Gone is the romance that was so divine.
Of all the great American authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald has notoriously been the most difficult to adapt or, at the very least, has suffered from what is arguably the greatest number of failed adaptations (1977's The Last Tycoon, the two earlier cinematic incarnations of Gatsby). In 1974, undoubtedly riding high on his previous success with The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola took a stab at yet another adaptation of Fitzgerald's best-known novel, and the final result was, at the time of its release, generally considered a failure. So here's a news flash—it still is.
Facts of the Case
Like the novel, the film version of Gatsby is set during one hazy summer on 1920s-era Long Island, a time and place where the rich sit on their verandas drinking champagne by day and attend lavish parties by night. The narrator is Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), an outsider to this kind of lifestyle due to his lack of money (he toils as a bond salesman on Wall Street), who instead spends his nights listening to the festivities that take place at his neighbor, Jay Gatsby's (Robert Redford) house, without ever actually taking part in them. Gatsby is enigmatic and mysterious, ridiculously wealthy, rarely seen but recognizable by name to everyone, and prone to throwing inordinately expensive parties but never attending them. He once had a relationship with Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), a cousin of Nick's, but she threw him over because of his once-impoverished position (she was old money, he never had any) and chose instead to marry Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern).
Gatsby strikes up a friendship with Nick, and after learning of his relationship to Daisy, arranges a meeting with her, and the two instantly resume their former affair. When Tom wises up to their relationship, the proceedings are sent spiraling towards a tragic conclusion, and it's all Nick can do to pick up the pieces.
I never made it all the way through Fitzgerald's novel in high school, not because I disliked it, but mostly because at the time I had a natural disinclination to read anything that I was assigned (a habit that stayed with me all through college). But I remember enjoying what I did read (about two thirds) quite a bit. I was taken with the mystery surrounding Gatsby, the question of how he came into his prosperity, and the relationship he once had with Daisy. Though the story was set in the 1920s, it felt distinctly modern, and its criticism of the idle rich felt as biting and contemporary as it must have felt back when the book was published, perhaps even more so. It was assigned reading, but it wasn't nearly as dull as the other material I was forced to slog through, and I always felt bad that I never made it through the whole thing.
Alas, this third film retelling of Gatsby is crippled by its flaws, too numerous to name here, but not the least of which is the terrible miscasting of just about every actor involved. The entire cast seem uncomfortable with the '20s-era dialogue, which Coppola's screenplay retains, to the point where they seem to be simply reading out of the novel without ever understanding what they're saying, or how it's supposed to be said. The worst offender is Mia Farrow as Daisy, who overplays her part to the point of frustration for anyone who's read the novel and understands the character in any capacity. Daisy is supposed to be angelic and unattainable, which is part of her appeal for Gatsby, but also a spoiled brat who refuses to see beneath her class. The way Farrow plays her, she is clueless and spoiled, but she retains none of the characteristics that make her so desirable for Gatsby, and we wonder why he really ever bothers.
Redford, who I consider to be one of the all-time great actors, would seem like a natural fit for Gatsby, with his rugged good looks and ability to charm while still giving off the impression that he's hiding something. But even he appears uncomfortable with the intonation of the dialogue, as is evidenced in the instances where he's supposed to refer to Nick as "Old Sport," his trademark moniker for his friend. It seems forced and unnatural, as if it's something he knows he's supposed to be saying instead of a phrase he uses all the time. With Daisy and Gatsby's buried relationship making up so much of the story's narrative drive, these are the two performances that must be absolutely right, but in the hands of Farrow and Redford, they're all wrong.
The exception to the poor casting is Sam Waterston (of TV's Law and Order) as Nick, who's really the only one that seems like he belongs in the Roaring Twenties setting, but his role is severely diminished from the book, making him more of a peripheral character than a major player. While it's true that that Nick is supposed to be something of an outsider to this glamorous world, and therefore isn't supposed to play a major part in the events of the story, one of the things I remember specifically liking about the book was the emphasis on the friendship between Nick and Gatsby, which is more or less thrown out here in favor of playing up the romantic angle. Nick's final line to Gatsby in the novel is, "They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn lot of them put together," which is supposed to convey the intense feeling of friendship he has for Gatsby, but in the film it's rendered meaningless due to the fact that they never actually seem to become that good of friends. For Gatsby, Nick comes to be a way back to Daisy and nothing more, and Nick, despite any admiration he may have for Gatsby, doesn't actually spend enough time with him in the film to make that final line ring true. It's an unfortunate sacrifice no doubt made by the filmmakers to keep the running time down (it's two and a half hours as is), and perhaps it shows why Fitzgerald's story has never worked as a movie. The heart of the book is about relationships between the characters, and when you start cutting those relationships out, the final product suffers.
There are a number of other problems with The Great Gatsby, including a mishandling of the book's tone, but I think you get the picture. There have been a lot of great films made from classic American literature, but Jack Clayton's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most beloved novel isn't one of them. It's badly cast, self-important to a fault, and fails to understand just what the book was really about. It's not an awful film, just a painfully average one that squanders its opportunity to make something great out of the justifiably heralded source material.
Paramount's DVD of the picture is yet another of their great-looking but featureless releases, sporting a beautiful 1:85:1 anamorphic transfer taken from a solid source print. Though some of the nighttime scenes show noticeable dirt and grain, and there is some edge enhancement present, the rest of the picture is essentially spotless, and no digital artifacting is apparent. The film's audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and serves to highlight the score, which features a number of jazz tunes from the Roaring Twenties. There are also Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks in both English and French, and English subtitles are included for the hearing impaired. The extras are, once again, nil. No biographies, no trailers—nothing.
Despite the solid technical presentation of The Great Gatsby on DVD, I'm having a hard time recommending the film itself. The flaws easily outweigh the strengths, and even for Paramount's $14.99 price tag at most major outlets, it's tough to find anything in the movie that warrants purchasing. Now, maybe it's about time I gave that book another shot.
Guilty as charged. Despite Paramount's efforts to make the film look and sound great, it's all for naught. Add another guilty charge for whoever thought that Mia Farrow would make a good Daisy Buchanan. Case dismissed.
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