In the spring of 1974 when I was 11 years old, my family was in the middle of moving from Weirton to Charleston, WV where my father had gotten a new job. When spring break came, we drove down for the weekend to look for a house. I had no idea I was going to end up seeing 3 films in 3 days and all 3 would change my life and start me down the road toward film as a career.
We arrived in Charleston, the state capital, on Friday afternoon. Dad had to attend a meeting so Mom, sister Pam, and I were on our own. Pam wanted to see THE GREAT GATSBY with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Her high school English class was reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic and this was one way of learning the story without reading the book. We drove to the Village Theater in nearby Kanawha City. Tomorrow, I’ll analyze GATSBY from a scholarly perspective. Today, I just want to discuss the emotional ways the movie affected me.
I walked in cold knowing nothing about what it was about or anything about its production history. And then it started and I was transported away. It felt as if I had stepped into a time machine and took a trip back to 1925. I was there. The Oscar-winning costumes, the sets, the cinematography, the cars, Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning Irving Berlin-based music, it happened all around me. I was staying up all night at Gatsby’s parties. I was having tea on a hot June afternoon when Gatsby and Daisy reunite. I could feel the weather & the heat & the emotions.
I was entranced by Robert Redford as Gatsby; the handsome, debonair millionaire who had gotten rich strictly to win back the woman he lost. Like most young men of the 1970s, I wanted to be Redford which meant I wanted to be Gatsby. Not that I was operating under any illusions. I wanted to be Gatsby but I knew I was really Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston).
I am Nick and Nick is me. If you ever want to see me on screen, you could do no better than Nick: the quiet man in the corner whom everyone wants to take by the arm and pull into their world, share their hopes and dreams and secrets and lies. To be their best friend and tell him their life story. To be the only guy who holds all the facts and angles and can stitch the entire story together. Nick is the only one to see all facets of the GATSBY story and share them with us. That’s me and my identification with the character has only increased with time.
I loved the romantic ideal of Gatsby’s aspirations. I hated Tom Buchanan’s two-faced hypocrisy. I was touched by Wilson’s simple love for Myrtle which goes horribly wrong. I was so much into the film that as the climactic showdown played out between Gatsby and Wilson, I was literally screaming at the top of my lungs, demanding that my mom take me out of the theater. She just hushed me up and the movie played itself out.
I knew I was seeing something deep. I knew Fitzgerald was saying something profound about American wealth and class and the prices we pay for our dreams. As the screen went dark and the lights came up, I found myself suddenly back in 1974 and I really felt I had taken both a physical and emotional journey. I walked out a lot older and wiser than when I’d gone in. I walked out in love with THE GREAT GATSBY.
Back then, a movie wasn’t available for re-viewing in 6 months on Netflix or On Demand. You never knew when you’d see a film again so I did the next best thing.
I checked the book out of the library and read it in a day (my sister gave me the Redford tie-in copy for my 12th birthday. It sits next to my computer now). I bought Bruce Bahrenburg’s book FILMING THE GREAT GATSBY (1974). It was the first book I read detailing how a film was made and it fascinated me as much as the film. I bought the double LP soundtrack at Heck’s (WV’s Wal-Mart) and listened to it over and over and over. I bought a Duesenberg model car which looked pretty close to Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce and played with it till the wheels fell off.
I wrote a fan letter to Redford. He never replied. I started calling my friends “old sport” until David Lashhorn threatened to punch me in the face if I called him that again. I asked my mom to make me a white Gatsby suit. She did and I wore it till I outgrew it. I still have it packed away some place.
When my family vacationed in Boston in the fall of 1976, I insisted we take a side trip to Newport, RI where they filmed GATSBY. We spent a day trekking through the mansions of Rosecliffe and Marble House that were Gatsby’s home.
When movies started coming out on VHS in 1980, my first video rental (from Photomat!) was GATSBY. It was the first time I’d seen the film uninterrupted since 1974. It was just as brilliant as I’d remembered it.
I appreciate that the film is not for everyone. I see as virtues what some see as flaws. But it terms of what it taught me about life and the power of movies, THE GREAT GATSBY remains one the movies that changed my life.
NEXT THURSDAY: MY GREATEST MOVIE WEEKEND: PART II
Why This Song of the Day?
"What'll I Do?" by Irving Berlin
Because this is the version that opens GATSBY. Because I think it is one of the saddest, most romantic songs I've ever heard.