Cinema: The Crack-Up

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It was said about Jay Gatsby that he never went to his own parties. He certainly passed this one by. A great deal of time, money and promotion have been concentrated here, but Gatsby's sad and curious history has resulted in a dull, dreadful movie.

The film is faithful to the letter of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel but entirely misses its spirit. Much of Fitzgerald's prose has been preserved, especially in Nick Carraway's narration, but it only gives the film a stilted, stuffy tone that is reinforced by the dialogue. Fitzgerald wrote dialogue to be read, not said; and the Coppola screenplay (much rejuggled by Director Clayton) treats Fitzgerald's lines with untoward reverence. When Daisy sighs, "We were so close in our month of love," she sounds like a kid in a creative-writing course reading her first short story aloud.

That at least implies a certain zeal and commitment, only two of the qualities lacking in Mia Farrow's Daisy. Her characterization—on which so much of the movie depends—is a catastrophe.

She works up a mannered creature with bulging eyes and squeaking voice who never suggests Daisy's strength, her greed, or even her gaiety and charm.

Stubborn Caprice. Robert Redford's Gatsby is rather more successful.

Redford does not have the mystery or the rough edge required for the role, but he is surprisingly good at conveying Gatsby's uneasiness. The social graces are not natural to him. He has a tenuous poise, a mask that falls away when he is introduced to Daisy's small daughter or when Nick pays him a sincere compliment that makes him, for the first time, smile genuinely. Redford also has a sense of Gatsby's obsession. His look of longing, fulfillment and hopelessness when he sees Daisy for the first time has, momentarily, the depth of passion that the movie never achieves again.

Here, however, the object of the obsession is so thoroughly without mystery that it comes to look like little more than a stubborn caprice. With a Gatsby crippled by such a dismal Daisy, the movie must be sustained by its secondary characters. There is little enough strength there. As Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, Lois Chiles seems to be fighting off unsuccessfully the effects of a massive dose of Novocain. George Wilson, the poor garage man who kills Gatsby, and his wife Myrtle are impersonated by Scott Wilson and Karen Black in little bursts of lunatic melodrama.

Sam Waterston makes a gentle, intelligent Nick, but the role is largely passive. The movie's sharpest characterization is Bruce Bern's Tom Buchanan, a figure of imperiousness, steeped in contempt that comes from too much ease, too much money. When he and Gatsby confront Daisy in a hotel room one afternoon, the film catches the intensity that Fitzgerald conveyed in the sculpted contours of his prose.

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