“Gone is the romance that was so divine; tis broken and cannot be mended…” - not the prose of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the first audible line from the prologue to Jack Clayton’s expensive adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974). Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I Do?’ – a forlorn little ballad written for his 1911 stage hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and sung herein with sad longing by Bill Atherton, sets up not only the premise to Fitzgerald’s story but also the mood of the entire film quite succinctly; juxtaposing static shots of a magnificent estate looking rather lonely and unloved in the steely-blue gray of dawn.
Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography moves in on silver-framed portraits of a stunningly handsome woman, a hand-embroidered bed cover with the satin gold initials ‘JG’ and finally, various military medals given for valor, lying strangely next to a half-eaten sandwich already besought by the errant housefly. At once Clayton has established the dichotomous interplay and tragedy that is Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford); a mythical and reclusive gentleman, but more the obsessing fool and fraud hiding behind his thin veil of faux respectability. Nor is the mansion hardly one of those glittering white palaces in West Egg, so described later in both the novel and the film but rather something of a mausoleum; faintly reeking of embalming fluid since deprived of its sycophantic revelers never to return, but who came to gawk, gossip and gorge themselves on the excesses of their hermit-host’s social graces.
Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay reinforces the soul of the novel in these opening scenes by excising and paraphrasing portions of Fitzgerald verbatim beginning with: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’…consequently, I’m inclined to reserve all of my judgments.” The film’s narrative remains true to the novel, the bulk of what follows retold for the audience by Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston); the unobstructed observer to Gatsby’s fixated determination to rekindle a spark anew from his old love – quite unaware how flawed the premise truly is. At one point Nick even tells Gatsby, “You can’t relive the past” to which Jay – more preoccupied than ever – renounces him with “Of course you can”.
Fitzgerald’s monumental tale of self-destructive love that basically causes a good man to sell himself in trade for the trappings of a robber baron, simply to impress his ‘one-time’ paramour is a sad, eloquent saga told by a superior wordsmith. Regrettably, Coppola’s script and Clayton’s visuals never come close to matching the author’s prose. With such promise unfulfilled, The Great Gatsby retains but a glimmer of distinction as a fine literary adaptation, mostly from John Box’s lavish production design that manages to visualize this rather heartless generation of ‘go-to-hell’ tea dance twenties millionaires and wannabe stragglers throwing caution to the wind and kicking their heels and skirts high into the air for a good time had my most, though arguably, not all.
The story’s implosion can only be partially blamed on Coppola’s lumbering script – an interminable purgatory of montage-esque odes to the fractured romance between Jay and Daisy – much too faithful to Fitzgerald to become anything greater than a basic lampooning of the author’s word – and made even more forgettable by the woeful miscasting of players who do little more than skulk about this glistening landscape without ever assimilating into the period of the piece. In his powder-pink three piece suits and plaster of pomade quaff Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby mismanages the confused fop as a simpering fashion plate. Redford’s Gatsby spends a great deal of time perplexedly mooning over our troubled poor little rich girl, Daisy Buchanan – all the more ineffectually mangled by Mia Farrow’s frenetic moping and crocodile tear-stained visage shot through heavy gauze.
I confess; the acting prowess of both Bruce Dern and Karen Black has always eluded me; cast herein as Daisy’s wealthy/philandering husband, Tom and his soulless and very brittle plaything, Myrtle Wilson. Dern and Black’s performances never rise above stock B-grade 70’s television programming; he the perpetually scowled brute, unsympathetic or even memorable, even when he gives the dickering/bickering Myrtle a bloody-nose amidst a roomful of superficial friends come to avail themselves of his money and Myrtle’s bathtub gin. Black captures the greedy resolve of Myrtle’s character, though hardly her devouring temperament. If anything, Black’s Myrtle emerges as a gargoyle, a gal unwilling to acknowledge her low caste even as she remains chained to it.
The most intelligent and believable performers of the lot are Sam Waterston’s middle-class bond salesman who has his eyes opened wide by this deceptive brood; Lois Chiles’ sultry vamp and golf pro, Jordan Baker – and, undeniably, vintage ham Howard Da Silva, as Meyer Wolfsheim; a notorious gangster/racketeer who has set Gatsby up in more ways than one – though chiefly in business, making him the fresh-faced front man for the mafia. It doesn’t help that Coppola’s screenplay reduces most of the novel’s pivotal elements into a rudimentary exercise told mostly in vignettes interrupted by several excruciatingly long party sequences that devolve into a ‘corn’ucopia of buffoonery and broads playfully run amuck; the action remedially shot by Slocombe mostly from the waist down so that we can almost look up the sequined dresses of dancers in their heavy stockings or stare at straight pant-legged tuxedoes and patented leather shoes making a mockery of the Charleston.
