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The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby (1974)

The Great Gatsby (1974)

I have been sharing a weekly classic movie-viewing experience with my 91-year-old grandmother for going on a year now. Last weekend I brought her the 1974 The Great Gatsby, and it was the first movie she stayed awake all the way through, asked clarifying questions about the plot, and declared to be a very good movie. Her reaction is a testament to what I hold to be a phenomenal film and one of which I can never get enough.

This movie adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel had its true-to-the-book screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, which has probably 50% to do with how great it is. The other half belongs to the actors, all of which give remarkably strong performance, save for maybe Robert Redford playing the title character.

For those unfamiliar with the classic story, it is a tragic and complicated romance between former sweethearts whose lives separated and reunite them. It is a tale of a man so driven by his love for a woman that he builds an entire life to reach her, and a yarn about a couple whose selfishness knows no bounds.

Set during a summer in the 1920s in New York City and the city’s islands of “East Egg” and “West Egg”, one Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) narrates the goings on between his cousin Daisy Buchanan, played by Mia Farrow, and the man she once knew, Jay Gatsby (Redford), who is Nick’s neighbor. Daisy and her husband of roughly eight years Tom (Bruce Dern) live in a lavash home on one of the “eggs” where they enjoy a life of leisure and decadence.

Nick quickly learns Tom has “a woman in the city” whom he soon meets at her home above an auto mechanic garage. This Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black) is of the lower classes by virtue of her marriage to George Wilson (Scott Wilson), but is able to maintain a luxurious life via the apartment she and Tom enjoy in the city. Tom’s unwillingness to divorce his wife despite not being able to stand her, as one partygoer suggests, causes the unstable woman to explode at her lover during a party the two host at their apartment.

Meanwhile, Jay Gatsby hosts parties at his mansion every weekend just next door to the cottage Nick is renting on the “egg” opposite the Buchanans. Nick is finally invited and the acquaintance made between the men, which leads Gatsby to request Daisy be invited to Nick’s home for a rendezvous. The reunion between Daisy and Gatsby is overwhelming for the pair, who were in love over the course of a month when Daisy was 18 and constantly pursued by men in uniform. Gatsby had gone to war asking Daisy to wait for him, but she was spellbound by the wealthy Tom and married him soon after.

The couple rekindle a romance that is now fueled by Daisy’s frustration over her husband’s infidelity, which has roots beyond Myrtle. Gatsby takes joy in showing the woman all the glorious things he has accumulated by making his fortune after the war. The source of the man’s wealth is shielded from all, but it can be deduced it has both bootlegging and other illegal antecedents. Daisy revels in the fine clothes and golden knick knacks the man displays, which bring her to tears over the mistake she made in not choosing the once-poor Gatsby.

The story becomes an utter tragedy when Gatsby –now a regular in Daisy’s social circle– joins the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy’s best friend Jordan (Lois Chiles) in an afternoon’s diversion in the city. The man pressures Daisy into telling Tom she is leaving him, but conflicting emotions throw the woman into emotional turmoil and she races out of the city with Gatsby by car. Two characters will die within the following 24 hours.

I first watched this movie in high school when reading “The Great Gatsby” for an English class. My teacher then put the question to us of whether Jay Gatsby was in fact “great”. My thought at the time was, “Of course! It’s Robert Redford.” She informed the silent class that in fact he was a horrible man, far from greatness. I have never forgotten that question and have since concluded there was much fault in my teacher’s assessment. There was nothing wrong about Gatsby. Perhaps he created a life and wealth for all the wrong reasons, but is there ever a good reason to desire decadence and excess? It was not Gatsby who was the horrible person but the Buchanans who, as Nick says at the end of the story, are careless people who smash things and leave them to others to clean up. Although we spend the movie disliking Tom, it is not until the conclusion that we develop a real ire for Daisy who is perfectly content to move on with her life despite literally smashing up the people around her.

The performers in The Great Gatsby are fantastic. Both Black and Farrow do a great job of inserting mental instability into their characters’ personalities, although Myrtle is certainly far more unstable than Daisy. Dern plays a perfectly despicable husband and is easy to hate. Wilson, meanwhile, blows us away with his weakness turned to overwhelming grief. Waterston’s character often tries to blend into the background as the objective bystander in the story, but if one watches his reactions, particularly towards the end, he transmits a feeling of dread to us. Only Redford offers such a subdued performance that it is difficult to attribute him with any great accomplishment. He plays Gatsby as cool and calm as he should, but it’s a performance that nearly seems to lack passion. His good looks nevertheless make it difficult not to love his Gatsby.

The latest film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is –last I heard– set for release next summer. With Director Baz Luhrmann at the helm it is sure to be an eye-poppingly lavish display of the glorious 20s, but its success at telling the story remains to be seen. The 1974 version has seemed to me to be very good at keeping with the book, but most movies take liberties when translating from the written word. We will have to see if that is the case with the upcoming “The Great Gatsby”. The casting seems fairly suitable with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Isla Fisher as Myrtle and Tobey Maguire as Nick. I know too little of Carey Mulligan to judge her casting as Daisy.

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