East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

It is not difficult to evaluate The Great Gatsby both as a representation of a work of literature and as a film in itself, because it is precisely where the film fails in properly rendering the novel that it most frequently fails as cinema. The principal problem the film has, and that Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Clayton have been unable to solve, is point-of-view. One of the big reasons for the effectiveness of Fitzgerald’s novel is that it is told entirely as it is observed and interpreted by Nick Carraway. The film sets out to do this as well, and generally maintains Nick’s viewpoint, through the screen presence or voiceover narration of Sam Waterston. As long as Nick remains the observer-reporter, the film retains the kind of distance and focus Fitzgerald achieved in dealing with his characters. But with increasing frequency as the film progresses, events are depicted that Nick has not observed or cannot possibly know about. Such shifts to the omniscient create a lack of narrative integrity and an inconsistency of character portrayal. In short, Coppola and Clayton try to have it both ways: they couldn’t cut Nick’s narration altogether—that would be too radical—and yet they somehow felt it disadvantageous to retain Nick’s viewpoint throughout. Disadvantageous, I think, because it would interfere with the manner in which they wanted to manipulate audience reaction. Not manipulate in the Hitchcockian sense—manipulate in the box office sense.

You see, in order to really sell The Great Gatsby, someone somewhere along the line (Merrick, perhaps) felt it necessary to promote the film as the one thing Fitzgerald’s novel is most emphatically not: a love story. The romance of the novel consists not in Jay Gatsby’s affair with Daisy, but in Gatsby’s careful construction of a fantasy world about himself, his re-creation of the past, and Nick Carraway’s gradual recognition of the nature of the fantasy and the fantasizer. Coppola and Clayton have attempted to turn the plot into a star-crossed love affair, and the theme into an indictment of the amorality of the idle rich. The result is a romance without romance. The distance, a key factor in Fitzgerald’s outsider’s fascination with the very rich, is tampered with or discarded altogether. Instead of characters who remain largely mysteries to one another, touching primarily through hearsay, gossip, or façade, we see people confronting one another directly, just as in any old love film. As the mystery goes, so goes the romance.

It is supremely difficult to capture the moral ambivalence of Fitzgerald’s attitude toward the wealthy; and it is a pity that Coppola and Clayton took the easy way out and chose to condemn them altogether. The film’s Nick Carraway is portrayed as a young man whose admiration of the rich becomes more and more jaded as he observes their behavior. Too ingenuous, too naïve. Nick of the novel had lived most of his life among the rich, and accepted the amorality of the Buchanans with at best a worldly-wise sadness, certainly not the horror and shattered illusions that Coppola wrote into the later scenes of the film.

Especially indicative of the way the film violates both the spirit of the novel and its own integrity is the ending. As in the finish of the novel, Nick stands on Gatsby’s lawn, gazing across the bay toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, and Waterston’s voice speaks Carraway’s last monologue, truncated from the novel, but still just right in spirit and mood for the reflective, quietly dolorous dénouement required by the preceding “holocaust.” All is well; but then a blast of ragtime issues forth, and the scene shifts to a conga-line of the careless rich swinging along a pier to board a yacht. As the cast titles roll up, the merrymakers sing hypocritically about not having much money but having fun anyway, and it is clear—as it has been throughout most of the film—that we are expected to judge them harshly, in direct contravention of Nick’s stated intention at the beginning of both novel and film to “reserve all judgments.”

To effect this condemnation of the established rich, the character of the nouveau riche Gatsby has been considerably softened from what it is in the novel. Instead of the insipid, often obnoxious interloper of questionable background, we are given a Gatsby who is a tragic hero, who brings about his own downfall through chivalrous gallantry rather than destructive self-deception. Redford’s portrayal is so sympathetic (he even makes Gatsby’s irritatingly affected “Old sport” sound natural and charming) that it gives Nick full justification for remarking, in his last words to Gatsby, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” a remark that Nick of the novel qualifies considerably by adding, “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

