As a new year dawns, I look forward to many things. To seeing new places, to meeting new people, and of course, to seeing many more movies. And one of those movies is Baz Luhrmann's much-anticipated and much-delayed The Great Gatsby. Odd considering I don't really expect it to be a success. While I admit to a weakness for Moulin Rouge, I feel like Luhrmann's bombastic, all-or-nothing style is more likely to smother Fitzgerald's story than to lift it up. But the truth is that I am a Gatsby junkie, I have been since high school, I've seen the 1949, 1974, and 2000 movie adaptations, and I will no doubt go to the Luhrmann film still hoping for the best. The Great Gatsby is a story that feels so cinematic in its concept and yet it's never found a solid footing onscreen. Why?
Because my fascination with all things Gatsby extends to the films, I decided to examine the 1949 and 1974 films and how they went wrong. If you choose to read further, be warned that I assume you've read the book and know all these characters already.
The 1949 Film
(directed by Elliot Nugent, starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field)
This movie's been out of circulation for a long time due to copyright issues but a new print came out last year and a fuzzy but passable version is floating around online. It's definitely worth a look for just how strange it is. I say strange because its makers don't treat Gatsby like the great enshrined classic it would become. They appropriate the basic plot and turn it into, of all things, a film noir. It becomes the tale of a noble-hearted gangster and the woman who betrayed him. The writers and director play fast and loose with the story, spending a great deal of time on Gatsby's rise to power and subtly altering Daisy and Tom from callous aristocrats into treacherous and calculating plotters. Their final betrayal of Gatsby becomes a typical noir frame-up, with Daisy agreeing to make her lover into the patsy as Gatsby overhears. It is utterly unreal to see a Gatsby that actually wises up to Daisy's true nature in the end. Perhaps these alterations, bizarre as they feel to a lover of the book, could have worked. But the filmmakers don't fully commit to such a dark reinvention. Instead they put a white picket fence around it by making it a morality tale of lawlessness punished and bland goodness rewarded. You get the sense that this film was constructed from the scraps of other '40s films rather than being carefully crafted as its own story. So it's pretty much a failure as both a film and as an adaptation. And yet there is something interesting about seeing The Great Gatsby treated as just another story. It's something that would never happen again.
The 1974 Film
(directed by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow)
The 1974 movie is every inch the prestige production, including a respected director, the screenwriting talents of Francis Ford Coppola, popular stars, and an all-out, sumptuous recreation of the Jazz Age. Everything in this movie shimmers. The fashions are to die for. The parties are lavish. Unlike the sloppier 1949 version, the 1974 film dutifully repeats most of the original dialogue from the book. It also excises a fair amount of Nick Carraway's narration, instead focusing on the tragic romance of Daisy and Gatsby. You can tell that people were expecting this to be the definitive version, a dreamy, star-studded example of the best Hollywood craftsmanship. And yet this film also fails. Like Gatsby, it tries too hard. Jack Clayon opts for dramatic zooming and high-pitched melodrama so that moments that worked on the page become laughably overdone on film. Everything is categorized so that all love scenes have soft focus and slow music while the sleazy scenes all have a dyspeptic saxophone. And, as if to cap it all off, the film cuts off Nick's final testament to American dreamers for a kicky rendition of "Ain't We Got Fun?" over the credits. It's like a cake made only of stale icing, nothing underneath at all.
And now we move on to the most interesting part of these two faulty films: the casting.
The best reason to watch the 1949 film is because Alan Ladd is really, surprisingly very good as Jay Gatsby. In his day, Ladd was acclaimed more for his style than his depth (Where Danger Lives has a fascinating essay on the star and the tortuous insecurity he felt over his acting) but this film proves that assumption wrong. Ladd feels like a very natural Gatsby, the boyishness of his looks and manner contrasting with the cool confidence that Gatsby the character (and Ladd the actor) had learned how to fake. Ladd is able to utter even the absurdest bits of Gatsby's backstory with utter conviction. It's a great shame that the role never got Ladd the respect he so deeply wanted.
There's an old story Mike Nichols would tell about Robert Redford and the day he was almost cast as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Nichols asked Redford to describe a time when he had struck out with a girl. Redford didn't understand the question. Whether the story is true or not, it does hit on an essential weakness of Redford the star. You could never buy him as a loser. That supernal golden-haired beauty and distant manner put him on a different plane. And that feeds into his portrayal of Gatsby since Redford never seems fully keyed into the desperation under Gatsby's dreaming or the eager, searching nature of a reinvented man. He is a more melancholy and thoughtful Gatsby than Ladd even while the script keeps trying to cast him as the earnest romantic hero. Overall, a noble failure. He does make for quite the iconic image though, as he stares at that green light.
The wide-eyed, plaintive Betty Field just feels like she's batting out of her league with Daisy. It's a flat, distracted performance, as if the main star of the show had been delayed and Field was a harried usher sent to distract us, all while keeping one eye on the fire exits. If the intent was to turn the '49 Gatsby into a film noir, then they failed utterly in giving their femme fatale any of the original Daisy's seductiveness, charm, or survival tactics.
