It seems something of a shame how maligned the extravagant 1974 movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary masterwork was when it was originally released. So much media hype surrounded the production, including a Scarlett O'Hara-level search for the right actress to play Daisy Buchanan, that it was bound to disappoint, and it did critically and financially. It's simply not that bad. Interestingly, looking at the film over thirty years later, I am taken by how faithful the movie is to the original book both in text and period atmosphere. The central problem, however, is that Jack Clayton's overly deliberate direction and Francis Ford Coppola's literate screenplay are really too faithful to the book to the point where the spirit of Fitzgerald's story becomes flattened and plot developments are paced too slowly. The result is an evocative but overlong 144-minute epic movie based on a novel that is really quite intimate in scope.
The focus of the plot is still the interrupted love story between Jay Gatsby and his object of desire, Daisy. Narrating the events is Nick Carraway, Gatsby's modest Long Island neighbor who becomes his most trusted confidante. Nick is responsible for reuniting the lovers who both have come to different points in their lives five years after their aborted romance. Now a solitary figure in his luxurious mansion, Gatsby is a newly wealthy man who accumulated his fortunes through dubious means. Daisy, on the other hand, has always led a life of privilege and could not let love stand in the way of her comfortable existence. She married Tom Buchanan for that sole purpose. With Gatsby's ambition spurred by his love for Daisy, he rekindles his romance with Daisy, as Tom carries on carelessly with Myrtle Wilson, an auto mechanic's grasping wife. Nick himself gets caught up in the jet set trappings and has a relationship with Jordan Baker, a young golf pro. The characters head for a collision, figuratively and literally, that exposes the hypocrisy of the rich, the falsity of a love undeserving and the transience of individuals on this earth.
Casting is crucial, and surprisingly, most of the actors fulfill the characters well. Robert Redford, at the height of his box office appeal, plays Gatsby with the right enigmatic quality. As Daisy, Mia Farrow captures the romanticism and shallowness of a character that ultimately does not deserve the love she receives. Even if she appears overly breathy and pretentious, her frequently trying performance still fits Fitzgerald's image of the character. Bruce Dern makes an appropriately despicable Tom Buchanan, while Karen Black has scant screen time as the trashy Myrtle. A very young Sam Waterson makes the ideal Nick with his genuine manner and touching naiveté, and Lois Chiles is all throaty posturing as Jordan. As expected, all the exterior touches are luxuriant and feel period-authentic - Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, John Box's production design, Douglas Slocombe's elegant cinematography, and the pervasive use of 1920's hits, in particular, Irving Berlin's wistful "What'll I Do?" as the recurring love theme. The film is worth a look if you have not seen it and a second one if you haven't seen it in a while. It's actually better if you've already read the book. The 2003 DVD has a nice print transfer but sadly no extras.
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