One of the great scenes of the novel, Nick’s first meeting with Gatsby, falls victim to severe reduction as a result of this character-softening. In the film, Gatsby’s heavyhanded henchman accosts Nick on the lawn among the party guests and bids him accompany him upstairs. It is clear through the action and attitude that we are being taken into the sanctum sanctorum of a high-powered racketeer, a totally inappropriate impression to convey at this point in the narrative. It seems as if Coppola and Clayton fabricated this gratuitous drivel in order to wrap up all the “gangster” rumors about Gatsby into one ball of fluff and get them out of the way early in the film, the more easily to concentrate on developing Gatsby as the romantic lead they clearly want us and Nick to end up admiring. In the novel, the first meeting is just the opposite, absurdly anticlimactic: after numerous encounters with guests who theorize about Gatsby’s identity and background, though they have never met their host, Nick finds himself seated across the table from a “man about my age” who engages him in conversation. They talk for some moments before the man, to Nick’s embarrassment, reveals that he is Gatsby.

It almost seems as if Coppola and Clayton originally intended to film it that way; for there is a dinner table scene in which a number of guests speculate about Gatsby, as the camera tracks from one face to another, passing behind the man cross-table from Nick. We see only the back of his head, and those already familiar with the novel are prepared for the unseen man to turn out to be Gatsby. He doesn’t; the scene ends; and shortly afterward we get this hitman type taking Nick “upstairs” on an elevator to meet the golden boy himself.

The character of the gambler Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s rumored partner in crime, is similarly soft-pedaled. Howard Da Silva plays him as an amusing eccentric rather than an overbearing, suspicious nuisance. Probably this is done to avoid the not-so-veiled anti-Semitism of Carraway’s description of him in the novel, as well as to further undercut the importance of Gatsby’s criminal connections.

In moving away from the Carraway viewpoint, Clayton demonstrates a lack of subtlety quite inappropriate to the style of Fitzgerald. Rather than develop an imaginative approach to filming a first-person character-narrator novel, Clayton falls back on several worn stylistic devices to provide visual commentary on the story’s action, to replace Nick’s verbal commentary. In so doing, he betrays a lack of confidence, a tendency to underrate the audience’s ability to grasp what is going on without overmuch flashy externalization. Consequently, we see mirror shots ad infinitum, to the point of shooting Gatsby and Daisy reflected in a goldfish pond after all available mirrors have been used up. We get Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black) tapping urgently at her window, trying desperately to attract the attention of Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern) in the gas station below, an enormously effective scene until it is ruined: she smashes the window, cutting her fingers. The poor woman gets bloodied-up quite enough—in both novel and film—without this. We get a present-tense depiction of George Wilson (Scott Wilson) tracking down and murdering Gatsby, which in the novel was retrospectively pieced together by the police and by Nick. It was apparently filmed this way to provide more visual action in a film someone must have feared might be too “talky.” Alas, it gives far too much importance to Wilson’s character, far too little to Nick’s reaction. Most irritating of all, we get a string of animal images running throughout the film, providing artificial bridges between scenes and events: dogs of the rich contrasted with dogs of the poor; a stable of nervous horses observing Wilson’s stealthy approach to Gatsby’s pool; and irrelevant close shots of birds preceding crucial events. While Daisy and Gatsby meet in his house, Nick sits outside and watches a pair of redbirds feeding; an ominous (red-winged) blackbird appears shortly before Gatsby’s visit to the Buchanan house; Gatsby observes a blue jay in the grass by his pool shortly before his murder—the bird flies away; and—the most wretched excess of all—a dead seagull is washed up on Gatsby’s beach, to be discovered by Nick: a premonition of the deaths to come, presumably, and stolen from La Dolce Vita, obviously.

Beyond this, at least two scenes are simply irresponsibly directed. Daisy and Gatsby seated in the grand hall of Gatsby’s house, saying things Fitzgerald’s characters would never say to each other, and with a directness that never occurs in the novel, suddenly reach out to each other; their fingers almost touch … but not quite. And the first meeting of Daisy and Gatsby at Nick’s house: It begins just right, focusing on Gatsby’s schoolboy nervousness and the importance of Nick in providing a stable atmosphere. Nick leaves them alone for some time, and when he returns to the house in the novel “every vestige of embarrassment was gone.” In the film, Nick returns to find Gatsby as idiotically inarticulate as before, but his nervousness ebbs away completely seconds later, with no apparent prompting from either Daisy or Nick.

