While this much-maligned adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel is highly problematic, it’s not the disaster its reputation might suggest. And while the movie’s biggest shortcomings are indecisive direction and poorly conceived leading roles, it must be acknowledged that the source material’s inherent ambiguity prevents easy translation to the cinematic medium.
The basics of the movie’s storyline are intact from the novel. In 1920s Long Island, carefree young socialite Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) endures a financially comfortable but loveless marriage to the abusive and adulterous Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern). One summer, Daisy’s life is brightened by the arrival on Long Island of a favorite cousin, comparatively penniless Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston). Nick resides in a small cottage next to the palatial estate of Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a mystery man who throws lavish parties that he doesn’t attend.
Jay befriends Nick as a means of arranging a meeting with Daisy, whom we learn was in love with Jay prior to her marriage. The Daisy/Jay romance was originally thwarted by Jay’s poverty, so in the intervening period he acquired great wealth through dubious means. A dreamer mired in the past, Jay hopes to steal Daisy away from her unworthy husband and reclaim the idylls of yesteryear. Fitzgerald’s novel is a meditation on the blithe manner in which the rich trifle with the lives of the poor, and the book explores such rich themes as ambition, jealousy, self-delusion, and self-destruction.
The screenplay, credited to Francis Ford Coppola but reportedly tweaked by director Jack Clayton and producer David Merrick, simplifies Fitzgerald’s story in hurtful ways, accentuating some of the novel’s least interesting aspects—the seductive glamour of Roaring ’20s clothing, the silly revelry of Prohibition-era parties, the trashy extremes of a subplot involving Tom’s déclassé mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black). Clearly, when the adaptation of a book famed for its internal qualities gets mired in surfaces, there’s a major disconnect on some level.
Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that Clayton didn’t direct another Hollywood movie for nearly a decade after The Great Gatsby: His storytelling is so awkward that he sometimes contrives complex tracking shots that land in the wrong place, with a key character obscured while delivering dialogue, and Clayton gets completely lost during party scenes, lingering on unimportant details like the flailing hem of a flapper’s skirt while she’s doing the Charleston.
The lead performances are similarly unfocused. Farrow is far too stilted to evoke Daisy’s signature quality of intoxicating carelessness, and Farrow’s clumsy reactions during the most dramatic scenes recall the over-the-top mugging of silent films. Redford fares better, nailing several important nuances, though he seems like he’s in a different movie from everyone else—he’s striving for quiet depth while other actors settle for loud melodrama. Waterston finds a comfortable middle ground between the extremes of Farrow’s and Redford’s performances, and the scenes between him and Redford are the movie’s best.
Dern is very good, too, though he’s boxed in by a one-note characterization, and supporting player Scott Wilson is quietly moving in a key role. As for Black, there’s a reason a punk band bears the ironic name The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black—the operatic style she displays here is an acquired taste.
The commercial and critical failure of this movie was enough to scare Hollywood away from Fitzgerald’s book for decades, as had happened previously with a reckless 1949 adaptation starring Alan Ladd; notwithstanding a bland TV version broadcast in 2000, Hollywood avoided The Great Gatsby until 2012, when flamboyant director Baz Luhrmann mounted a lavish new version (in 3D!) starring Leonardo Di Caprio as Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby: FUNKY