Yesterday, I talked about seeing the 1974 adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY for the first time, the impact it had on me, and how it colored my life after that. For me, that is the true indicator of a great film: it not only moves you and entertains you, but also changes your view of film as well as your view of life and the world. You are not the same person after seeing it.
Today, I am looking at GATSBY as a film scholar would: analyzing how the film rates and whether it succeeds as a work of art. I did watch it again this week for the first time in a couple years and, even after all these years, I still think it is great despite some minor flaws. Here’s why:
SPOILER ALERT!!!! KEY PLOT POINTS REVEALED BEYOND THIS POINT
1. The lead performances of Robert Redford & Mia Farrow
I will admit that I find Redford’s performance in the film a tad uneven. There are many scenes where he is dead on as Jay Gatsby (particularly in the second half of the film) and there are other scenes where he seems wooden and tentative (especially in the scenes where he first meets Nick). It is difficult to tell whether Redford is playing the character as tentative or whether it is Redford himself. I know Redford had disagreements with director Jack Clayton over the interpretation of the character as well as Clayton’s directing. (Redford once stated that he learned how not to direct a film from Jack Clayton). I often wonder if the tension shows up there on screen. Cast members have remarked that Redford seemed remote during filming and preoccupied with the growing Watergate scandal which he would end up filming two years later in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Or we may just be reading all of this into his performance. However, from the moment Gatsby meets Daisy again, Redford’s performance kicks into high gear and he IS the definitive Gatsby for the rest of the film.
Mia Farrow as Daisy falls into the love her or hate her category with critics. I have always found it to be fabulous. She was not Paramount’s first choice for the role (thank God they didn’t get Ali MacGraw!) but her performance is arguably the best in the film. She does a brilliant job capturing the many layers of Daisy’s complex personality. Think about this for a second. Farrow has to simultaneously convey: 1) why Gatsby would have fallen in love with Daisy all those years ago and made regaining her the center of his life while at the same time showing us why she ultimately is not worthy of the adoration Gatsby showers on her, and 2) show Daisy’s shallow and flippant side, her dislike of facing the consequences of her actions while keeping us sympathetic with the character. Farrow balances this brilliantly. Daisy, ultimately, is what she calls her daughter, “a beautiful little fool”. We may dislike her choices but we never dislike her. No less a critic than Pauline Kael called the performance Oscar-worthy and I agree. I still think it is Mia Farrow’s best role.
2. The supporting players
Whatever people think of Redford and Farrow, there is no denying the supporting players are nothing short of brilliant.
Bruce Dern magnificently captures both the allure and the brutality of Tom Buchanan. We can see why Daisy and Myrtle fell in love with him while also seeing the dark side underneath. Tom is cruel but we understand why he is. He is a man of privilege who feels he has the right to do what he wants with whom he wants and he also has the right to protect what he has against any such interlopers whether they be Gatsby or Wilson. Or even Nick.
Sam Waterston is equally brilliant as Nick Carraway. This is the film that launched his movie career. It is not easy playing a character that mostly watches but Waterston is lovely. We can always see the emotions playing across his face as Nick observes and takes it all in. He is the audience’s surrogate up on the screen and we always know what he is thinking. And when the rich are behaving badly, Nick is there to point out what we are thinking.
Last but not least, Scott Wilson is brilliant as George Wilson. It is a gut wrenching balls to the wall performance. Just watch the scene where his friend Michaelis tries to comfort Wilson after Myrtle’s death. Wilson just rambles on about how she died and who is at fault while he plays and plays with that pencil in his hand. He never says he plans to kill the man who did it but the ripping of the pencil let’s us know what he has decided. Why none of these actors were nominated for Best Supporting Actor continues to mystify me.