No, The Great Gatsby founders because all of its elements seems to be working against one another; the vintage clothing wearing the actors instead of the other way around; the sets gleaming, but never appearing to be truly lived in; the action lensed either in long shot or extreme close up, but with its nauseated focus shifting back and forth between talking heads in the extreme foreground and background. Fitzgerald’s novel isn’t about extolling the elegance or even the extravagance of that bygone era but rather exposing its superficiality and how one can become a slave to it for love. This corrupts our returning soldier/hero whose only crime before the war was to have fallen for a very flawed social climber who arguably never regarded him as keeping up to her speed.
Our story begins on Long Island Sound with Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) rescuing his panama hat from its waters in a modest outboard decidedly out of place amidst all the other lavishly appointed vessels cruising the coastline. Nick has made the crossing from the less fashionable West Egg to visit his first cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) whom he has not seen in some years. After a brief introduction to Daisy’s polo-playing hubby, Tom (Bruce Dern) the men return to Tom’s estate where Nick finds Daisy and her girlfriend, Jordan (Lois Chiles) lazing around the open air patio. Tom is called away in the middle of their conversation by a phone call from his mistress, Myrtle (Karen Black) – the affair exposed to Nick by Jordan who seems to be genuinely enjoying Daisy’s insecurity.
Sometime later, Tom collects Nick at the cottage he’s renting; a property facing Gatsby’s back lawn. The two motor into Manhattan, stopping midway in their journey at a grimy garage where Tom introduces Nick to Myrtle and her husband, grease-monkey George Wilson (Scott Wilson). Myrtle meets up with Nick and Tom later that afternoon. He buys her a puppy to go with the new apartment he’s just rented for their frequent rendezvous. But the gathering turns ugly when Myrtle attempts to boss Tom around. He ruthlessly slaps her, causing her nose to bleed. Shortly thereafter Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s all-night house parties. He is reunited with Jordan and listens to rumors being spread by various party guests about their reclusive host before being escorted to the second floor of the estate by Gatsby’s mysterious bodyguard (John Devlin). Nick meets Gatsby, a man even more cryptic and evasive in person than his own concocted mythology.
Even so, Nick takes an instant liking to Gatsby who suggests they have lunch the next afternoon. Nick wholeheartedly agrees. He is fed a tall tale by Gatsby who claims he is the son of wealthy parents who died before the war. Having distinguished himself in battle – even showing off his medals of valor – Gatsby takes Nick to a rather seedy restaurant where they break bread with Meyer Wolfsheim (Howard De Silva); a charismatic hoodlum who regales Nick with the story of a gangland hit that occurred right across the street. Wolfsheim hints that Nick might wish to join their ‘organization’ – an offer quickly diffused by Gatsby. Wolfsheim apologizes for his ‘misunderstanding’ and tactfully removes himself from their luncheon date. Gatsby will do the same a few moments later when Tom unexpectedly arrives – presumably en route to another rendezvous with Myrtle.
Later, Gatsby makes his truer inquiry known; that he would prefer Nick set up an invitation for Daisy to attend him in the cottage for tea; an inducement for which Gatsby lavishes a large silver service and an abundance of white roses – Daisy’s favorite. Daisy arrives, seemingly startled to discover Gatsby waiting for her. Nick leaves the couple alone but is encouraged by Gatsby to make a tour of his estate. Daisy is captivated by her former lover’s instant wealth. Showing off, Gatsby tosses a closetful of his newly tailored shirts into the air, bringing Daisy to tears. Their love affair is made short shrift of in a series of montages shot through heavy filters. Ebullient beyond words Daisy drags Tom to one of Jay’s all-night soirees and even gives him permission to seduce the showgirls newly arrived from their Broadway show.
Tom doesn’t much care for Daisy’s newly mastered tolerance of his peccadillos. He’s even less amused to discover the motivation behind it; that, to quote the old proverb, ‘what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.’ Tom becomes suspicious of Gatsby and hires a private investigator (Bob Sherman) to dig up Jay’s mysterious past – particularly his women. In the meantime a reporter for the New York Journal (Jerry Mayer) confronts Nick with some questions about his fabulously wealthy neighbor. Several days later Nick, Jordan and Gatsby attend Tom and Daisy at their home where Gatsby reluctantly meets the child Daisy has had with Tom. Gatsby’s understanding of their romance is spoiled by this revelation and Daisy, frantic to subdue the situation, makes an impromptu suggestion they all go into town.
