ByKen Anderson, writer at
Ken Anderson

When it Comes to Bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age Classic to the Big Screen, 70s Mediocrity Has the Advantage Over Modern Techno-Fetishism

Back in May 2013, I speculated on how Baz Luhrmann’s $127 million adaptation of The Great Gatsby would stack up next to Jack Clayton’s prosaic 1974 version (HERE). Although it took me a while, I finally got around to seeing the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby (sans 3D) on DVD this month.

Well, my overall opinion is that Luhrmann’s is the better film, but then, so is the 8mm home movie I made of my first trip to Universal Studios in 1972. To say Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is better than the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow starrer is not the same thing as saying it's a good film. It’s merely to note, comparatively speaking, that it is an improvement over the former. It wins by default. Indeed, when taken as a stand-alone movie adaptation, I think the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby mostly proves that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is unfilmable and should hereafter be left alone. Unless, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber has plans for turning it into a West End musical sometime soon.

What surprises me is that while Baz Luhrmann’s glittery Gatsby is more spirited, better acted (generally), and by and large a far more dramatic and romantically persuasive movie than Jack Clayton’s over-reverential take; I nevertheless could pop the seriously flawed 1974 version into my DVD player and watch it in its entirety this very minute; but I really can’t imagine wanting to see the 2013 adaptation ever again.

Daisy & Gatsby - 1974

Why? Because for all the tin-eared, uber-devotional faithfulness of Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay; the leaden portentousness of Jack Clayton’s direction; and the hermetic, airlessness of most of the performances; 1974s The Great Gatsby is at least populated with real human beings occupying a recognizably real world. And until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s version, I never really grasped the degree to which that little detail matters in a film that's not about Transformers or superheroes.

When I see live theater, there’s this unique energy and danger that comes from everything happening right before you in real time. It adds to the overall excitement of the experience and allows for the considerable suspension of disbelief required to allow entire worlds to exist within a proscenium arch. Movies operate on a different level. They create a hyper-reality once-removed. Any emotional distance created by the fact that I’m watching flickering images staged in the recent or distant past is mitigated by the intimacy of close-ups and how I find myself drawn in by the selective, directed gaze of the camera lens.

Daisy & Gatsby - 2013

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby makes extensive use of computer-generated imagery, both realistic and stylized. Imagery whose sometimes flagrant artificiality gives one the impression of watching Jazz-Age avatars populating the landscape of an art-deco video game. The camera swoops, dives, and darts about the action like a paper airplane hurled by a grade-schooler with lousy aim, and the 2D effect of the film’s 3D technology makes the actors appear to stand apart and separate for their surroundings...almost floating in front of the scenery - like those vinyl Colorforms cutouts I had as a kid. In short, the entire enterprise becomes a high-tech cartoon. And in cartoons there can be no human jeopardy.

The fragility of humans, both physical and emotional, is the crux of all drama. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald emphasizes human vulnerability by contrasting and juxtaposing his weak characters against the illusory shelter afforded their materialism. No matter how big the house, powerful the car, or ornate the swimming pool – they all prove insufficient citadels against pain, death, and tragedy. But for this to hit home, the material world has to be made real for us, and the characters have to feel as if they are flesh and blood.

Jordan & Nick - 1974

The 1974 Gatsby buried its characters beneath millions of dollars’ worth of production values, but at least the quirky casting of 70s stalwarts Karen Black and Bruce Dern helped to imbue the film with brief flourishes of unmistakable humanity. Luhrmann’s Gatsby wants to dazzle us with spectacle, but at the cost of grounding anything in a recognizable reality. The actors, digitized to a glossy sheen that renders flesh the same waxy burnish of department store mannequins, are impossible to care for because they have been rendered as animatronic Gatsby dolls. They posture and pose, look terrific in their period duds, and all carry on as if they're are in a college production of Private Lives; but they never feel like they have any life beyond what we're being shown. How could they? They exist on a computer graphics grid.

I’m afraid 1974’s The Great Gatsby (a film I harbored no great fondness for beyond a nagging nostalgia and the sight of Robert Redford’s thighs in a bathing suit) has become yet another mediocre film from my past that’s starting to look more like a classic in the wake of a middling remake (a la: The Poseidon Adventure, Fame, Rollerball, and Planet of the Apes).

Nick & Jordan - 2013

Of course, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was a big hit at the boxoffice, proving most emphatically that 3D, CGI, and anachronistic music scores by Jay Z, are here to stay, and are what the public wants.

To which I can only respond, in the words of one Miss Jean Brodie: "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

A Few Random Observations:

1. In spite of forever looking like he's playing dress-up, Leonardo DiCaprio does a marvelous job as Gatsby. Infinitely more complex and sympathetic than Robert Redford’s Arrow Collar model interpretation, he's the major galvanizing force in the film for me.

2. I’m convinced it’s impossible to make a party on film look like any fun.

3. I'm absolutely crazy about Carey Mulligan, who makes a fabulous-looking Daisy Buchanan. But as her role is written, I'm not sure she fares much better than Mia Farrow

4. In an effort to try to capture the dizzying madness of the Jazz Age, by all appearances Luhrmann tied the camera to a rope and started swinging it over his head. Honestly, it's like a hummingbird was his cinematographer and Tex Avery his editor.

5. Actress Elizabeth Debicki makes me think what a wonderful Jordan Baker Anjelica Houston would have made in the 1974 film.

6. Like the kind of digital manipulation that Vanity Fair shutterbug Annie Leibovitz passes off as photography these days, the images in The Great Gatsby, beautiful as they are, never once look organic. None of the actors appear to be in the same room together. Hell, none of the ROOMS seem to be in the same room.

7. Blending the music of Gershwin (the exquisite Rhapsody in Blue) with the compositions of contemporary pop stars only draws attention to how awful the music of contemporary pop stars is.

8. Isla Fisher's superficial performance as Myrtle Wilson (she plays her like Miss Hannigan in a touring company of Annie) achieved the impossible: It made me long for Karen Black's over-emotive histrionics in the 1974 film.

9. There’s no denying that Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a beautiful-looking film, but when Baz Luhrmann tries for Ken Russell operatic bombast, his images, lacking in either context or passion, at best come off as the work of a very clever Los Angles event/party planner.

10. I thought so in 1974 and I think so now; Bruce Dern's Tom Buchanan is a brilliant piece of character work. Joel Edgerton comes off as a tad too callow and weightless.

11. I very much like the framing device employed in the new film that has Nick Carraway recounting his summer with Gatsby from inside the sanitarium he's committed himself to after becoming an alcoholic. It's an inspired touch that adds a bit of depth to a character so often on the periphery of the action.

Needless to say (but this being the internet, I'll say it anyway) there are no experts, no "right" or "wrong" when it comes to the voicing of purely subjective opinions about a movie. This is merely my personal take on the film and should be read with the awareness that when it comes to movies, I'm every bit as obsessed with the past as Gatsby.

Interested in classic films? Check out my blog: Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For...


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