Even more surprising for being overlooked is Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson, especially since she won the Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actress (and is far better than Ingrid Bergman who won for her rather caricatured performance as the missionary in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS). Myrtle is a spitfire. mercurial and short tempered. Like Gatsby, she wants to climb out of her situation and rise in the world. Her manic energy and drive powers every scene she is in. She lacks Gatsby’s patience to build her dream year by year. Her present is too unbearable. She wants her future NOW and she’ll do what it takes to get it even if it means breaking windows and running desperately out into the road to seize it before it literally passes by.
3. Jack Clayton’s direction
I realize Clayton’s direction of the film is also a love it or hate it proposition. We also know in retrospect that this is the film that destroyed Clayton’s career (he would make only one more film before dying in 1995). But I believe Jack Clayton was one of the unheralded masters of the long take with many scenes here played out in one shot. The compositions of the scenes in GATSBY are dead on as the camera tracks and pivots and moves in and out of a scene making sure to be in the right place at the right time to make just the right dramatic point. Study Nick’s first dinner party at Tom & Daisy’s. Look how the camera is in just the right place every time to properly define the characters and their relationship to each other.
Look at the previously mentioned scene above between Wilson and Michaelis. It is a one shot scene with the camera slowly moving in on Wilson’s grieving face, and yet Clayton always keeps part of the window frame between the two men, symbolically showing the wall between them even as Michaelis tries to comfort and reach his friend.
The same is true for the party scenes. It is Clayton’s long takes that allow the drunken energy of the parties to come through and make us feel we are actually there. Kudos as well to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe who perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1920s. I am again mystified as to why Slocombe wasn’t even nominated for Best Cinematography when the winner that year was the rather pedestrianly filmed THE TOWERING INFERNO.
The one downside of long takes is that scenes end up playing out in real time which means films done that way end up longer. GATSBY comes in at 143 minutes. Ironically, that makes it the same length as Baz Luhrmann’s new, supposedly zippier version of GATSBY.
4. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay
Coppola was hot off of THE GODFATHER (1972) when he penned this adaptation. He was also a last minute replacement for Truman Capote who failed to deliver a satisfying script. Despite that, I do think the screenplay captures both the spirit and feel of the book, both Fitzgerald’s dialogue and Nick’s narration. Coppola invents several moments not in the book that nicely give insights into the characters and foreshadow future events. When Gatsby first shows Nick his Rolls Royce he asks if Nick wants to drive it. “No thanks,” Nick replies, “I don’t think I’d want the responsibility.” Nicely foreshadowing when Gatsby’s car kills Myrtle with Daisy behind the wheel. There are dozens of little such moments throughout.
Much of the criticism for the film (the length, Clayton’s direction, Coppola’s screenplay) revolves around the invented scenes in the middle of the film. Since Nick narrates the book, we never see what happens inside Gatsby’s mansion during those summer weeks after the romance is rekindled. Clayton and Coppola try to fill in the blanks with scenes of the two discussing their past. Even though the scenes are not in the book, the moments they discuss are (their previous romance, Daisy’s wedding to Tom, why Daisy did not wait for Gatsby to come back from the war). That is precisely what a good adaptation should do: fill in the blanks while still staying true to the source. One can disagree with Clayton and Coppola’s choices but I believe it was a conscious artistic choice which works.
Others have complained about the total omission of Dan Cody, Gatsby’s original mentor who provided him entry into the world of the rich. I can see where they would be unhappy about that but the movie doesn’t miss his absence. It would have required another extended flashback and enough of Gatsby’s true background is revealed over the course of the film to make it work without Cody.
My biggest gripe against Coppola is that he does not close the film with arguably the most famous closing line in a 20th century novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
5. The time machine quality
Yesterday, I mentioned that seeing the film made me feel I had actually gone back to 1925. The film still has that quality today and it is directly attributable not only to Slocombe’s cinematography but also to John Box’s brilliant production design and Theoni Aldredge’s costumes. Both brilliantly capture the look and fashion of the times. Aldredge won an Oscar for her costumes; Box was not even nominated.
