Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby was published, Hollywood has been fascinated with adapting his novel into a film. To date, there have been five official versions, from a silent film made in 1926 to Baz Luhrmann’s postmodern take in 2013. Filmmakers have long been intrigued by the novel’s themes of decadence, excess and its portrait of the Roaring Twenties, making it a haunting critique of the pursuit of the American Dream.
In 1974, a particularly intriguing version of The Great Gatsby was released starring Robert Redford in the titular role and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, the object of his affection. It was directed by British filmmaker Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. The film received scathing reviews and was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globes – even winning a few of them. It is generally regarded as an uneven adaptation at best and an outright failure at worst but I’ve always found it a fascinating take on Fitzgerald’s novel.
The opening credits play over a montage of Gatsby’s opulent mansion that is oddly devoid of life, coming across more as a sterile museum full of nice things: an expensive car, piano, ornate furnishings, marble floors, and exquisite décor, all the while echoey music plays as if to suggest ghosts of the past haunt this place. While the camera lingers over expensive jewelry, it keeps returning to a newspaper photograph and portraits of Daisy Buchanan (Farrow) – the only thing that Gatsby really cares about.
We meet Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) arriving in West Egg, Long Island via boat to spend the summer hanging out with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom (Bruce Dern) who live in the far more fashionable East Egg, “drifting here and there, unrestfully, wherever people played polo and were rich together,” Nick observes via voiceover narration. He’s met by Tom and they head back to his house where he’s reunited with Daisy and meets her friend Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles).
One is immediately struck by Daisy’s flighty condescension and Tom’s smug superiority. These people live in their own rarefied world because they can afford it. She even tries to appear deep by making an observation about a bird on the lawn but it comes across as a half-hearted attempt. The film wastes no time showing what a hypocrite Tom is with his talk of the superiority of the rich, upper class and his polo games but his mistress Myrtle (Karen Black) is the wife of a destitute mechanic (Scott Wilson) living in a garage located among a desolate wasteland of ashes.
Nick arrives home and only catches a fleeting glimpse of his enigmatic neighbor Jay Gatsby (Redford). The film cheekily juxtaposes Nick’s simple existence – eating a modest steak dinner he prepared himself with a glass of beer on the porch of his modest rental house – dwarfed by the army of groundskeepers and caterers that prepare Gatsby’s estate for one of his lavish parties. We only catch a couple of glimpses of him until 35 minutes into the film when Nick is brought up to meet the man one-on-one in the heart of his mansion. It is an impressive introduction as Robert Redford flashes that high wattage movie star smile and one can see why he was the ideal actor to play the enigmatic man with loads of charisma.
Daisy and Gatsby have a doomed love affair. When they first met they couldn’t be together because she was rich and he wasn’t. This violated the rules of the upper class. Gatsby spent years amassing a large personal fortune, buying his way back into Daisy’s world in the hopes of proving himself worthy, only she didn’t wait for him and married another rich man. They reunite for a brief affair, knowing it can’t last but are determined to savor every moment they have together.
Bruce Dern does an exceptional job of portraying an Alpha Male reeking of entitlement. He uses up people with little to no thought of the consequences. Karen Black plays his ideal foil, an equally duplicitous spouse that when she wants something, like a puppy being sold on the side of the street, has Tom pay for it. The actress does a wonderful job conveying Myrtle’s indulgence of excess. These aren’t very nice people and Dern and Black aren’t afraid to portray them as such. And yet for all of her vanity, Black gets a moment to suggest that Myrtle is something of a tragic figure while Dern’s Tom is ultimately nothing more than a wealthy bully. “They’re careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smash things up and then they retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness…leaving other people to clean up the mess,” Nick says of them, which perfectly nails their characters.
Sam Waterston plays Nick as a blank slate audience surrogate, acting as our guide among the rich and powerful. The character’s purpose is to react to the behavior and actions of the colorful people he encounters throughout the film. The actor does a decent job portraying the wide-eyed outsider in a world he is familiar with but can never truly be a part of because he’s not rich. As the film progresses, a friendship forms between Nick and Gatsby and this gives Waterston something to do other than being an observer. Nick is a true friend to Gatsby as he doesn’t like him because of his money but because he truly admires him.
Robert Redford always struck me as an actor that kept his cards close to the vest, never letting audiences inside and showing a vulnerable side. It always feels like he keeps audiences at arm’s length and in the process maintaining an air of mystery, which is ideally suited for playing Gatsby. The actor portrays him as an elusive figure that only interacts with people on his own terms.
If Redford is ideally cast as Gatsby then Mia Farrow is very much miscast as Daisy. Her fickle, bird-trapped-in-a-gilded-cage take on the character is grating at times and makes us wonder why Gatsby is so taken with her. That being said, the scene where Daisy and Gatsby meet for the first time in eight years demonstrates incredible on-screen chemistry between the two actors. In particular, Redford’s reaction to seeing her is quite powerful as we see Gatsby, a man always in control, caught up in the moment – a rare thing that sees him letting his guard down.
The Great Gatsby features beautiful cinematography courtesy of Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and features memorable shots like that of Nick leaving the Buchanan’s at the end of the day with the sky and water bathed in the warm orange, pink and yellow hues of the sunset. The soft focus approach gives everything an almost hazy look, making all the metal of the expensive silverware, glassware and jewelry sparkle and shimmer.
