though here, she handles Jordan’s dilemma with aplomb: she’s a golfer, who’s not above a little cheating to win-through; such wandering morals suited to conveying gossip between Nick & Daisy (and, by extension, everyone else). Her character appears to reconcile the competing forces at work and stay composed which might’ve been why Nick is so attracted to her initially.
The real tragedy in Gatsby however, comes with the corruption of the Wilsons: a young couple trying to make a go of a rural gas station on the road between the City and ‘the Eggs’: the pair of fictional hamlets on Long Island, in which the key protagonists live. Mrs Wilson – Myrtle – (Karen Black in a performance verging on hysterical, that’s the polar-opposite of Farrow’s) is having a secretive, passionate affair with Tom: a situation witnessed at first-hand by Nick (he is the narrator, after all), thus making him complicit. It also divides his loyalty, to the point where he makes his own moral judgement, having seen Tom’s behaviour at first-hand: namely, to facilitate an affair between Gatsby & Daisy (they knew each other during the war; it’s a long story). Thus, according to Nick, is both balance and honour restored.
However, the drama hinges on an Unfortunate Event involving the Wilsons, that has dire (and equally unfortunate) consequences a few days later. The irony of this fateful act is lost on the two key players that survive, whose wealth appears to have insulated themselves to the miseries they inflict on those around them – and that includes Gatsby, who is driven to succeed, lest us not forget, by Daisy: a woman who, actually, symbolises all that he actually despises: but he can’t see it, blinded as he is, by unrequited love.
Other highlights? A classy production design by John Box and costumes by Theoni Aldredge, that (briefly) threatened to ignite a retro-fashion trend, back in ‘74, but lost out to flares and Glam-Rock in the final reckoning. Overall though, this is a misfiring adaptation. While the production design & photography are all top-tier (kudos to DP Douglas Slocombe), it seems in retrospect, an odd choice to hire a (relatively) unknown director to cover ‘The Great American Novel’, with its nuances and layered meanings. Little wonder, that Coppola actually distanced himself from the finished work, complaining that [Director Clayton hadn’t] “paid any attention to it. The script that I wrote did not get made”. Ouch.
Reviews at the time of its release were all ambivalent towards the film’s achievements as an adaptation, let alone a standalone picture, with only the score (by Nelson Riddle) and wardrobe scoring Oscars: yet it
could should’ve been an instant classic: and for THAT, responsibility falls to the Director and the choices he made, along with producer David Merrick, an accomplished figure on Broadway, who struggled to adapt to film-making. In fact, so unsatisfactory is Clayton’s take on such a rich, enduring novel, I’d almost recommend you go back and re-read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece instead…
All I could think of, was his extraordinary capacity for hope.