In directing Mia Farrow as Daisy (a surefire for next year’s Best Actress nomination, and deservedly so), Clayton emphasizes a bit too much the role of Daisy as (a) the beloved, and (b) the irresponsible rich girl, to the near-exclusion of her main importance: as object not of Gatsby’s love but of his fantasy. Again he falls back on a worn image to convey this (but at least here he copies himself, not other directors): a Daisy “shrine” in Gatsby’s house, a huge photograph of Daisy, surrounded with news clippings and souvenirs, strongly reminiscent of the “Mother Shrine” in Our Mother’s House.

Clayton is, to be sure, an accomplished director of females (Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, Pamela Franklin in Our Mother’s House). He is equally accomplished in directing what a sexist might call “women’s films”: the quintessence of the Gothic in The Innocents, and the apotheosis of the soap opera, The Pumpkin Eater. This is quite possibly why he directed Gatsby as primarily a love story, and why, consequently, the film fails adequately to represent the novel. (On another tack, should a Briton have been selected to direct the film version of one of this country’s greatest and most integrally American novels?)

Yet if, in terms of its representation of Fitzgerald’s novel, there are all these things the film does wrong, it also does many deliciously right. The music, costuming and set decoration are done with complete integrity and are all superbly evocative of the novel’s delicate mixture of brooding nostalgia and reckless abandon. These alone are enough to counterbalance the film’s failings—at least for the less demanding viewer. And there is more: Bruce Dern’s letter-perfect portrayal of Tom Buchanan; Tom Ewell’s arresting cameo as the unidentified “owl-eyed man” (who appears three times in the novel but, unfortunately, only once in the film); and Sam Waterston’s marvelously expressive face, whose reactions provide most of the comment on the film’s action, just as Nick’s personal reflections provide the commentary on the action of the novel.

There are many moments of absolute brilliance, in which the film achieves the highest level of both cinema and adaptation of literature:
* Nick’s comfortable, fascinated distance from the rich emphasized first by cutting from the sumptuous dinner laid out at Gatsby’s party across the way to Nick’s shabby, pan-fried chop, then by tracking slowly away from him as he sits on his porch eating, watching with amusement the party guests beyond the camera.
* Nick and Gatsby at lunch: Tom Buchanan breaks in, and the camera tracks forward and tilts up to Tom’s brutish hulk, wavers slightly, then closes on Nick and Tom, shrinking Gatsby to a corner of the frame and then excluding him entirely.
* The ridiculous incongruity of Gatsby’s silver tea service against the framed Audubon prints and dull furnishings of Nick’s tacky livingroom.
* The film’s one appropriate mirror shot, in Gatsby’s house, as Nick sees for the first time a side of Gatsby he has not been aware of, and observes, standing next to Daisy, both Gatsby and Gatsby’s reflection.
* The lawn lights and the fountain turned off abruptly in the predawn after Gatsby’s last big party.
* The stifling scene in the Plaza Hotel room, with beads of sweat on everybody’s face; the confrontation of Tom and Gatsby; and the scene’s conclusion, with the camera moving in to close on Nick’s moist face: “I just remembered. Today’s my birthday. I’m 30.”
* The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg become, in a slow match-dissolve, the headlamps of Gatsby’s Rolls, one broken and spattered with Myrtle’s blood.

Of course all these pictures do not a movie make. But they are awfully good—and they give us a pleasant hint of the romance that might have been so divine.

THE GREAT GATSBY
Direction: Jack Clayton. Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola, after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Production Design: John Bryan. Music Supervision: Nelson Riddle. Production: David Merrick.
The Players: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston, Bruce Dern, Lois Chiles, Scott Wilson, Karen Black, Howard Da Silva, Roberts Blossom, Tom Ewell.

Copyright © 1974 Robert C. Cumbow