If Field's performance is lackluster, Mia Farrow's portrayal has luster by the barrelful, enough to choke you with. At one point, director Jack Clayton literally films her with stars in her eyes. Unlike Elliot Nugent, who rushed through a lot of his Daisy's scenes, Clayton's camera bathes Farrow in shimmering light and loving close-ups. But he also indulges her in a performance that's so neurotic and silly that even the cutest and rootin-tootin-est of the Jazz Babies would have wanted to take an axe to this Daisy. In high school, my English teacher couldn't resist rewinding Farrow's final breakdown for us, calling it one of his favorite bits of bad acting ever. But then, Farrow was so painfully miscast. Daisy's voice should sound like money and Farrow, even at 29, had the cracked, mournful voice of an old woman. Daisy's meant to be the illusive lovely idol of Gatsby's dreams and Farrow, well... it's hard not to think of David O. Selznick's ungallant slap to Katharine Hepburn: "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you around for twelve years."
Barry Sullivan wins an extra point from me for being the actor who physically looks the most like how I envisioned his character. Handsome and polished but with a lurking coldness in the eyes. It's a performance that emphasizes the menace of Tom's character. He barks orders more like a gangster than a polo player. Going along with the noir-like feel of the film, Sullivan is no golden boy. He's every bit the tough guy.
Bruce Dern is a very different interpretation of the rich, entitled Tom. Instead of emphasizing his violence, the later film emphasizes his comical nature. Dern delivers Tom's rambling comments on the superiority of Nordics and the social order in a reedy, petulant whine. This Tom is weak, childish, and unlovable, his ratty little mustache and irritable manner held up against Robert Redford's golden superiority as if to say, "Creeps like him can still get it all." Again, it gives an interesting angle on the character but as with the Sullivan version, you never get the sense that this Tom is a true aristocrat. The kind of man who can make Gatsby shrivel inside because no matter how idiotic he sounds, he was born to the purple. And Gatbsy is not.
When I didn't like Macdonald Carey in Shadow of a Doubt, I told myself it was the contrived nature of his character, the police detective who falls instantly in love with the heroine. When I didn't like Macdonald Carey in The Damned, I said it was just the awkwardness of seeing a man in craggy middle age seduce the sexy young Shirley Ann Field. But it's three strikes now and I have to face the truth. Carey is smarmy. He's bland. There's nothing under the surface with him. And sadly, the '49 Gatsby decided that Nick Carraway should be the voice of the Hays Code so we have to endure Carey's stiff, lecturing presence telling us, "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man but the end thereof are the ways of death." This Nick is so upright and moral, he even reforms Jordan Baker!
Of all the Nick Carraways (including Tobey Maguire), Sam Waterston is the only one whose voice you might actually want for your narrator. He's a soothing, thoughtful presence onscreen but with enough rootless amiability to make his friendship with these people believable. The only problem is, the '74 version decided it didn't really need Nick after all. A lot of his character moments, including his crucial last speech, are pared down and instead we're treated to more Gatsby and Daisy interplay. So Fitzgerald's "boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past" was cut but Daisy wittering about how she wants to push Gatsby around in "a big pink cloud" was left in. Nick is a difficult if not impossible character to succesfully integrate into a film adaptation because he functions more as a gateway than a character in his own right. But the '74 version leaves him stranded betwixt and between, still present but too remote to fully connect with anybody. His growing friendship with Gatsby is excised for more Daisy. It makes the heartbreaking moment when he tells Gatbsy that he's "worth the whole damn bunch put together" into an odd little throwaway moment. Did this Nick ever really care that much?
Just as the '49 version of Nick was retooled into the voice of sober respectability, Ruth Hussey's turn as the amoral golfer Jordan Baker was also given a coat of suburban varnish. She vacillates between wanting to be part of her scheming coterie and wanting to be Nick Carraway's love. In the '49 film, we also get to see Jordan's future: she ends up as Nick's loving, gray-haired wife. Because that makes so much sense. Hussey is a fine actress and her specialty was the wisecracking and sensible side character. But she's a little too smart and down-to-earth for either of the roles the script wants to put her in. You get the sense that this Jordan could have a fine busy life elsewhere if she had the sense to get away from these people.
Lois Chiles isn't nearly as good an actress as Hussey but her silver-tongued and sultry Jordan is still a pleasure. While her predecessor was tart and sensible, Chiles comes across more as a person so utterly devoid of inner doubt that she will continue to glide serenely across the surface for the rest of her days. And man does she rock those Jazz Age fashions (The Fashionéaste has an excellent run-through of the '74 film's glorious costume designs). The only problem with Chiles is that her husky purr and seductive smile were given to the wrong character--her voice sounds more like money than Farrow's does.
The only surprise in Shelley Winters' casting as Tom Buchanan's doomed mistress Myrtle is that it happened before Winters had gotten a permanent lock on all "blowsy, unwanted female" roles. She doesn't really get much of a chance to shine in the part and the '49 version doesn't do much to glamorize Myrtle. Thankfully, it doesn't try to belittle her either.
Karen Black might tie with Mia Farrow for being the performer most unpleasantly indulged by her director. We get lots of closeups of Black either laughing or weeping, her emotions practically dripping off the screen. It's a relief when she moves away. Granted, Myrtle is never meant to be a femme fatale or a delicate flower, but it also means that the tragedy of her death is swallowed up by the film's goofy stylizations. And did they have to play that stereotypical "sleazy jazz" over her scenes?
And what about the 2013 movie?
I really don't know if we will ever have a Gatsby film that works. Maybe the book truly does begin and end with the beauty of Fitzgerald's writing, as some critics say. Maybe Fitzgerald is having a subtle revenge on the Hollywood he hated and he watches from beyond the grave while these films only scratch the surface of what he wrote. It could be that Baz Luhrmann will succeed. As a Gatsbyphile, I know I'll still be watching, for better or for worse.
Note: The still of Betty Field is taken from Classic Cinema Gold and the image of Lois Chiles is credited to Cult Queens.