Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Great Gatsby (1974): A Review (Review #420)


An Affair To Fall Asleep On...

I remember watching one of those trashy television movies about the scandal over Woody Allen's breakup with Mia Farrow.  If I remember, it was more Farrow's story than about Farrow et Woodster.  At one point in the movie, she bemoans her fate over The Great Gatsby.  Here she is, making her comeback in an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Robert Redford, and it turns out to be the biggest turkey of her career.

Well, Miss Farrow, just think how it was for us who had to watch it.

I should start off my review by saying two things. One: I took very few notes. Two: I fell asleep while watching. Thank heavens I read the book, otherwise I would not be able to go over the plot. 

Told through the voice-over of Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), we soon encounter Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Farrow) and her husband Tom (Bruce Dern).  Nick also meets their friend, golf pro Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles), but Nick has a next door neighbor, the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby throws wild parties that put the roar in Roaring Twenties, and one day, Nick finds himself invited to the very soirees he's only been hearing about (and, judging by the proximity to his rented home, forced to listen to).

There is a reason why lowly Nick has been allowed entry into this rarefied world: Jay Gatsby himself (Robert Redford) wants to make friends with him, mostly because Daisy is his cousin.  We learn that Daisy was Gatsby's first love, but that she did not wait for him because, in the film's most famous line (which oddly, is not in the Fitzgerald novel)

Rich girls don't marry poor boys.

Now, however, Gatsby is rich, though exactly how he comes about his fabulous wealth we are not certain.  Gatsby himself gives contradictory explanations but Nick sees that Gatsby's association with shady character Meyer Wolfsheim (Howard Da Silva) may be a clue.

However, Nick has his own issues: both a curious romance with Jordan and being aware that the Buchanan's are a mess.  Tom has a few girlfriends, in particular Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black), wife of gas station owner George Wilson (Tom Wilson--what are the odds they'd have the same last name?).  Myrtle and Tom are carrying on, while poor George is totally unaware.

As much as Jay may want Daisy to leave Tom, she cannot bring herself to say that she never loved Tom.  Jay, while devastated, stays loyal to Daisy (and/or the idea of Daisy), even after Myrtle is killed in a car accident.  George finds out that the car belongs to Jay Gatsby and kills him (and himself), but Nick knows the truth: it was Daisy who drove the car, but Jay, ever loving, refused to turn her over.

Nick, having grown disillusioned by the shallowness of it all, decides to depart back to the Midwest, especially after being about the only person who mourned Jay Gatsby. 

One wonders how, despite having such rich material, and despite having a solid cast, people could screw it all up so shockingly.  The Great Gatsby should have wild parties, beautiful people, and a great tragedy within its two hour-twenty-three-minute running time.  What wasn't tame in The Great Gatsby was instead dull.  It is as if the film was determined to make the most boring television adaptation of the novel, to condemn future high school students to see the book as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

One can't fault the cast: you have a film with Robert Redford (who is a good actor), Sam Waterston (ditto) and Mia Farrow (who can be as good as her material).  Yet for all the talent within The Great Gatsby, every appears to be almost bored with the proceedings.  None of them appeared to actually act.  Instead, they appeared to behave as though this was so serious and important, adapting a literary classic, that they had to give stiff and lifeless performances to show just how reverential they were to the text.

Rather than bring life to their characters, they brought death.

Take when Nick survives a harrowing party with the Buchanans where at the end he declares that he was 30 years old that very day.  As spoken by Waterston, it sounds more like something said to break the ice than a regret that this turning point is so marred by the tangled romances of the upper class.  Even more bizarre, even though Waterston was only 34 when he made The Great Gatsby, he looked far older.  I put that in to the serious tone everyone was taking.

