The Great Gatsby (1974)

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby (1974)

Redford Does Great Scott

As a Brit who went through the British school system F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" was not part of the curriculum and in many ways this sort of puts me at and advantage when it comes to watching Jack Clayton's 1974 big screen adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel. That may sound wrong, how can not having read something put you at an advantage but it means I watched "The Great Gatsby" not to see how well someone adapted this book into a movie but as a piece of entertainment. And purely watched as a piece of entertainment this version works, it does recreate the era of the roaring 20s and serves up this fascinating story of romance, wealth and society. Maybe those who have studied the book will pick up on other issues but these 3 aspects present themselves coherently to those like me who are experiencing the story for the first time.

Having rented a cottage on Long Island Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) not only finds him living across the bay from his wealthy cousin Daisy (Mia Farrow) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern - The Cowboys) but also next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford - The Sting) who regular fills the evening air with his swinging parties on the lawn of his mansion. After being invited to one of Gatsby's parties Nick strikes up a friendship with the mysterious millionaire and discovers that Gatsby's interest in him is to do with Daisy as they had once been an item but having been poor at the time Gatsby had lost her. But as the summer unfolds with Gatsby and Daisy reigniting their romance in secret, thanks to Nick, whilst Tom carries on with Myrtle (Karen Black) the wife of a mechanic tensions rise as Tom becomes suspicious and jealous of Gatsby, paying for an investigator to get the dirt on him.

Sam Waterston and Lois Chiles in The Great Gatsby (1974)

So approaching this 1974 adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" from purely an entertainment point of view the story on first glance comes across as a romance. We have the mysterious Jay Gatsby who once dated Daisy before she married but because he was poor she couldn't bring herself to marry him, declaring that rich women never marry poor men. But now having created a fortune and owning a huge mansion Gatsby and Daisy are reunited, making up for those lost years with secret liaisons thanks to Nick Carraway who is not only Daisy's cousin but also Gatsby's neighbour.

Now that is simple enough but that is just the first glance look because "The Great Gatsby" has numerous layers such as the mystery surrounding Gatsby and how he came to amass such a fortune. And there are subplots such as Daisy's husband Tom having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of his mechanic, carrying on together in the city away from everyone's view despite it being blatantly obvious that something is going on. Throw in some more layers and other relationships and you have this storyline which leads to Tom taking a dislike to Jay Gatsby, suspecting that he is trying to sweep Daisy away and doing what he can to discover the truth. All of which comes to a crashing and surprising end as the truth about everyone comes out.

As such because this story basically revolves around a series of relationships and secrets there is a lot which can be read in to it and it's no surprise that Fitzgerald's story is part of the American Schools Curriculum. There is the aspect of wealth and how it affects relationships, not only those of the romantic variety but also those who come from wealth despising new wealth, jealous and suspicious of them. Add to that the way those who are privileged treat those who are poor and you have a movie and story where the entertainment is not just from what you see but also from what you read between the lines. And there is also plenty of symbolism thrown in as well such as the beacon of light which shines out from the Buchanan's dock which Gatsby longingly stares out each evening.

All of which is good and with so much attention to deliver authenticity when it comes to the look, the sound and the feel this is a movie which does take you back to the roaring 20s. From Gatsby's swinging parties to the stuffiness of formal restaurants everything does come across as just right. And so do the performances be it Robert Redford as the dashing and mysterious Jay Gatsby through to Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan. And whilst Mia Farrow may appear to over act as Daisy she creates a character which you soon appreciate is on the edge, the edge of a break down, her fragile existence kept in order by her head in the clouds type of life, a life which is both spoilt and shallow.

But here is the thing, at 144 minutes "The Great Gatsby" is long, uncomfortably long with scenes which feel stilted and some scenes feeling repetitive as points such as the tender romance between Gatsby and Daisy being reiterated. From what I understand, having not read the book, is that Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay remains faithful to Fitzgerald's story and in doing so may be a little too faithful as it becomes swollen with needless scenes. And I am sure there are other issues for those who have read and hold dear Fitzgerald's story which don't represent themselves for those of us who in some ways are fortunate enough not to know the story before watching the movie.

What this all boils down to is that "The Great Gatsby" is a very good movie and that is down to not only the multi layered story but also the production, direction and acting. It is over long and often feels drawn out but the strengths compensate for the weaknesses to make for a movie well worth a watch especially for those who have not read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby".