Monday, May 6, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Great Gatsby" (1974)

"The Great Gatsby" is a production design in search of a movie. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous to gaze upon, from the actors whose eyes literally sparkle to their handsome clothes, ostentatious homes and gleaming automobiles.

But just like F. Scott Fitzgerald's overpraised novel -- still boring the tears out of high schoolers nearly a century after its publication -- the 1974 movie is beautifully lifeless and unengaging. It's a critique of an age, not a story about flesh-and-blood people whom we can adore or despise. Novels can just be about "a time and a place," but narrative films need to go places.

It has been commented by others that Fitzgerald simply took a timeless story, a love triangle, and set it against the backdrop of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the nouveau riche who partied carelessly until the great, inevitable fall came.

Actually, if there's one group Fitzgerald finds more contemptuous than the oilmen and stock market dandies who got wealthy quick, it's the snooty Old Money types who wear their wealth like a mark of royalty. Mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby may be a reckless climber, but the book and movie save their sharpest barbs for Tom and Daisy, who think they deserve to dance above any disaster.

Tragedy is something that only happens to the unmoneyed. The wealthy maintain a cocoon by always sticking together. Or, as Daisy puts it to her long-lost lover, "Rich girls don't marry poor boys, Jay Gatsby."

At least Gatsby is ambitious; the Buchanans merely want to keep riding their wave of entitlement.

There have been at least a half-dozen cinematic adaptations of the novel, including a silent film version that came out the year after it was published. There was also a 1949 movie starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field, which I haven't seen.

I think "Gatsby" is a story that works for different times and people of certain ages, but not others. The '49 film must have had some added subtext, coming at a time when the country had just come out of two decades of war and economic struggle. Back then, the 1920s must have seemed like the grand, foolish ball before disaster struck.

The 1974 film has no such timely advantages, and arrived when the people who lived the Jazz Age were growing old and dying. It exists as an artifact, a critical representation of an era that was by then already forgotten.

Director Jack Clayton and his cast seem to have approached the picture with a very theatrical mindset. Most of the actors deliver their lines in stiff, diffident formal tones. Robert Redford is almost a total cipher as Gatsby, seeming to come out of his shell of mystery only when he nearly comes to blows with Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern), the snobbish old-money playboy married to Daisy (Mia Farrow), his former love.

Farrow has a few interesting notes as the hysterical Daisy, who treats life as a party that never needs winding down. She's not a bored rich wife in need of distraction -- her entire life is a distraction. To her, motherhood consists of giving her little girl a hug and compliment from time to time when she happens by with the governess.

"That's the best thing a girl can be in this world -- a beautiful little fool," she purrs.

Sam Waterston doesn't have much to do as Nick, ostensibly the main character and narrator, but that's the way Fitzgerald constructed him: a Midwesterner who approaches the high-living life of rich Long Islanders like a zoologist studying the behavior of exotic beasts in the wild.

I don't really blame Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay, which actually follows the book rather faithfully, right down to the heavy-handed symbolism of the Buchanan's blinking green dock light beckoning Gatsby from across the lake, and the optometrist's bespectacled gaze frowning down on the proceedings from a billboard marking the fork between the old-money enclave and the upstarts.

Rounding out the cast are Scott Wilson and Karen Black as the Wilsons, poor folks who are used and abused in various ways by the Buchanans, and Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker, an amoral golfer and Nick's itinerant girlfriend.

I think what disappoints me most about the movie is that it's so completely bloodless. The characters seem to glide through a world lacking consequences or waypoints, creating their own rules as they go along. That's Fitzgerald's central criticism of the era in which he lived, and it makes for a wonderful-looking but detached movie.

Perhaps the new film arriving later this week can find the passion that eluded this one.

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