If Jack Clayton’s version of The Great Gatsby has a place in film history, it is not for any artistic achievement, but as an early example of the saturation promotion that has become the norm for expensive studio productions. In the lead up to its release, you could barely escape the promotional tie ins—publicity about the production in Newport, Rhode Island, fashion spreads about Ralph Lauren’s costumes, ads for the cookware hanging conspicuously in Gatsby’s kitchen in one scene, and on and on. The movie was almost incidental to the “event” of its release.
With all that glittering glut stuffed into the edges like a tourist’s suitcase bursting with too many souvenirs, and with the foreknowledge that the film stars Robert Redford at the peak of his popularity, it was a safe bet that the results would shimmer in that expensive, glossy, over-produced Hollywood manner that often sinks a project. And yet, for all the fussy furnishings, Gatsby feels remarkably tatty. Part of the problem is that recent costume films, particularly those from Britain, have trained us to expect such over-stuffed commodity dramas to have a glossy, hard edge that calls attention to every gratuitous detail. The superfluity is there, but to contemporary eyes Douglas Slocombe’s soft, diffused cinematography looks cheap, rightly or wrongly, and the last thing a film like Gatsby can risk is to appear slovenly.
Not that the cinematography is entirely to blame for the film’s awkwardness. No one in this film is at his or her best. Redford mopes around looking lost in his Lauren ensembles. The questionably attractive Mia Farrow makes Daisy Buchanan, the love of Gatsby’s life, into a fey, insufferable twit. Sam Waterston manages to maintain a little dignity as Nick Carraway, the narrator and witness to events, but “dignity” is practically a negative virtue in dramatic terms. Besides, as a bystander, he is hardly able to energize the story. Bruce Dern as Daisy’s husband Tom is a shrill bigot whose over-the-top prejudices and attitudes tear apart what little texture the bloated production achieves. As for Clayton’s direction, I have seen none of his other films; on this evidence, I am unlikely to try.
Nor am I likely to look up any of the other adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel (this is the third of five tries) or read the book itself. What is it about this soggy combination of sticky nostalgia and wistful not-quite-romance that fascinates people? The Jazz Age may have been wonderful for the lucky few who could enjoy it, but nothing in Gatsby shows what was so winsome about it beyond loud parties and expensive props. About the most this film demonstrates (and that inadvertently) is that all the money in the world cannot buy style. Ironically, that does seem to be part of what the story is about, but for a film to be as clumsy as its parvenu protagonist is hardly an achievement and certainly no cause for praise.