Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Framing Youth

This December, a new film version of The Great Gatsby is coming to a theater near you. In case you're not familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel, allow me to summarize: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets shot to death in his own swimming pool. There! Now you'll have some inkling of what I'm talking about. This is the fourth version to reach the big screen.  I've only seen two of these movies, neither one as good as the novel on which it's based. There was also a small screen version, as in made-for-TV, that not only haven't I seen, I wasn't even aware of until I just looked it up just now.



The first version, the one I haven't seen, is the 1926 silent version starring Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, and William Powell. Very few people alive has seen this version, as no copies are known to exist. It's what they call a "lost film". Since they didn't have HBO or Netflix or Redbox back in the silent era, once a movie ran for a while in a theater and made or lost money, it was often shoved in some closet where it gradually deteriorated. Or it caught on fire, as film was pretty flammable back then. Either way it might end up in a heap of ashes. For some reason, the film's trailer was saved:


I was excited when I saw that William Powell was in this lost version. If there's anybody I can hear saying "old sport",  a favorite expression of Gatsby's, it's Powell. Well, it's a silent picture, so I wouldn't hear it, but it would be cool just watching Powell mouth "old sport". Except  he didn't play Jay Gatsby. Instead, he portrayed George Wilson. No, not Dennis the Menace's neighbor (could it be that Hank Ketcham was a fan of Gatsby?) but an auto mechanic whose path crosses Gatsby's. Or, more precisely, his wife crosses Gatsby's car as it speeds down the road. Powell always played very urbane characters, such as Nick Charles in the Thin Man movies, so it's hard for me to imagine him all covered with grease from working in the garage all day. Unless, once dirtied, he called himself Godfrey and got hired on as a butler. So who did play Jay Gatsby? Warner Baxter, which is why his name was the first I mentioned. Baxter was a so-so actor who probably gave his most vivid performance in 42 Street, where he uttered the immortal (and often parodied) line, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"  Yeah, I'll admit Baxter was pretty good in that,  but I'm still not convinced he had any business mouthing "old sport" in a movie that had William Powell in it. Another thing, judging by his picture in the upper right hand corner of the movie poster in the upper left hand corner of this post (I've got more uppers than a speed addict), Baxter looks a little long in the tooth to playing the youthful millionaire Gatsby. Looks can be deceiving, though, as he was about 37 when this was made, only about a half a decade older than Gatsby of the novel.  Jay Gatsby also had this distinguishing feature:

He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

He's not even smiling in that picture! Still, Baxter might have been capable of believing in you as much as you wanted to believe in yourself. After all, he talked that youngster into coming back a star.

I wonder if there were any other stars from the silent era who could have played Gatsby. Rudolph Valentino? No. Gatsby may have been quite the lover, but as he was really James Gatz from North Dakota, you can forget the Latin part. Douglas Fairbanks? It would be kind of cool to see Jay Gatsby swing from the chandelier of his mansion and onto the grand staircase, where he engages Tom Buchanan to a sword duel, defeating him just in time to deliver the antidote to Daisy,  locked in the wine cellar and slowly dying from pink champagne poisoning. OK, I'm joking around here, but it does show the difficulties that must be involved in finding the right actor to play Gatsby, who has a movie star aura about him, but can't resolve his problems in a typical movie star fashion.

Earlier I mentioned 42nd Street. One of the lines in that movie's title song is "where the underworld meets the elite." This point is jackknifed home in the first ten minutes of the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby. Screeching tires, tommy guns, gangland murder, you might as well be watching a 1930s Warner Brothers crime drama staring James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. What gives with the rat-a-tat-tat? Yes, the original novel does have it's moment of violence.  Not at the beginning, though, but the end, after the reader has been lulled into a sense of complacency by page after page of gluttonous glamour, and is all the more shocking because of that. But this was the 1940s, and Hollywood was now turning out a rougher product. Actually, this version of Gatsby is a little too preachy to be considered true film noir, but it does feature three of that genre's mainstay performers: Alan Ladd, Howard Da Silva, and Elisha Cook Jr. Cook is wasted, but a bespectacled Da Silva is fine as George Wilson. And Ladd? Cool, calm, and combative on the outside, emotionally vulnerable on the inside, he was the perfect choice to play Gatsby. The only thing maybe lacking was the smile. Though he flashes his pearly whites here and there, Ladd was never much of smiler. It was all he could do to work up a bemused grin. But the man had enough charisma that his mouth could be wired shut and it wouldn't matter. The following is a good fifteen minutes long, but if you're familiar with the novel and got the time to spare (hell, you've had the time to read all this, right?), I want you to observe just how deftly Ladd captures Gatsby in all his contradictions:

    

What other 1940s actor could have played Jay Gatsby? Humphrey Bogart? Despite his wealth, Gatsby, in the end, was a beautiful loser. Alan Ladd could play beautiful losers. Bogart's forte was the homely winner. Errol Flynn? He had the smile.  As for the rest, see Douglas Fairbanks, above.

