Wednesday, March 15, 2017

OVP: The Great Gatsby (1974)

Film: The Great Gatsby (1974)
Stars: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Lois Chiles
Director: Jack Clayton
Oscar History: 2 nominations/2 wins (Best Costume Design*, Best Original Song Score*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I have never bought the argument that a book is un-filmable, save perhaps for the dictionary or some form of poetry (and even then I think you might be able to make something interesting out of it).  This is certainly not true of a novel-you just have to change your approach.  No book, in my opinion, has been called "unfilmable" more often, however, than F. Scott Fitzgerald's magnum opus The Great Gatsby.  I honestly loved this book the first time I read it.  I hit it appropriately at the precipice of adulthood, just around the age of seventeen, when most people do, and the beautiful shirts and the vivid colors sparkled on the page.  Unfortunately, much like its future successor from Baz Luhrmann, Francis Ford Coppola's vision of Gatsby fails to land on the page, frequently feeling like a boring, odiously long movie and nothing more.

(Spoilers Ahead) I could start this out with an explanation of the book, but as it's arguably the most discussed novel of the 20th century (give or take Orwell and Tolkien), I don't know that it's necessary.  Suffice it to say Gatsby (Redford) loves and loses, Nick (Waterston) becomes disillusioned, and Daisy (Farrow) learns very little along the way.  The movie stays relatively close to the book in terms of plotting, though, it's worth noting, resisting flights of fancy or ways to make the novel more conducive to the screen, as large swaths of the book rest on Nick's narration.  This may be its greatest undoing, as you have to try to at least get at some of the interpretations of the book in order to get to why it's so terrific, but it has to be said that if you wanted a movie simply for the sake of preserving the book with a select set of stars (like having every major Broadway diva do Gypsy), that mission is accomplished to the satisfaction of those people who complain about minute details being changed in adaptation.  After all, the casting director isn't at fault here-I would've picked this slate of actors too.

No, the movie itself, though, is rather lifeless, and never really sees beyond the world of parties, costumes, and a romantic triangle.  This is typically all most movies ever need to thrive.  But Gatsby has always felt like a story where the romance was secondary.  I don't want to get into an English class-level discussion of the book (you can find thousands of those at SparkNotes sites all around the web), but the book itself turns the whole romance ideal on its head.  You have the inherited wealth of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, unpunished despite their actions, in juxtaposition to the crooked Gatsby, who is the closest we get to a likable character but whose sole drives are shallow and utterly fruitless-Daisy will never leave behind her country club life to go with this dangerous nouveau riche man, and perhaps doesn't even love him other than she loves his adoration.  The film loses this in its treatment of Daisy (always the problem with films-Daisy isn't supposed to be likable, and Farrow doesn't get that across enough to the point where it changes our onscreen perception of her-she just makes her naive, not cruel), and doesn't even delve into the possibilities that Nick presents.  All-in-all, it's a clunker of a film-boring, listless, and nothing really to lend itself other than gorgeous costume work.

This is, of course, where it won one of its pair of Oscars.  The book presents a costume designer's paradise, complete with Farrow and Lois Chiles in a variety of hats and flapper dresses, and of course there's Redford in that impeccably cut pink suit.  The costumes are gorgeous-I've seen both the suit and one of Farrow's dresses on a recent trip to Rosecliff in Newport (where the movie was filmed), and the stitch-work and precision is exquisite.  I'm not saying I'm automatically giving this the OVP based on being one of the more iconic looks in all of 1970's cinema (there's some really wonderful costumery in Chinatown and The Godfather Part II that year as well), but it's hard to argue with the Academy's knee-jerk win for the film.  The Song Score Oscar, on the other hand, felt overly generous.  It essentially won for the inclusion of a few jazz standards that were "ehh" to the plotline, and perhaps more so because it competed against two massive flops, and even though it had tepid reviews initially, Gatsby itself made Paramount a fortune.

Those are my thoughts on this 1974 misfire-what are yours?  I feel like this is a movie that many of you may have seen, or at the very least have opinions on, so why do you think that no one can quite get Gatsby right?  Do you think this movie deserved both of its Oscars?  Share below in the comments!

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