Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay to the Jack Clayton directed film The Great Gatsby (1974), a banner year for cinema with some of the greatest films ever made. For those who hail 1939 as the greatest year in film history, I suggest they look hard at 1974 which is infinitely stronger. All in ’74 were The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Lenny, The Conversation, Young Frankenstein, A Woman Under the Influence, Badlands, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Phantom of the Paradise were just some of the American films released in that single, miraculous, year. One of the most anticipated films of the year, and subsequent failure was the film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby (1974) with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy. Redford was at the zenith of his career, a major box office star after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973) and respected as an actor in films such as Jeremiah Johnson (1973) and Oscar nominated for The Sting (1973). Farrow was less known but had enjoyed both box office and critical acclaim in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In many circles she was better known as Frank Sinatra’s wife. Many felt she lacked the acting chops to play the role believing Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton or Ali McGraw to be better choices.
Redford lacked that sense of danger, the edge to portray Gatsby, though admittedly he looked good in the beautiful costumes designed for the film. But there needs to be something sinister about Gatsby, who made his millions in bootlegging and other illegal activities, a sense that this man would have done anything (even murder?) to achieve his immense wealth. An idea that he will not only bend but break the rules to achieve his dream, a violent nature well hidden perhaps? Something darker was needed in Redford that simply was lacking. Farrow was too light, too flighty in her performance and there was a complete lack of chemistry between the pair. One never understood why Gatsby fell so hard for Daisy, nor could we understand what Daisy saw in him, other than his looks of course. Without a connection, a spark between the lovers in a love story, you have nothing. The English Patient (1996) suffered from such an issue, as does The Great Gatsby (1974).
The films’ great strength lies in the supporting performances.
Sam Waterston, a respected stage actor who never really found his place on film other than here and The Killing Fields (1983) was superb as the narrator of the story, Nick, who befriends Gatsby and begins to understand the man where others do not. Nick is able to see past the wealth, perhaps because he has none of his own, and find that he genuinely likes Gatsby and Gatsby likes him. He is the only character to truly see Gatsby for the man he is, and accepts him. Karen Black was excellent as the disturbed, vicious Myrtle, the schemer Daisy’s husband is bedding, who actually believes Tom will leave Daisy for her, while Scott Wilson is her equal as her sad sack husband.
Best of all and worthy of Oscar attention that did not come, Bruce Dern is a revelation as Tom Buchanan, the arrogant, wealthy man Daisy married because Gatsby lacked wealth. A blowhard with a mean streak, Tom hates Gatsby on site, and the venom in Dern’s eyes is always apparent when Gatsby is nearby. His dalliance with Myrtle is something he does because he can, because he knows his money will buy his way into her bed, the woman means nothing to him and her death offers him the chance to lash out at Gatsby. When Nick says goodbye to Tom at the film’s end, he finally sees through the Buchanans’, Daisy included, who will forever hide behind their money because society allows them to do so. Dern dominates the film with a towering performance and as Tom, brings a real danger to the role. This is a man capable of murder, which is what was needed with the Gatsby casting. My God, perhaps Dern should have been Gatsby!!
Initially Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were bandied about for the part, though the studio wanted Redford pretty much from the start, believing they needed a box office name for the picture. What they needed was an actor. Nicholson would have been fine, perhaps even brilliant, suggesting criminal activity just by his presence, while Beatty would be equally good, but the best choice for the part would have been Bruce Dern.
Farrow’s Daisy is not terrible, on the contrary, she has some fine moments and we believe at the end of the film she truly can shut the door and hide behind her money. Perhaps if she knew the truth (My God…perhaps she does?) she may think differently, but she will forever hide from the truth of what her life is, her husband and her lot in life. The obscenely wealthy often disconnect from the real world, and the Buchanans’ did that a long time ago.
The casting of the remake intrigues me, in particular Di Caprio as Gatsby, who I believe has all the right ingredients to play the role. There is something sinister in Di Caprio’s work when the actor is challenged, and certainly Tarantino has seen that, casting him as the villain in Django Unchained (2012). My hope is that Di Caprio will rock the role in a way Redford could not and finally bring to the screen a worthy Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is the perfect choice for Daisy, perhaps the only young actress working today other than the gifted Jennifer Lawrence or Natalie Portman, both more than capable to do the role. Mulligan will capture Daisy’s shallowness much better that Farrow did, and bring to us a woman who needs wealth, who could not survive a life without it, even at the sacrifice of true love.
Tobey Maguire is an excellent choice for Nick for the simple reason he is a brilliant actor easily able to slip int any role. Superb in the Civi War drama Ride with the Devil (2000) or as Peter Parker in Spider Man (2002) he will bring depth and confidence to the role. Cast as Tom, is Joel Edgerton who I loved in Kinky Boots (2005) and should have the stuff to make the role his own, though I must say Dern casts a mighty long shadow. Isla Fsher is an inspired choice for Myrtle, and I hope she captures that wild eyed hysteria written so well by Fitzgerald and brought to the screen by Karen Black, and I am sure Fisher will make the character her own.
Clayton’s film lacked an energy, an excitement for the era. This was the era of jazz, or wild parties, faster cars, and excitement in America, yet the 1974 film is oddly muted. IN truth some of the blame lies in the script, as Coppla never conquered the last few sentences of that book. Yet the energy issue is his as well, as there are far too many sequences that are still, with no real motion other than the characters eyes. This might work with Merchant/ Ivory films, but not Gatsby, and not Fitzgerald. Cannot see that happening with this new one as Luhrmann directs with pure energy, giving the frame a pulse all of its own. I found his Moulin Rouge (2001) far too frenetic, spinning off in different directions, the actors out of control, a hyper active mess of a movie, but infinitely watchable. With Gatsby I suspect working the material he has been given, and that magnificent novel, he will create something worthy of that great story. This book deserves a definitive film, and this could be it. I know, I know, a trailer does not a movie make, but it’s got my blood pumping.
Cannot wait for this one.
Tags: Baz Luhrmann, Bruce Dern, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Mia Farrow, Robert Redford, The Great Gatsby, tobey maguire, Warren Beatty