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The Great Gatsby: My take on the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow

In full Gonzo for Gatsby mode, prepping myself for Baz Luhrmann's less-than-a-month-away remake of The Great Gatsby, I re-watched the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the title roles. Luhrmann will be the fourth filmmaker to have adapted the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic; will the fourth time be the charm? The first Gatsby movie came out in 1926, the year after the book was published - you can watch the trailer for the silent film here.  The second version was made in 1949 - I know nothing about that one yet - the third is the 1974 version which I watched on Amazon Prime. I could have rented it for $2.99 but I splurged on the extra dollar for HD; not sure if that makes a difference.

I'd seen the movie years ago; presumably when it first came out. I remembered hazily that I loved how Robert Redford looked as Jay Gatsby because I'm predisposed to do so, but that the film had seemed, well, just okay. I remembered a song, sad and slow, from the soundtrack: An Irving Berlin song "What'll I do when I am all alone and feeling blue, what'll I do?" That song still trails around mournfully in my mind.

I began watching the film and was relieved that it wasn't awful from start to finish. It was easy to see what they did right: the production design and the costumes were stunning. Gatsby's mansion feels like a cold and empty, if magnificent, museum except when it's transformed for those famous parties. Lit up like an amusement park, overrun with guests and servants, at those moments it translated well as the home of the wealthy man desperate to prove himself to Daisy and the world; to impress.  But looking at the massive grey stone mansion head on, the morning after, emptied of its crowd, Gatsby's mansion looks like nothing more than a huge, and portentous,  mausoleum.

Everyone looked gorgeous, of course. Redford was delicious as Gatsby; the quasi-period pastel suits suited him to a tee. I say 'quasi' because I read somewhere that costume designer Theoni Aldredge adjusted the menswear designs so the pants were slimmer than they would have been in real life during the time period. She did that to make the men look better and they do. That's such a flashpoint for argument, reel life vs real life; I tend to prefer a stricter adherence to historical accuracy which Luhrman's iteration won't give us either. In any case Redford, was gorgeous. And Mia's clothes were gorgeous. Her clothes; not her. Nor her performance.

Mia Farrow - perpetually caught in the headlights
Mia. For me she is the biggest - most obvious, anyway - flaw in this film. Mia Farrow was so artificial - beyond the artificiality of Daisy and her weak, duplicitous nature - and barely beautiful. Certainly not beautiful enough to have entranced Gatsby and the gads of other beaus so much; remember Gatsby bemoans the fact that he couldn't get just one hour alone with her, so many other gentlemen came to call? Surely it wasn't just her wealth and all that sparkling silver that caught his eye? No he was absolutely in love, married to her in his mind; his need and ache for Daisy over-arches everything. Enough so that the woman he loves isn't really the Daisy we see.  In part it's because he's transformed her in his mind to be something she never was, isn't and can't be - better, stronger, transformed by the power of love into something rare and beautiful - but we don't see that woman, or truly feel the ache of love Redford's Gatsby feels for Mia Farrow's Daisy.

They have little chemistry together - I refuse to blame Redford so I'll just say I don't really understand why Farrow was cast at all, she's just too wispy, insubstantial and awkward looking to have inspired such passion ... but that's just my opinion; clearly her husbands, Frank Sinatra before Gatsby, and Woody Allen after, would disagree. Mia Farrow's vagueness worked in Allen's beautiful Hannah and her Sisters; not so much here.

But truly, my love for Redford aside, what does his Gatsby do - besides look deliciously cool in a suit - to charm and captivate? What does Gatsby do? Really there is nothing; no banter, no flirtation, just the stilted invocation of what used to be and the laying on of what Gatsby thinks will impress; the too-sparkling silver, the abundance of shirts, the parties created especially to lure Daisy in. This is the surface stuff that does seduce Daisy, it's offered as some sort of proof of his love ; I would prefer to see Gatsby shower her with more passion and zeal even though I know the outcome can never be altered.

There is a scene where the two kiss; their lips are locked together, their bodies frozen, the camera panning around them slowly and it just looks ridiculous; as if they are two statues clamped together somehow but stone-like, without feeling. I'm not sure if the director is trying to show their love, locked in place on that veranda eight years ago, but it didn't work.

Love Sam Waterston
as Nick
Scott Wilson was riveting as the pathetic Wilson,
the garage owner.
What I did like
Sam Waterston with his low key approach captured Nick Carraway's bemused, half-in-love admiration for Gatsby; like Nick, I can't indict Gatsby, I just feel so sorry for him and all the shattered dreams. Scott Wilson, as Myrtle's husband really surprised and moved me as the hapless husband and garage owner devastated by his wife's betrayal. Watching the film I perked right up watching him; who is that actor, I thought, knowing I'd seen his work before. Some nominal research at imdb.com delivered; a tireless character actor with longevity; you can see more of his work currently in The Walking Dead. Karen Black was a little too histrionic as Myrtle for my taste - she always is - but it's not easy to pull off sucking blood from your fingers with a crazy gleam in your eye. Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker was lovely if a little less disdainful than her origin; remembering her from The Way We Were I always wonder why she hasn't had a bigger film career.

There's one more thing I really didn't like and that's the final song over the ending credits. Even if you've never read The Great Gatsby and you don't know precisely how it ends, you probably know it doesn't end well; it's a tragedy and even a lackluster version of the story is going to stoke a sad melancholia. Why director Jack Clayton decided to end the film with Ain't We Got Fun over the credits is a mystery. I suppose he was aiming for irony, cuz' no way do we have fun, but it falls flat here, completely undercutting any emotional response you might have towards the pathos inherent in the story. I would have preferred the song Gatsby plays on his victrola, that sad mournful song that reminds him of Daisy.

Here's a montage someone made set to that Irving Berlin song, written in 1922; that's the Nelson Riddle orchestra playing it.

So that's my take on the 1974 rendition of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What can I say; I recommend it for educational rather than entertainment purposes. I'm following Baz Luhrmann's efforts to adapt the book, as evidenced in the trailer and various articles, some of which I've shared at my GONZO for GATSBY page - and am nervously awaiting the big reveal on May 10th. Has he learned from the past; will he get it right?