Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby (Newdon/Paramount, 1974)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, produced by David Merrick, directed by Jack Clayton (mostly a producer, a Brit who’d made one great film, Room at the Top, which dealt in a quite different way with some of the same issues of sex and class as The Great Gatsby and is, quite frankly, as much a period piece of the 1950’s as Gatsby is of the 1920’s) from a script by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Robert Redford as Gatsby (who else would they have cast?), Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, Bruce Dern as her husband Tom and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, who narrates the story in a voice-over (as he does in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and the current film by Baz Luhrmann). A lot of times I’ve seen a movie I haven’t seen in decades — I hadn’t seen this version of Gatsby since I bought a ticket to a theatre and saw it when it was new — and had a radically different reaction, either loving what I had once disliked or sitting through a movie I’d once loved and wondering why, when now it seems I can’t stand it. Not this time, though: Gatsby seemed like a crashing bore in 1974 and it still does; though its running time of 144 minutes is only two minutes longer than Luhrmann’s version (albeit, as Charles reminded me, Lurhmann’s has a much longer closing credit roll), it seems much slower and drearier. For all the liberties Luhrmann took with the mise-en-scène, at least he has a conception of style; it’s not always the right style for a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald but at least it is a style, whereas Jack Clayton seems more interested in embalming The Great Gatsby than in telling it. The Great Gatsby was originally a pet project of Paramount’s then-production chief, Bob Evans, who commissioned it as a vehicle for his then-wife, Ali MacGraw, who was just coming off her sensational success in Love Story. One could see the little wheels in Evans’ brain turning: build his wife into a superstar by casting her in another tragic love story, only this time one with impeccable literary cachet and in which it would be her male co-star, not she, who would die at the end.

Only there were problems getting a script together, so in the meantime Evans loaned MacGraw out to Cinema Center Films (a short-lived filmmaking subsidiary of CBS) to make The Getaway with Steve McQueen, and McQueen and MacGraw got such a bad case of the hots for each other they ended up dumping their respective spouses and getting married. Evans vengefully pulled MacGraw out of the cast of Gatsby and mounted a frantic search for a replacement — finally settling on Mia Farrow, who’d hit big in his previous production of Rosemary’s Baby but wasn’t much of an actress. I hadn’t realized back in 1974 how intensely Farrow was channeling Grace Kelly — the same faux-British accent, the same stone face, the same luminous close-ups of her beautiful blue eyes (an attribute she shared with her co-star; at times one gets the impression that instead of a green light at the end of the dock, the final narration should have been about the glow from a pair of burning blue eyes) and the same wretched inability to act. One weird commonality between Kelly and Farrow is that both had one director who could get far more out of them than anyone else could; in Kelly’s case it was Alfred Hitchcock and in Farrow’s it was Woody Allen, and despite the bizarre scandal that ended their professional and personal relationship Farrow’s films with Allen are still the ones on which her reputation will rest. The rest of the film remains pretty much as I remembered it: Robert Redford was superficially right for Gatsby but he’s too damned sincere, too openly and unashamedly nice, to sound the depths of the character (and Coppola’s script doesn’t give him as much help as Luhrmann’s and Craig Pierce’s did for Leonardo DiCaprio in the current version!). One item on the imdb.com trivia page for the 1974 Gatsby notes that the film was made during the Senate select committee hearings on Watergate, and Farrow said she never connected with Redford because he was spending every moment he wasn’t actually in front of the cameras in his dressing room watching the hearings on TV; two years later Redford would produce and star in All the President’s Men, a film about the two reporters who broke the Watergate scandal in the first place, and it would be a smash hit whereas Gatsby was a flop.

