Making a good movie is so difficult it’s a miracle it happens at all. First you need a good story and then, more precariously, you need a good script. Then you have to assemble a competent cast, with actors that look and behave each part. It needs to look right, it needs to sound right, and that’s before anyone yells “Action.” And as Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby makes clear, having all of the elements far from guarantees you a good movie at the end of it. His The Great Gatsby is a feast for the eyes, but it gives the mind a bellyache.
To say it’s all dressed up with no place to go is an insult to places to go. A big-budget studio adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel is the definition of Oscar bait, and the movie had the pedigree to support it. Two prestige stars in the leads, luxury casting with some of the town’s finest character actors in the other parts, a screenplay written by the critical darling of the early ’70s—yet the only awards it came away with were the only two it was up for, costume design and original score, both richly deserved. So what went wrong?
I think it has to start with the script, by Francis Ford Coppola, which is too reliant on Fitzgerald’s elegant narration. Our guide through the strange and wild land of West Egg, Long Island, one of the places people play polo and are rich together, is Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), a poor stock trader who happens to live on the same island as some of the East Coast’s most fabulously wealthy people. It is through Nick’s eyes, and through his steady voiceovers that we relate to the other characters, but far too often we are told things that we don’t see. The story of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) using Nick to maneuver toward his lost love Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) while avoiding her arrogant brute of a husband Tom (Bruce Dern), who is having an affair with Myrtle (Karen Black), the wife of a poor gas station attendant (Scott Wilson), until all roads converge upon tragedy, is faithfully represented but as melodrama, a cheap soap opera about the machinations of the insanely rich.
The most glaring issues are with the characterization of Gatsby and Daisy. Despite being played by some of Hollywood’s most beautiful people, and the fact that we are told time again by Nick’s voiceover that they’re great, they never become appealing. Redford is barely given a chance as he becomes the least interesting person in the movie, except perhaps Nick who is the sycophant of an uninteresting person. Farrow plays Daisy as fragile as the flower she’s named after; she’s all wishy-washy and emotional, to the point that we almost sympathize with the cretinous Tom. Dern is the only one who gives an effective performance, but he has the benefit of a clearly written character. Wilson is also good, but he’s mired in the same melodrama that swallows up his counterpart Black, who’s given to that sort of thing when allowed. In the end the movie stops being bad Fitzgerald and becomes bad Douglas Sirk, someone who found art in the superficial adventures of the well dressed and good looking.
Most of these issues have to be put on the shoulders of director Jack Clayton. The problems of Coppola’s script could have been done away with if the actors had been directed to present some of the moods in Nick’s narration instead of leaving the audience to accept it upon hearing it. The elaborate party scenes are well handled, but they aren’t made to mean anything; they’re empty. Worse still, so is the romance. We don’t feel like the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy is the rectification of some great romantic injustice, and when they are pulled back apart we don’t weep for them because we didn’t understand what they saw in each other in the first place. After the protagonists are introduced and it becomes clear that they aren’t going to get much more interesting, the experience becomes rather lengthy, but we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the dull.
The art direction by Robert Laing and Gene Rudolf is outstanding and so is the costume design by Theoni Aldredge, but sadly they aren’t in service of anything. In fact, the way the drama is directed, they become just another example of the surface-deep penetration of the characters. That the look of the movie has become iconic is beside the point (simply Google “Jay Gatsby,” the first four images are Redford); movies are made to provide iconic images (I imagine that a year from now the first four images of the same search will provide photos of Leonardo DiCaprio). A more damning exercise is to try, just using what you’ve seen in the movie, to come up with a list of adjectives about Jay Gatsby that doesn’t mention what he’s wearing or what he looks like.