"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." --F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
The 1974 production under consideration here was the third filming of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, the first being a 1926 silent version starring Warner Baxter and the second a 1949 version starring Alan Ladd. Like the 2001 television adaptation with Toby Stephens, they all met the same fate; namely, they were unable adequately to convey the book's poetic vision. Nevertheless, of the four screen attempts, it's this 1974 "Great Gatsby," helmed by British director Jack Clayton ("Room at the Top," "The Innocents," "The Pumpkin Eater"), that comes off best.
Or maybe I just like it because I've seen it so often, having taught American Lit. most of my career. Whatever, certainly the mainstream critics disapproved of it, some of them intensely, and audiences stayed away. While I agree with these reactions in part, maybe I can set some things right by injecting a note of optimism into broil.
But first things first. Fitzgerald published his novel in 1925, commenting to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, during the writing process that he was consciously striving to create a work of art. As such, the book became a multilayered narrative of manifold themes, symbols, and characterizations tied up in a lyrical prose style that would become a nightmare for filmmakers to translate to the screen.
The story hardly needs summing up for anyone who has gone through an American high school or college, but for the benefit of those who somehow missed it (or just can't remember it), the story superficially concerns the illicit love affair of a mysterious young man of fortune, Jay Gatsby, and a beautiful, young, rich, and very married East Coast woman of society, Daisy Buchanan. Only it's not. What I mean is, the story is really about the corrosive forces of wealth, class structures in a classless society, the elusive nature of happiness, and the loss of innocence and illusion, what reviewers at the time of the book's publication generally overlooked but what critics of the late forties finally picked up on and declared as a perfect depiction of the corruption of the American Dream.
Set against a background of the Roaring 20s, a term Fitzgerald helped coin, the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the rise of gangsterism, fast cars, and faster women, the story looks at the rich and the poor with equal disdain. It's both an indictment of the era and, ironically, a glorification of it. However, what the various movie versions over the years have concentrated on is the story's romance at the expensive of its spiritual and allegorical implications.
The weaknesses in the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" are easy to see if a person has recently read the book. For one thing, the film's too long. Fitzgerald's novel is a masterpiece of conciseness, as brief and insightful as the most powerful poetry in conveying to the reader as much as possible in as few words. The film is 146 minutes, almost two-and-a-half hours. Short novel; long film. Certainly, the filmmakers were trying their best to cram everything they could into the movie, but books and movies are two different animals and need to be treated differently. Where the novel seems a marvel of succinctness, the movie can seem endless, especially during several romantic, soft-focus sequences that appear to go on needlessly forever.
Worse, the film never achieves the lyrical grace of the novel, nor should it be expected to match the novel's elegance. Most of the book is told to us in the first person by a friend of Gatsby's, Nick Carraway, and scriptwriter Francis Ford Coppola (who took over for Truman Capote) does his best to condense the narration without using too much voice-over and to translate much of what is told to us into screen imagery. But there are some things that only words, not images, can convey. Take the line at the top of the review, for instance, which comes off in the movie as just another Gatsby party. Coppola even omits the book's famous last line, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Maybe he thought the line too ethereal or too ambiguous for moviegoers to comprehend. A novel, after all, allows readers time to think about each utterance at the moment it's read, whereas in a movie viewers are not given much chance for reflection until later, when it's usually too late.
Needless to say, the novel's thematic content is pretty much dismissed as well, with only the faintest allusions to the empty dreams of its protagonist drifting in and out of our awareness when it's over. In a way, I suppose that exemplifies what the book's all about, in any case, but I think Fitzgerald had a more tangible goal in mind for his figurative tale. Except for the narrator, however, the characters in the story are generally bereft of values or principles, and perhaps that is the one important point the movie does make clear. So all is not completely lost.
On the other hand, there are any number of things the movie does well, starting with the casting of Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. Critics have complained that the actor was too refined, too suave, too much the Hollywood star to portray what Fitzgerald describes as an "elegant young roughneck." Conversely, critics complained that Redford sounded awkward in his phrasing. Possibly, we should take our clue from the word "elegant" rather than "roughneck," because that is precisely what Redford, as Gatsby, seeks to realize. Gatsby is the ultimate overachiever, right down to his attempts to appear sophisticated by over articulating his words and using phrases like "old sport." Redford nails it, still bringing a glamor to the part it sorely needs, and when Gatsby explains his compulsive attraction for Daisy by saying "Her voice is full of money," we can readily understand what he means.
The rest of the cast is equally fine. Sam Waterston plays the narrator, Nick Carraway. He's perhaps the best-cast performer in the film because he so perfectly fits the role. Not only is Waterston a superb actor, he looks ordinary, the Everyman that Nick is supposed to be; he's each of us looking in on a world far removed yet very close to our own. Mia Farrow plays Daisy with appropriately wide-eyed, empty-headed charm. Bruce Dern is Daisy's intimidating husband, Tom, not quite as physically imposing as the "brute" described in the novel, but just as arrogantly repulsive in his snobbish, boorish, elitist, racist way. Lois Chiles plays Jordan Baker, Daisy's best friend, with a voice so sexy you'll remember it long after you've forgotten the actress. Karen Black plays Tom's "other woman," Myrtle Wilson, far more attractive than the Myrtle imaged by Fitzgerald but every bit as slutty, tawdry, and cheap. And Scott Wilson plays George, Myrtle's cuckold husband, the poor sap who brings the story to its inevitable close.
