Your high school English teacher was right: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby really is one of the best American novels of the 20th century, and if you weren’t paying attention back in school, you should read it again right away. Will watching the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby serve as an acceptable shortcut? No. Sadly, the movie treats Fitzgerald’s flawless novel as little more than a Jazz-age costume drama, and it goes heavy on the costumes, light on the drama.
Adapted for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola in just three weeks after Truman Capote was fired (so the story goes), Gatsby tells the story of the mysterious and elusive Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a superrich businessman who likes to throw wild weekend-long, gin-soaked parties at his sprawling Long Island estate. But who is he? Where did he come from? Rumors abound, but no one seems to know for sure, and as long as the band keeps playing and the booze keeps flowing, no one seems to care all that much.
When Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), a young businessman from the midwest, rents a cottage on Gatsby’s estate, he soon finds out that Gatsby holds a torch for Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), who lives across the bay in an equally huge mansion with her brutish husband Tom (Bruce Dern), a physically abusive philanderer who enjoys spouting Fascist rhetoric while waving around his polo mallet. When Daisy finds out Gatsby is nearby, a strained secret reunion takes place at Nick’s cottage, but trouble soon follows. Can Gatsby turn his unrequited love into a successful second chance? Will Daisy want to leave her loveless but comfortable life with Tom? And how will the volatile Tom react to all this? Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom have a series of encounters, each one more uncomfortable than the one before, and along the way, Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles), a potential love interest for Nick, and Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black), Tom’s unstable mistress, are thrown into the increasingly tense mix. It’s only a matter of time before all their worlds start to fall apart.
Soapy though it may sound, the story takes on numerous levels of meaning in Fitzgerald’s deft hands. ‘Gatsby’ is a story about identity, the American dream, second chances, and most famously, the impossibility of repeating the past. Though the film takes a long 2 hours and 24 minutes to work its way through the plot, many of these areas are left unexplored or unfelt.
Chalk it up in part to strange casting. While Redford was an obvious box-office choice to play Gatsby, having just come off huge swoon-worthy successes in The Sting and The Way We Were, he doesn’t get Gatsby, choosing to play Gatsby’s mysteriousness as woodenness and aloofness. He looks fantastic in his Oscar-winning suits, but it’s hard to care much about what comes out of his lock-jawed mouth.
Mia Farrow’s Daisy is equally disappointing. In the book, Daisy has a natural flighty flirtatiousness that has been driving men wild for a decade. In the film, Farrow comes across as nothing more than fragile and jittery. Like Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings And a Funeral, she simply doesn’t seem worth all the trouble men go to in pursuit of her affections. As Tom, Bruce Dern is wiry and whiny. He has none of the looming physical presence that supposedly makes Tom such a menacing figure.
Sam Waterston fares better. Nick is the narrator of both the book and the movie, so he gets all the good speeches, and his patrician bearing would have been recognizable to Fitzgerald from his days at Princeton and his life on the edges of the upper class. Waterston’s sad eyes get sadder and sadder as Gatsby’s tragic flaws propel him toward his ugly fate.
For all the colorful trappings of the time and place, Gatsby the book has ideas and pathos that transcend its era. Gatsby the movie focuses on the surfaces at the expense of depth, and the result is a movie that looks great but means little.