The rest of the cast is about the same: Bruce Dern is properly slimy and boorish as Tom Buchanan (it’s not his fault that Joel Edgerton played it even better in Luhrmann’s version!), Lois Chiles O.K. as Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki played her even better — more boyish — in the Luhrmann version, and she had the advantage of wearing the helmet-like hair bob Louise Brooks made legendary in the 1928 film Pandora’s Box), Karen Black relatively restrained as Myrtle Wilson, Sam Waterston looking like an animate tailor’s dummy as Nick Carraway (despite a few close-ups where he’s finally recognizable as the man who played the assistant district attorney on Law and Order 30 years later), and Scott Wilson more human as George Wilson than his opposite number in Luhrmann’s (Jason Clarke) — indeed the proletarians in general come off better in 1974 than in 2013, being treated more as people and less as spectral presences hovering just outside the main action. That’s probably a Zeitgeist issue; in 1974 there was still enough of the spirit of the 1960’s left over that filmmakers doing a version of The Great Gatsby couldn’t risk reproducing Fitzgerald’s lordly disdain for anyone who had to work a normal job for a living; now that the super-rich have isolated themselves from the rest of us, physically and psychologically, even more thoroughly and completely than they did in the 1920’s this part of Fitzgerald’s story seems totally au courant. It’s the same reason, I suspect, that Nick Carraway’s opening speech (delivered as voice-over narration in both versions) was bowdlerized in the Luhrmann-Pearce script to delete the part in which Nick recalls his father reminding him that others haven’t grown up with the advantages he’s had (and the script for the new one also leaves out Daisy’s explanation of why she didn’t wait for Gatsby: “Because rich girls don’t marry poor boys”). Nick is supposed to be from a Midwestern family that had money when he was a boy but subsequently lost it, and in today’s time the idea of an aristocracy based on social position without a current fortune is hopelessly retro. Today we simply revere money, no matter how (or how recently) obtained, and disdain people without it, making the whole conceit of Gatsby ­— a self-made man looks hopelessly through the windows of the hereditary aristocrats, and his tragedy is that, raised from birth to be part of the ruling class, they have something he will never have no matter how much money he makes — a difficult sell in this market-idolatrous age.

The 1974 version also benefits from a less blatantly anti-Semitic stereotype in the character of Meyer Wolfsheim — in Luhrmann’s the actor in this part, Amitabh Bachchan in his first English-language role, seems like he could have stepped out of a Nazi propaganda film about evil Jews, while in the Clayton version he’s played by Howard da Silva, who humanizes the role (da Silva was also in the still-extant but almost never shown 1949 version with Alan Ladd as Gatsby). And though both films track quite closely in terms of plot and dialogue, there are a few felicities in the scripting by Coppola that Luhrmann and Pearce missed — for example, Coppola has Robert Redford say the line, “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!” only once, the way Fitzgerald wrote it, whereas Luhrmann and Pearce diluted the effect by having DiCaprio repeat it. As for the music, Luhrmann may have spliced in modern-day rock and rap (to the point of giving Jay-Z a producer credit for supplying the rap!) but Clayton’s film doesn’t use any actual 1920’s recordings. Instead all the music is 1920’s songs arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle (who also was allowed to provide a few bits of original underscoring that are surprisingly powerful, rich and Ravel-ish — Riddle was intensely jealous of Henry Mancini because Mancini was a composer who had several song hits, whereas Riddle was primarily known as arrangers, and songwriters got royalties whereas arrangers were just paid once), and when the characters are supposed to be listening to records, Riddle’s new recordings were simply run through filters to narrow their frequency and dynamic range to what an early-1920’s phonograph would be able to reproduce. (The giveaway is in what you don’t hear: the intense surface noise of the shellac 78 rpm pressings of the day.) Paramount, which had launched its own record label two years before making this film, put out a two-LP set of Riddle’s Gatsby recordings that was an even bigger bomb than the film — fans of 1920’s music (like me) wanted the real records from the period, not these slavish but embalmed re-creations.