The choice of British-born Jack Clayton to direct the picture may seem odd, but he brings a fresh sensibility to the story. Like Nick and the viewer, he's an outsider himself looking in on a world both near and far away. He keeps the action moving forward, with only the length of the script to hinder him, plus a fondness for too many warm, fuzzy moments. Nevertheless, Clayton manages to make the last twenty minutes or so of the film strongly affecting, and they above all best illustrate the essence of Fitzgerald.
The settings are magnificent. To achieve the proper period atmosphere, the movie was filmed largely on location in areas of the upper crust in New York City's Plaza Hotel and Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Extras for Gatsby's lavish parties were recruited among the wealthy neighborhoods. It may all be presented too literally, but it provides a splendid feast for the eyes.
Finally, the music of the film also helps to establish the right note of 1920's authenticity. Nelson Riddle's arrangements of the music of the time won an Academy Award. What's more, vocals were provided by actor William Atherton, who isn't usually thought of as a singer these days, and actual twenties pop singer Nick Lucas (both, oddly, uncredited), who first popularized "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Among the songs that establish the movie's mood are Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do," "When You and I Were Seventeen," "I'm Going to Charleston Back to Charleston," and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." Why the soundtrack vinyl album disappeared years ago and was never issued on CD, I'll never know.
Anyway, 1974's "The Great Gatsby" may be one of those hit-and-miss affairs that on its initial release missed by a mile with critics and viewers but could just hit it off on DVD. It's a movie for people who have already read the book and can fill in the missing details themselves or for people who have not read the book and just want a good romance. The movie is an opulent, stylish extravaganza that may be more faithful to the "look" of Fitzgerald's novel than to its spirit, yet brings a good deal of entertainment along the way. It's worth a shot, if you'll excuse the pun.
The video quality of "The Great Gatsby" on disc is variable but mostly excellent. It's been transferred in its original aspect ratio, here rendered at about 1.74:1, and at a very high bit rate to ensure the best possible picture; throughout maybe ninety per cent of the movie, it looks terrific. Images are sharply delineated, contrasts are strongly set off, and colors are brilliantly rich and luxuriant. But there are also a few nighttime scenes that are somewhat grainy or murky and a few indoor shots that are veiled in a fine but unmistakable mist of some sort, giving the latter a slightly rough appearance. Dirt, lines, scratches, and age spots are entirely absent, and for the most part, as I say, the screen is clear and clean.
When I first read that "The Great Gatsby" was finally coming to DVD, I also noted with no small dismay that it was being presented in mono only. I was unhappy with this news, to say the least, because the music is one of the best parts of the picture, and I had remembered it, perhaps faultily, as being in stereo. Imagine my delight, then, when the disc arrived and I discovered the sound had, indeed, been in stereo all along and was now remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround!
If there is any minor drawback to the audio reproduction, it's that it can on occasion, especially during loud musical passages, be overly hard and bright, not an uncommon attribute of older films. Sounds directed toward the back speakers are not always pinpoint in accuracy, either, and are largely confined to rain, wind, surf, and musical ambience. Still, the soundtrack does open up considerably in the front channels, frequency and dynamic ranges are impressive, background noise is nil, and Nelson Riddle's orchestrations provide a wonderful aural treat for anyone who likes the music of the era.
Understandably, a long movie, a high bit rate, and a single disc means there is not going to be much room for extras. As a result, there aren't any. Fourteen scene selections, English as the only spoken-language choice, and English subtitles are all we get. There's is, however, a main menu on the disc for sorting through these meager pickings, and there's a paper insert in the keep case to remind one of the chapters. Nevertheless, for me, giving up a few bonus items that I'll probably never look at again in exchange for an improved picture quality is worth the trade.
It's easy to understand why critics and audiences were disappointed in this movie version of "The Great Gatsby." It's probably the same reason why J.D. Salinger has never allowed "The Catcher in the Rye" to be filmed. When everybody finds a work of literature as nearly perfect as it can be, why take the chance of screwing it up? A movie can't hope to improve upon something that has reached the literary heights of a "Gatsby" or a "Catcher," so it's a no-win situation.
No doubt, then, "The Great Gatsby" has been a will-o'-the-wisp and hard to capture on screen. The book undertakes a tricky, aerial, deceptively complex, highly introspective examination of the human condition that has pretty much eluded filmmakers since the day it was written. But for the time being Jack Clayton's 1974 rendering of the novel is probably as close as we're going to get to the book's characters and settings if not to its language and themes. For its beauteous imagery, however, the movie is worth one's time. It has its obvious limitations, but I'd still give it the "green light."