One actor, no matter how good, does not a movie make. So how about the film as a whole? Despite its pulp fiction beginning, it threatens to turn into one long Sunday sermon. Even Gatsby turns Cotton Mather on us before falling face first in the swimming pool. Not that it gives us all that much sin to make the sermonizing worth it. For instance, the adulterous affair between Tom Buchanan (Barry Sullivan) and Mrytle Wilson (Shelley Winters, in her early blond bombshell phase) is inexplicably downplayed. In fact, had I not read the novel, I would have thought Tom was only into phone sex. Yes, I understand they couldn't show a man and a woman sharing the same bed back then. All I'm asking for is that they share the same scene. All I can think of is that the production code was so onerous back then, that even a character who was meant to be a total asshole still was expected to be faithful to his wife. Finally, there's Nick Carraway and Jordon Baker. MacDonald Carey is pretty good as Carraway, as the movie is pretty good to him, as he apparently finds true love with Baker, played by Ruth Hussey. She doesn't quite capture the cynical sophistication of Fitzgerald's character. I've seen Hussey accomplish that in other movies, so I tend to blame the script, which insists she be redeemed. How nice of the film to let the secondary characters live happily ever after. I wonder how come that never occurred to Fitzgerald.

Next up was the very expensive-looking 1974 version. Robert Redford played Gatsby in this one, and he's almost as good as Alan Ladd. Redford's always been a rather underrated actor. I know that sounds strange given that he was the biggest star on the planet in 1974, but fame, which one would expect to be the result of great talent, sometimes serves to obscure it. Also, Redford and the film keeps Gatsby a bit on the mysterious side, unlike  the '49 movie, which spilled the beans about his past, as well as the blood and bootleg liquor, in the first fifteen minutes.
Is there anybody else from the 1970s that could have played Jay Gatsby? The man who may have been the second biggest star of that era, Burt Reynolds, had the right smile for it, but can you imagine the Bandit letting somebody else drive his car?

So far, I haven't paid too much attention to Daisy Buchanan, and for good reason. Paying too much attention to Daisy Buchanan is what ultimately gets Jay Gatsby a bloody one-way dunk in his swimming pool. Lois Wilson played Daisy in the lost, silent version. I've got nothing to go by there other than a face on a poster. Betty Field played Daisy in '49, and all I can come up with to say about that performance can be summed up in a single sentence, the one you are now reading, it was that forgettable. Perhaps that's as it should be. The Great Gatsby is not a love story, but a tale of romantic illusion. Or delusion. Daisy is the equal of Gatsby only in his own eyes. The first time I read the book, Daisy's shallowness was a surprise revelation that came almost toward the very end. The second time I read it, I could detect the woman's flaws from her debuting paragraph. Obviously, my second impression was informed by the first. This should make Daisy a rather tricky role to cast. While it's no great acting tour de force, Betty Field did, with the help of some too-obvious dialogue, make a satisfactorily smooth transition from worthy object of passion to what-the-hell-was-Gatsby thinking? (OK, that's two sentences.) Not so Mia Farrow in the '74 version. Speaking in a voice that sounds like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Glinda the Good Witch, she's comes across not so much shallow as scatterbrained, one you would hardly expect to be the inspiration for a one-night stand much less one man's all-consuming passion:  

 

Any other 1970s actresses that could have played Daisy instead? Faye Dunaway possibly. Julie Christie maybe. Perhaps Diane Keaton...OK, I apologize, but I can't mention Keaton AND Mia Farrow, without dragging Woody Allen into it. Allen has always had a fascination with the 1920s. Several of his movies have taken place then, and almost all of them have had music from the period on the soundtrack, even Sleeper, which took place 200 years in the future! I have this theory that Woody fell in love with Mia after watching this film and seeing her in all that '20s get-up. Maybe he even though he could be a short, bespectacled Gatsby to her Daisy. Now we are talking romantic illusion, because Gatsby never had designs on Daisy's daughter. Remember, the book was written by F Scott Fitzgerald, not Tennessee Williams.

