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TNR Film Classics: ‘The Great Gatsby’ (April 13, 1974)

When I saw the 1949 film of The Great Gatsby, the only other person in the screening room was Edmund Wilson(whom I didn’t know). Afterward, as he left, a smiling Paramount publicity man asked him how he had liked the picture. “Not very much, I’m afraid,” said Wilson,and kept walking to the elevator. The Paramount man looked less disappointed than betrayed, as if saying,“We’ve gone to the, trouble of making a whole movie out of your friend’s book and you don’t even appreciate it!”

There are lots of reasons why I wish Wilson were still alive, but one of them is to hear his comments on the new Gatsby film. It makes the 1949 version and the 1926 version before it (as far as I can remember it) look like twin pinnacles of art. Every single aspect of the new film is bad. Even Robert Redford, fine actor and attractive man, presents a Gatsby who is a dopey mooner instead of a subtle, large exponent of an American tragedy—a man for whom the romances of Money and Romance are inseparable, a compulsive feeder on illusions insisting that they must be true because the facts of his worldly accomplishments are true, and, saddest of all, a believer in “the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

If Redford fails, then failure is too kind a term for Mia Farrow as Daisy, a skeleton in amour; or Bruce Dem as Tom, supposedly a well-bred gentleman who despises his parvenu neighbor but who looks and sounds like a nervous shoe clerk; or Lois Chiles as Jordan, another cover-girl trying to be an actress; or Karen Black as Myrtle, a writhing gargoyle; or Sam Waterston who looks right enough as Nick but whose voice is stultifyingly boring. Since he does a great deal of voice-over narration, Waterston hurts the picture a great deal.

The script by Francis Ford Coppola turns Fitzgerald’s suggestions into blatancies; for instance Nick is escorted into Gatsby’s presence for their first meeting as if it were a scene out of The Godfather (by Coppola) instead of the original casual surprising encounter. Nelson Riddle’s music is even more heavy-handed—in fact ridiculous. Douglas Slocombe’s color photography, last encountered in Jesus Christ Superstar, is equally subtle here.

Much of all this must be accountable to the producer, David Merrick, but at least as much it is accountable to Jack Clayton, the director. Clayton accepted the above collection of incompetencies and inadequacies, and he directed the wretched performances. He once made a good picture—Room at the Top, in 1961. How his undistinguished career since then led him to this job is one of movieland’s higher mysteries. Besides the tininess of ear he shows, he insists on an utterly inappropriate atmosphere of quasi-expressionist grotesquerie—sweaty faces, fish-eye lenses, Gatsby’s parties as somewhat degenerate debauches—an atmosphere that stupidly controverts the reticence of Fitzgerald’s novel. To make it all just a little worse, Clayton slam-slam-slams an enormous number of enormous close-ups at us, quite pointlessly, which is rather as if a composer worked steadily in loud chords.

In sum this picture is a total failure of every requisite sensibility. A long, slow, sickening bore. For me Gatsby on film is my memory of Warner Baxter in the 1926 version, floating on his deserted pool in a moment of lonely autumnal melancholy just before he is shot.