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Waiting for Gatsby

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