For years, the likes of Sam Spiegel, Ray Stark and Sydney Pollack had wanted to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a film. Actress Ali MacGraw dreamed of playing the much-coveted role of Daisy Buchanan, which prompted then-husband and head of production at Paramount Studios Robert Evans to buy the film rights as a gift to her. He partnered with Broadway producer David Merrick who was friends with Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie. At the time Merrick approached her there were other interested parties and it took him a year before he closed the deal for $350,000.
Potential directors circled the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, but none of them wanted MacGraw to play Daisy. British director Jack Clayton was hired to helm the film. He had actually tried to acquire the rights to The Great Gatsby himself in the 1940s and was obsessed with the novel for 30 years. To this end, he not only consulted with Fitzgerald estate curator Matthew J. Bruccoli but also with Scottie and literary experts.
Evans hired Truman Capote to write the screenplay. Clayton felt that the first draft had “far too much dialogue and exposition.” Evans was also unhappy with the script, which included confusing dream sequences and flashbacks. He asked Francis Ford Coppola to write a more straight-forward adaptation. The filmmaker was looking for a change of pace from working on The Godfather (1972) and wrote the script in five weeks. Clayton loved Coppola’s script and removed some passages he felt were unnecessary and inserted material from the book that the filmmaker had not included. It was these additions that upset Coppola, including an ending that he felt was anti-climactic.
Evans wanted either Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson to play Gatsby with the former agreeing but only if MacGraw played Jordan Baker, and the latter only if she was not cast as Daisy. Evans was determined to have his wife play the role. He approached Marlon Brando but couldn’t afford him, especially after The Godfather. They were two months away from the start of principal photography and still hadn’t found their Gatsby. When Robert Redford heard about the project he approached Evans who turned the actor down. Redford met with Clayton who was interested in Nicholson as Gatsby but after talking with Redford for 90 minutes wanted him to play the part. Clayton said of the actor, “You can see the possibility of danger beneath the romantic WASP image.”
Evans still wasn’t convinced and felt that Redford didn’t look the part, which drove the actor crazy: “I began to think Evans never read the book. Sure, he liked the idea of doing Fitzgerald, but he didn’t know the text.” He had first read the novel in college and found it “florid,” but revisited it for the film and “I saw it was something extraordinary, the depiction of human obsessions, and I felt some great screen work could come from it.” The studio also backed Redford and he was cast as Gatsby.
Merrick wanted MacGraw to play Daisy and McQueen to play Gatsby. At the time, Evans and MacGraw were getting divorced after he discovered she was having an affair with her co-star on The Getaway (1972), Steve McQueen. Evans, understandably, disagreed with Merrick and had Paramount executives meet with him and Merrick to decide on potential actresses to play Daisy: Mia Farrow, Katharine Ross, Candice Bergen or Faye Dunaway. Merrick continued to insist on MacGraw while Clayton wanted Farrow and Evans agreed. The studio executives concurred and she was cast in the role. After being cast she discovered that she was pregnant. The shooting schedule was moved up a week and her dresses were altered to hide her pregnancy.
Most people assume that the media blitzkrieg and merchandising of a movie started with Star Wars (1977) but forget that The Great Gatsby predated it with a then-unprecedented amount of hype as typified by Evans hubristically saying, “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.” Oh, how prescient that statement was when one considers the rise of the mass marketed studio blockbuster in the 1980s. Paramount spent $200,000 on publicity and promotion with product tie-ins valued at $6 million. The film was made for $6.4 million and made $18.6 million on advance bookings making it a financial success before it was even released in theaters!
Film critics savaged The Great Gatsby when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “But we can’t penetrate the mystery of Gatsby. Nor, to be honest, can we quite understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Mia Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Nothing that Mr. Clayton does with the actors or with the camera comes close to catching the spirit of Fitzgerald’s impatient brilliance…The plot has been dismantled like an antique engine and photographed, piece by piece, preserved in lots of pretty, glistening images that bath the film in nostalgia as thick as axle grease.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “A great deal of time, money and promotion have been concentrated here, but Gatsby’s sad and curious history has resulted in a dull, dreadful movie.” Finally, in his review for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann wrote, “In sum this picture is a total failure of every requisite sensibility. A long, slow, sickening bore.”
Redford said of the film, “The truth is, Hollywood wanted to make The Great Gatsby because it was a literary success, not because it was great literature. Enough time may not have been taken to work that one out.” Coppola hated the film and felt that Clayton had ruined his faithful script. Farrow felt that it “was a victim of overhype.”
The Great Gatsby takes a fascinating look at the idle rich and their decadent lives as typified by the people that populate Gatsby’s parties. They are filled with people that want to see and be seen, lose their inhibitions and indulge in all kinds of excesses – this was the Roaring Twenties where the United States was prospering after World War I. And yet, the film ultimately shows these parties as empty affairs that its host Gatsby rarely attends. Why should we care about these people? When it comes to the likes of Tom and Myrtle, we don’t and neither does Nick who becomes disgusted by them and their phoniness, turning his back on their way of life.
As Nick observes early on, Gatsby is a tragic and romantic figure: “For Gatsby turned out alright in the end. It was what preyed on him, what foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” He’s a self-made man that built himself up to impress a woman he loved years ago and never forgot. Unfortunately, he thought that money could buy happiness and return things to the way they were once years ago, but this proves to be his undoing. For its faults, this version of The Great Gatsby is remarkably faithful to its source material and a strong indictment of the vanity of the rich and the dangers of achieving the American Dream.
Callan, Michael Feeney. Robert Redford: The Biography. Vintage. 2012.
Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.
“Ready Or Not, Here Comes Gatsby.” Time. March 18, 1974.
Sinyard, Neil. Jack Clayton. Manchester University Press. 2013.