The heat is stifling and tempers flares inside the Plaza Hotel. Gatsby informs Tom that he intends for Daisy to marry him and Tom retaliates by revealing the truth about Gatsby’s past. Daisy becomes frantic and runs from their private dining room, pursued by Gatsby with Tom shouting after them about Gatsby’s connections to organized crime. On the trip back home, Jordan, Tom and Nick are confronted by a crowd gathered outside Wilson’s garage. It seems Myrtle, having admonished her husband for his ignorance, ran from the garage and into the street, but was struck by an oncoming car. Eye-witness accounts claim the car was a yellow convertible, the same as Gatsby’s. Nick assumes that Gatsby was driving the roadster that ran Myrtle down. But in fact it was Daisy who drove the car.
Distraught at having lost his wife, and led by Tom to believe that Gatsby had been Myrtle’s lover, George grabs his shotgun and shoots Gatsby dead as he lies on his patio waiting for Daisy to come to him. In yet another revelation, Nick learns the truth about the accident from Daisy. He also meets Gatsby’s real father, Mr. Gatz (Roberts Blossoms); a poor but disarming man who was all but ignored by Jay once he entered the mafia lifestyle. Haunted by Daisy’s callousness regarding her complicity in not only Myrtle’s murder but also Gatsby’s death – and seemingly disinterested in anything but her own divine decadences, Nick departs from the Plaza Hotel – ever more the wiser and much an admirer of the great Gatsby and his motives; for Gatsby gave everything of himself for the love of a woman who turned out to be all too unworthy of his aching heart.
The Great Gatsby has never translated well into film and this 1974 version is no exception to the rule. Jack Clayton’s direction is pedestrian at best – his pacing more stultifying than spectacular. The visuals periodically do come to life – particularly during the party sequences at Gatsby’s regal estate. Regrettably, Clayton uses these parties as little more than a visual hodge-podge to celebrate the ostentations of the self-indulgent. I get it – the 1920’s roared like a lion. But Coppola’s script is short – pathetically so – on exposition – arguably, diffusing the forte of the piece which is undeniably Fitzgerald’s writing.
On the whole the characters have very little to say – either about themselves or to each other. The reintroduction of Gatsby to Daisy, as example, and their subsequent love affair is an interminable montage of kisses, dewy-eyed stares across the lawn, and, lying together in Gatsby’s park-like setting. But we know absolutely nothing about the motivation behind Gatsby’s obsessive desire to reclaim Daisy for himself or that obviously wounded past that continues to haunt them from the peripheries of this rekindled romance. Somewhere midway through the story both Coppola and Clayton have tired of and abandoned the Nick Carraway monologue that borrowed whole portions of its exposition from Fitzgerald’s literary prose; a mistake, since it all but severs the already tenuous connection with the novel. The last third of the film spirals into a rather tedious ‘who done it?’ but with minimal surprises and virtually no staying power to hold the audience’s interest.
All of these misfires are a shame – because The Great Gatsby has so obviously been mounted with considerable care and expense. The planning, however, seems to have been more pertinent than the execution. None of the pieces fit and in the end the story falls apart. We remember flashes here and there but none of the whole. Baz Luhrman’s new interpretation of the story set to debut this year will undoubtedly be more frenetic and flamboyant in its visual approach – shop-chopped with Ginsu-styled editing and a contemporary claptrap of pop tunes inserted in place of a period score to draw in the younger audience. But the story really doesn’t need either. What it does require is a more captivating class of actor, a better screenplay and fluidity faithful to Fitzgerald’s text. Barring these inclusions any version of The Great Gatsby is likely to sink like a stone at the box office.
Warner Home Video has assumed the rights to the Paramount library and this 1080p Blu-ray bears witness to the former’s cost cutting approach. Paramount Blu-rays were few and far between when the studio retained control of its own catalogue but at least they were given the utmost consideration in hi-def. Warner’s mastering efforts haven’t been nearly as successful of late. Despite a very high bit rate, the dual-layered transfer on The Great Gatsby lacks in clarity and overall color fidelity. While the results definitely improve on Paramount’s pathetic DVD from 2002, removing age-related artifacts and eradicating virtually all of the digital anomalies that plagued that release, what we ultimately get is an image that is soft – even when Slocombe’s trigger finger isn’t heavily filtering the image.
Colors are weak at best, although several close ups jump to life. Film grain is naturally reproduced, but looks occasionally thicker than anticipated – particularly during the montage sequences and transitions between scenes. Flesh tones are, for the most part, quite natural in appearance. Some of the shots suffer from a slightly less pronounced level of contrast that makes everything look murky. The plus, herein, is a new 5.1 audio. Dialogue continues to sound strident but the vintage score crackles with renewed vigor. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)