Complementing all this is Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning score which combines period hit songs with original instrumental music. He relies heavily on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” for the main theme and uses it throughout the film to great haunting effect. He also peppers in contemporary hits like “The Sheik of Araby”, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “When You & I Were Seventeen”. He deservedly won Best Adapted Score (a category I wish still existed).
Trivia: Problems with the Berlin Estate over ancillary rights is one of the reasons why the film took forever to show up on DVD and why the soundtrack has never been released on CD.
6. Minor performances
Beyond the already mentioned supporting players there are several fabulous turns by distinguished character actors who show up for a scene or two. Howard Da Silva steals his scene as Gatsby’s shady business partner Meyer Wolfsheim, (Da Silva played Wilson in the 1949 version of GATSBY). Roberts Blossom, my favorite actor to play loony old men, nails it as Gatsby’s father. And Elliot Sullivan has a wonderful scene as Wilson’s sympathetic but ineffectual neighbor Michaelis. Appropriate due has never been given to Kathryn Leigh Scott as Myrtle’s sister, Catherine.
The one character from the book that I do miss in the film is Owl Eyes, a memorable party guest who ends up being the only other person to show up at Gatsby’s funeral. Veteran character actor Tom Ewell played him in the film with Vincent Schiavelli as his driver but their scenes were eliminated from the final cut.
There are also an assortment of future stars making their debut in GATSBY. Edward Herrmann plays Gatsby’s perpetual houseguest Klipspringer and plays a mean piano to boot. Brooke Adams discusses Gatsby at one of the party tables early on. Patsy Kensit plays Daisy’s daughter, Pamela. And HILL STREET BLUES’ Daniel J. Travanti plays Gatsby’s chauffeur delivering the party invitation to Nick.
7. The pace of the film
The most common compliant I hear about the film is that it is “too slow and boring”. Most of the people who make this claim usually reveal that their first viewing of GATSBY came in a high school literature class when they were “made” to watch it. I would argue that the circumstances alone are enough to color the viewers’ reaction to the film. If it was something they HAD to see it would then be something they were predisposed to dislike.
Also, if you are looking for something with more action and verve, this is definitely not the film for you. It is a period drama featuring people sitting around talking. And I freely admit to finding a conversation between characters endlessly more fascinating than any CGI car chase or any shootout.
For me, the pace of the film is just fine. Each scene is so detailed and Clayton keeps his camera moving creatively and the actors’ performances are so on that it never feels slow or long.
8. Opening & Closing Credits
Not enough attention has been paid to either of these two expert sequences. Both are clearly set after the events of the film. Gatsby’s father’s abandoned cheese sandwich sitting on Gatsby’s bureau in the opening credits is the tip off. So is the damaged fender on Gatsby’s car. William Atherton’s beautiful rendition of “What’ll I Do?” colors the opening and sets the mood.
The end credits are done to the ironic period hit “Ain’t We Got Fun?”. As the song bounces along, a new set of neuveau riche figures and their hangers on (perhaps former guests at Gatsby’s parties) emerge from a yacht and stroll down Daisy and Tom’s dock past the green light seen from Gatsby’s house. They climb into the waiting fleet of cars, one of which is Tom’s blue coupe. Clearly, the Buchanans have sold all the things that would remind them of this summer and a new set of rich people have moved in, not knowing the significance of the objects they play with or pass by.
Across the bay, Gatsby’s house sits dark and abandoned with all of his things still in place and no one interested in claiming them. The man already almost as forgotten as yesterday’s headlines. The iron gate is closed and locked just like the hearts of most of the characters. There might as well be a sign that says, “Trespassers Beware” as in the opening of CITIZEN KANE (1941). Nick learned this lesson and moved away. Gatsby never did and paid the price.
I’ve always believed that if you can start pulling a film apart and find meaning beyond the surface of its plot then that is the sign of a superior film. For me, THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) does that in spades. It truly is great, a rich jewel of a film just waiting to be rediscovered. (****)