The only one who appeared to try to do anything remotely close to acting was Farrow, but sadly for her and the film it was to overcompensate for Waterston and Redford's underplaying by overplaying her Daisy.  Rather than appearing as this beautiful, delicate but ultimately empty shadow that is not worthy of Gatsby's unrequited love, Farrow's Daisy was a trembling, whimpering, almost shrewish and twittering airhead.  Farrow was apparently directed to be excessively mannered in her trembling whenever she was on the screen.

As for Chiles, given that the only other film I have seen of her was the James Bond film Moonraker, I have very little point of reference to decided whether her Jordan was as dead and uninteresting as she is in The Great Gatsby or whether this is how Chiles is in all her films.  I'm going to say that because her Jordan was as lifeless as her Dr. Goodhead, Lois Chiles is pretty much a bland screen presence.

Finally, I think Bruce Dern was miscast as the beefy and self-assured but sleazy Tom Buchanan.  Dern seems remarkably thin to be this great threat to Gatsby, and I don't mean just by size but also because the script really gives no real motion or motivation for any of these people to do anything.

It takes a particular caliber of film to waste actors in even smaller roles.  Edward Herrmann (the epitome of the WASP world The Great Gatsby chronicles) is reduced to a mere cameo, and Da Silva's vaguely anti-Semitic character of Wolfsheim is likewise reduced to one scene that oddly doesn't add to the story even though it should be clear that his connection to Wolfsheim is how Gatsby made his fortune.

It is more incredible that Francis Ford Coppola was the screenwriter.  The dialogue appears so stilted and formal at times that again, there doesn't appear to be any life to them.  However, I have to give credit to where it's due.  Even thought it is not in the novel, the line

Rich girls don't marry poor boys, Jay Gatsby.  Haven't you heard?  Rich girls don't marry poor boys.

is now one of the most memorable lines to come from film.  As I understand it, this is what Fitzgerald was told in real life, and Coppola incorporated this devastating put-down to The Great Gatsby.  It's a great line, but about the only good part.

The script also has things that don't make any sense, at least if my memory of the book still hold.  Daisy for example immediately recognizes the name Gatsby, but wouldn't she have known him as James Gatz when they first courted?  Those who remember the book better may correct me on the matter.  This plot point about how Gatsby was really his nom de guerre wasn't addressed until the end of the movie, and this robs us of the chance to see just how tragic his life was in trying to recapture the past. 

The fault lies squarely at the feet of director Jack Clayton.  From being unable to draw performances out of any of his actors (save for Scott Wilson's character of the cuckold George, whose hurt and heartbreak over his wife's death and infidelity are signs of actual acting) to making the decadent world of Gatsby almost tame and dull (and frankly a little on the cheap side) to that damn voice-over (a bane of my existence) which not only was intrusive but that basically told you everything before it happened (when you hear a disembodied voice tell you that by September everything would be over, you don't have much suspense), Clayton made one bad choice after another that all but doomed The Great Gatsby.   

Now, having said all that, I will say that at least Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes were nice and worthy of The Great Gatsby's two Oscar wins (the other being Nelson Riddle's music score adaptation of the songs of the 1920s.  I should say that Riddle, who was Sinatra's orchestrator among his many other works, was brilliant with music, so he deserved his Oscar).  However, despite being an Academy Award-winning film that may capture what exactly is wrong with The Great Gatsby: it is a film where style is valued over substance, where the greatness of the story is drowned by the pretty clothes and pretty music enjoyed by the pretty people.

I imagine that high schoolers who have to read The Great Gatsby (which given how slim the book is lengthwise, should really take them a week or two at the most) will be forced to watch this adaptation.  I feel sorry for them.  Good thing I didn't read it in high school but later on, for my own pleasure, before seeing this dull treatment of this brilliant story. 
In short, The Great Gatsby may end up making people want to give up reading if the book is as boring as the movie. The book isn't, but tell that to all the kids who will have to suffer through it. 

If one can stay awake throught The Great Gatsby, watch it only for the costumes.  Ain't they pretty, and ain't we (not) got fun? 


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