Monday, April 07, 2008

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)

It's the height of the bootlegging 20's; Nick (Sam Waterston), approaching 30 and just making his way in the business of bond selling, is spending the summer on Long Island, in a small cottage on West Egg, across from the palatial home of the rich, mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), who throws parties which are well attended by the local high-class folks, even though most of them never even meet him. Nick frequently visits his rich cousin Daisy (Mia Farrow) who lives with her brutal, fascistic husband Tom (Bruce Dern) across the bay in East Egg. Nick discovers that Gatsby was snubbed by Daisy in the past because he was poor, and Gatsby has amassed a fortune in order to get a second chance with her. Gatsby seems truly interested in being friends with Nick, but he's not above using Nick to rekindle a relationship with Daisy. It is common knowledge that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle (Karen Black), the slatternly wife of poor schlemiel George (Scott Wilson) who runs a gas station in a desolate industrial area nicknamed "The Valley of Ashes," but when Tom suspects that Daisy is having a fling with Gatsby, tensions among the whole group, including tennis playing beauty Jordan (Lois Chiles) who is half-heartedly pursuing a fling with Nick, escalate. It ends badly for all concerned.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is my favorite novel of all time. For that reason, I have avoided watching this movie, which has gotten almost universally bad reviews, until now, when I was fairly certain that nothing could spoil any future enjoyment I might get from the novel. It is, in fact, not a particularly good movie, but it's not exactly a bad movie, either. Much of the book derives its power from its symbols, such as a sign with a giant pair of eyes gazing down over the Valley of Ashes like, in the words of George, "the eyes of God," the profusion of colored shirts in Gatsby's bedroom, and the green light at the end of Daisy's dock which figures prominently in the book's conclusion. The symbols are all here in the movie, but when they're made so literal, they don't work as well--actually, I rather liked the eyes sign, but most of the rest of the symbols just get in the way of the narrative. The performances are problematic, but I think the real problem is the screenplay, by Francis Ford Coppola, which adheres too slavishly to the novel. It gets almost all the major plot lines in (and the production design gets the rich 20's atmosphere right), but the elegiac tone about the impossibility of recapturing the past and the criticism of the American dream are both lacking here, and the characters are not fleshed out enough, leaving the actors at sea. I don't care much for Farrow, but I think she gives the part her best. At times, as in her very first scene, she almost gets it, but Daisy is a tough character to inhabit; she's supposed to be attractive enough to have held someone like Gatsby in thrall for years, but by the end (if not before) we know she's not worth all the trouble. Farrow makes her too easy to see through, too early on, so we never know what he saw in her. Redford is so very golden-boy handsome, but there is little chemistry between him and Farrow, and the character is not written terribly well.

The best performances come from the supporting players: Black, who wisely underplays for once, Wilson, who makes his cardboard character quite sympathetic (I almost felt worse about his fate than Gatsby's), and especially Waterston who does Nick so well despite the limited characterization provided. I'd love to see the 1949 Alan Ladd version, but that seems to have vanished into limbo. Oddly, the director of this film, Jack Clayton, also directed the film version of my second favorite book of all time, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and also did a mediocre job. Maybe they should just never have been translated to the screen at all. The DVD is letterboxed, but there is a lot of awkward zooming in and out and around, which makes me wonder if the film is presented at its correct aspect ratio. I've also recently seen the 2000 A&E television version of GATSBY, and despite less star power and a smaller budget, it is in most ways superior to the Redford film, though still falling awfully short. Paul Rudd is excellent as Nick and Martin Donovan is a better Tom, though Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino are at sea as Gatsby and Daisy. [DVD]

2 comments:

Jim said...

You're being generous with this film. Every time I watch the Redford Gatsby I wind up wishing I were watching Sunset Boulevard for some reason.

How did you not trash it for casting Bruce Dern as Tom? I think you're getting soft.

Michael said...

Jim, you're right. I really love the book, and Robert Redford so looks the part that I keep wishing the movie had turned out better. My recent viewing of the film on DVD was the first time I had seen it all the way through, and I was being generous.

However, I'm not sure that Bruce Dern is any more miscast than anyone else in the movie. He does come off as a rich thug.