Waiting for Gatsby

How long it will remain up on YouTube is anybody’s guess, but for now, here is the 1949 Alan Ladd version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And boy, does it creak. The opening is laugh out-loud funny, when Macdonald Carey as Nick Carraway says to Ruth Hussey as Jordan Baker, “Remenber the Jazz Age,” before the film goes off into a montage filled with flappers and gangsters, to remind audiences of an era that to them, had only just ended two decades ago. For a similar effect today, picture a character saying “Honey, remember the eighties,” before dissolving into a montage of skinny ties, pastel colors, upturned polo shirts, and Miami Vice synthesizer music. (At least Citizen Kane had its slam-bang “News on the March!” mock newsreel to get the backstory out of the way early with style.)

Every 25 years or so since the book’s release, there’s been a new cinematic edition of The Great Gatsby, of varying quality. The 1926 version is considered lost — no prints of the film are known to exist, but this article on Gatsby’s history at the movie theater says that the film was something of a success. The only cinematic version that Fitzgerald would see before he drank himself to death at the age of 44 in 1940, he apparently was pretty happy with the finished product. It was followed by the above Alan Ladd version, and perhaps the film of Gatsby best-known to readers, the Robert Redford, Mia Farrow version.

The 1949 film’s script was adapted by Richard Maibaum who also produced the movie, and who would go on to write or co-write the screenplays of many of the Sean Connery through Timothy Dalton-era James Bond movies. So presumably, he’s responsible for the sub-Citizen Kane-style montage at the start of the film. And for the Lady from Shanghai-esque flashback scene with a flinty old yacht owner, who seems like he escaped from an Ayn Rand novel to explain how Gatsby was transformed from a young country bumpkin to a determined social climber. And worst of all, for curiously underplaying the wonderful scene in which Daisy exclaims, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”, which for Fitzgerald was a sort of Prufrock-style moment of assessing Gatsby’s status via the status symbols of his wardrobe.

Which brings us to the disastrous 1974 movie version, starring Redford and Farrow, and written by Francis Ford Coppola, one of the legendary misfires of the pre-Star Wars-era 1970s.

I think Tom Wolfe, piqued at the unauthorized usurpation of his trademark white suit by Redford’s Gatsby (followed immediately by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever ) once dismissed the movie as “Fitzgerald as interpreted by the Garment District”, and while the film did put Ralph Lauren on the map as a designer, most of the fashions the male actors are wearing, with their fat ties and wide lapels, seem much more 1970s than 1920s.

But that’s the least of this Gatsby’s problems. I can’t quite figure out if Mia Farrow works or not (her casting and performance seem somewhat inspired by Betty Field’s performance in the 1949 film), but Redford, who’s far too cinematically pretty to play the self-made Gatsby, and who sort of sleepwalks through his role, seems wildly miscast. As does Bruce Dern, who can’t escape his Roger Corman-era psycho biker roles (his Freeman Lowell in Silent Running was merely an interstellar variation on that persona). Though Sam Waterston and sultry Lois Chiles seem like improvements on Macdonald Carey as Nick Carraway and Ruth Hussey as tennis star Jordan Baker in the 1949 version. Howard Da Silva was the only actor to turn up in both movies, first as beleaguered gas station owner turned jealous husband George Wilson, and then in the later film as the Arnold Rothstein-inspired gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, whose character’s name is never spoken in the 1949 version I believe, likely due to fears of anti-Semitism. (As James Lileks recently noted, none of the 1950s film and TV versions of George Orwell’s 1984 called the Emmanuel Goldstein character by the name Orwell had chosen for him, likely for similar reasons.)

But what really sinks the Redford/Farrow version of Gatsby is a self-conscious pacing that makes Stanley Kubrick’s stately Barry Lyndon seem like an MTV video in comparison. That’s also the same problem that plagues 1976’s The Last Tycoon, Elia Kazan’s last movie, with a young Robert DeNiro in a thinly disguised portrayal as doomed Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg.

Most recently, in 2000, Mira Sorvino starred as Daisy in a made-for-TV version, with relatively unknown actor Toby Stephens cast as the Artist Formerly Known as Jay Gatz. (There’s a clip online here if you dare…) If you’re getting the sense that the quality of Gatsby adaptations is declining exponentially, I’d say you’re absolutely right. One reason, as Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote in 2005, is the Death of the Grown-Up temperament of today’s stars:

I’m a fan of old movies, the black-and-whites from the 1930s and 1940s, in part because of what they reveal about how American culture has changed. The adults in these films carry themselves differently. They don’t walk and speak the way we do. It’s often hard to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be—as though they were portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don’t have any more.Take the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Here Claudette Colbert portrays a young widow who builds a successful business. (Selling pancakes, actually. Well, it’s more believable if you see the whole movie.) She’s poised and elegant, with the lustrous voice and magnificent cheekbones that made her a star. But how old is she supposed to be? In terms of the story, she can’t be much more than thirty, but she moves like a queen. Today even people much older don’t have that kind of presence—and Colbert was thirty-one when the movie came out.

How about Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, smoldering away in Red Dust? They projected the kind of sexiness that used to be called “knowing,” a quality that suggested experienced confidence. When the film came out Gable was thirty-one and Harlow ten years younger. Or picture the leads of The Philadelphia Story. When it was released in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was thirty-three, Cary Grant thirty-six, and Jimmy Stewart thirty-two. Yet don’t they all look more grownup than actors do nowadays?

Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn’t an observation about the actors themselves (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately); rather, it is about the way audiences expected grownups to act. A certain manner demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the manner of children, or even of adolescents such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a boyish, floppy-haired ditherer till he was forty. Compare Bette Davis’ strong and smoky voice with Renée Zellweger’s nervous twitter. Zellweger is adorable, but she’s thirty-five. When will she grow up?

In a review in the Village Voice of the film The Aviator, Michael Atkinson dubbed our current crop of childish male actors “toddler-men.” “The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grownups is unavoidable,” he wrote. “Though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a thirty-year-old until he’s fifty.” Nobody has that old-style confident authority any more. We’ve forgotten how to act like grownups.

That will likely be the theme next year at the movies as well. According to the Internet Movie Database,  Leonardo DiCaprio is scheduled to don the white suit and stare longingly at the green light at the end of the dock in 2012. Tobey Maguire, best known for playing Spider-Man at the movies, will be slinging webs of narrative exposition as Nick Carraway.

And speaking of revising Gatsby for today’s “Death of the Grown-Up” audiences, the perfect script for this version is all set to go.

rica Mathewes-Green