Paramount mounted an impressive level of hype behind this film, booking it into the biggest theatres, spending lots of money on an ad campaign, and estimating giant grosses. The film’s performance fell so far below expectations that one rather snotty writer in an independent film magazine commented gleefully that The Great Gatsby’s reported box-office take was actually shrinking every week it was in release, as Paramount’s estimates got replaced by the much lower real numbers. It was one of those movies that got negative word-of-mouth from the get-go — at a time when word-of-mouth was more important to the success (or failure) of a film than it is now, when movies live or die in the marketplace by how well they do on the opening weekend — and I suspect the main reason is its curiously embalmed quality. Charles joked that watching the Clayton Gatsby was like attending a reading of the novel in the dining hall of Hearst Castle — and there’s a point to that. Given the leaden quality of Clayton’s direction and the curious decorousness of the overall staging, this film seems like it was made in the 1940’s in its utter failure to dramatize either the decadence or the sexuality of Fitzgerald’s novel. Though the Production Code was history when it was made, it has the look and feel of a Code-era film; Nick’s narration tells us that the guests at Gatsby’s parties behaved like people at an amusement park, but what we see is a lot of polite couple-dancing that’s radical only if you could still believe in 1974 that the Charleston was radical. We also get the typical Code-era ambiguity about whether or not the characters supposedly playing lovers are actually having sex with each other — compared to the way Luhrmann hurled the real connection between Tom and Myrtle in our faces (we don’t see them pounding away at each other but we certainly hear them, as the camera remains in the next room and their guests, including Nick, feel understandably uncomfortable about how obvious they’re being about it). In Luhrmann’s film we get a shot of Gatsby and Daisy in bed post-coitally, and while in some ways the story would work better as tragedy if we believe that Gatsby never got to make love with his dream girl, the Clayton film as it stands has the air of a typical Production Code-era cop-out.

The really odd thing about watching Gatsby films numbers three (1974) and five (2013) in such quick succession is how their strengths and weaknesses are mirror images of each other. Faced with the centripetal pull of a story with an enormous reputation as a work of literature but a problematic status as film material — so much of Fitzgerald’s greatness as a writer is in his ability to hint at the feelings behind the characters and their actions, and unless you can come up with a visual equivalent to the beauties of Fitzgerald’s prose (as Orson Welles did triumphantly with Booth Tarkington’s proto-Fitzgerald prose in The Magnificent Ambersons) you’re going to have your work cut out for you making a Fitzgerald story work on film. Jack Clayton and Francis Ford Coppola (who according to an imdb.com trivia poster was brought in at the last minute after Truman Capote was fired for turning in a script that made both Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker Queer — an arguable interpretation of the material; certainly Gatsby’s backstory relationship with Dan Cody, seen as a flashback in Luhrmann’s film but totally left out of Clayton’s, has a boy-toy and sugar-daddy air about it, and Nick’s interest in Gatsby is perched uneasily between a bromance and an out-and-out Gay crush) took the Masterpiece Theatre approach, treating The Great Gatsby as a Classic with a capital “C,” embalming the devil-may-care spirit of the so-called Jazz Age (Fitzgerald coined the phrase even though his understanding of jazz was about the norm for a white guy of his time, hailing the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman and company as “good jazz” that would inevitably replace the “bad jazz” of the small combos from New Orleans and Chicago) into the aspic a novel gets drowned in when you have to read it in school. Luhrmann erred in the other direction, with his jumpy MTV-style editing, his abrupt cuts between 1920’s music (the real thing, from the records of the period) and modern-day rap (though oddly the slower rock ballads in the second half of the Luhrmann Gatsby worked better than the rap and actually mirrored the emotions of the characters better than either historically authentic jazz or rap would have done), but at least he caught the devil-may-care spirit of Gatsby’s parties and depicted them as orgiastically as I imagined them from the book. (The 1974 Gatsby has a jarring note in which, after Gatsby gets killed, his father turns up to bury him and a “The End” credit comes up — remember “The End” credits? — there’s an abrupt cut to a shot of people in a water taxi landing on Gatsby’s dock and a peppy version of “Ain’t We Got Fun?” comes up on the soundtrack. Talk about a mood-killer!) If neither of these films is the Gatsby movie I would have dreamed of when I read the book, the Luhrmann comes closer to Fitzgerald’s spirit even if it deviates more from Fitzgerald’s letter — and, quite frankly, Luhrmann’s cast, though much criticized in the reviews (especially DiCaprio, who’s excellent in the role), is considerably better than Clayton’s!