Other than the two leads, how's the rest of the movie hold up? Without me having experienced it first hand, they seemed to have captured the 1920s fairly accurately, especially Gatsby's parties. And the supporting cast is OK. Sam Waterson is a fine Nick Carraway, though he's less proactive in the role than MacDonald Carey. In fact, other than his off-screen narration, which tapers off after a while, Waterson's performance is a series of reaction shots. But they're very good reaction shots, and in keeping with his character, who's mostly an observer. The beautiful Lois Chiles is the perfect Jordon Baker.  Karen Black goes seemingly all-out slutty as Myrtle Wilson, until she reminds us her affair with Tom is one lower-class woman's hopeless attempt at upward mobility. Scott Wilson is all right as George Wilson. And the man who portrayed George in the 1949 movie, Howard Da Silva, appears here as Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's amiable underworld business partner. Edward Herriman is amusing as Klipspringer, the same part which Elisha Cook Jr was miscast in the '49 movie (or, he would have been miscast had the script been more faithful to the book.) Finally, there's Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan. Though the thin actor doesn't look the part (Fitzgerald described Tom as being a powerfully-built former college football star), who else from the 1970s could have played such a dick so well?

What really sinks the '74 version in the end is, that for a movie based on a novel of which the paperback version isn't even 200 pages, it's either too long, too slow or both. How to explain this discrepancy? This movie is of the long-pause school of film making. Now, that's fine for some films. In fact, it's fine for quite a few. But The Great Gatsby should be timed to the syncopated rhythms of the Jazz Age, not the Snooze Age. Also, this movie becomes more humorless as it plods along. Now, The Great Gatsby is not a comic novel, but it does have a fair amount of wit, usually in Fitzgerald's/Carraway's descriptions of people, places, things, and situations. I know, a movie has to show, not describe. Well, the camera wasn't witty enough.

I'm skipping over the 2000 made-for-TV movie. Writing about one version I haven't seen is enough (if anyone reading has seen that version, feel free to give a critique of it in the comment section. For that matter, any octogenarians out there who've seen the now-lost silent version, your reviews are welcome also.)

This brings us to 2012. As I said at the outset, a new version is out in December. Here's the trailer, folks:


Wow! That's some orgastic December that awaits us!


Now, I should be a little more objective when reviewing a trailer, shouldn't I? First off, that didn't sound like 1920s-era music on the that little bit of soundtrack we heard, did it? Maybe the producers should have asked Woody Allen if he could lend them something from his collection. Also, I understand this movie is in 3D. Now we'll all be afforded the opportunity to get run over by Daisy Buchanan. Speaking of which, in an ill-fated post I had up for about a half hour Monday night (6/4/2012), I extolled the choice of Nicole Kidman in the role of Daisy. Turns out she's not in the movie, as I was sidetracked by a phony, fan-made trailer. Someone by the name of Carey Mulligan plays Daisy instead. I know, "someone" sounds like a bit of a put-down. In fact, I found out that she's a highly regarded actress. I've just never seen her in anything, as out of touch as I am with current cinema (watching 50-year old movies has proven much more cost effective in these recessionary times.) Mulligan is certainly attractive enough, and much closer in age to Daisy than the 40-something Kidman, but I can't help but feel a bit disappointed. If there's any actress of the past two decades that could inspire all-consuming passion, it's Nicole Kidman. Just what is it about those downslope brows, small blue eyes, and that grin, anyway? But back to Carey Mulligan. In the "official" trailer, above, I see that she's billed third, behind Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire (whom I'm guessing plays Nick Carraway.) Perhaps that's as it should be. To paraphrase myself, Daisy is of equal billing only in Gatsby's eyes.

Now, how about Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby? I don't know. This may be something the actor has no control over, but doesn't DiCaprio always look like he's scowling to you?


Jay Gatsby never scowled!

Well, now let me mull that over. While Fitzgerald is purposely vague about it in order to maintain the mystery of the character, Jay Gatsby seems to have made his fortune illegally. His business partners were crooks, including one who apparently fixed the 1919 World Series (that really happened, though in Fitzgerald's book the perpetrator is fictional.) Gatsby wouldn't have been beaming giddily like an Up With People performer around such lowlifes. No, he would have wanted to show them that he was just as tough as they were. Sometimes that toughness came out even when he was among the highlifes:

I glanced at Daisy, who was staring terrified between Gatsby and her husband, and at Jordan, who had begun to balance an invisible but absorbing object on the tip of her chin. Then I turned back to Gatsby — and was startled at his expression. He looked — and this is said in all contempt for the babbled slander of his garden — as if he had “killed a man.” For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way.
OK, so Gatsby would have occasionally scowled. But there's so much more to him than that. No doubt this is a man ruthless enough to swim with, and maybe even occasionally take a bite out of, the sharks. Yet does he do it for material gain? Sure, there's the mansion and silk shirts and Rolls Royce, but those are merely majestic means to an idealized end: the heart of a pretty rich girl he knew for a couple of weeks before going off to fight the Great War. And that's why Gatsby never lost his smile. So, can DiCaprio smile?





Yeah, I guess he can.

I don't know if I'm going to see this movie when it comes out in December or not. It depends on how much money I have in my pocket at the time (I'm sure Christmas will demand its share.) I may just end up watching it on DVD, or maybe cable if I can ever afford it again. Or, at some distant date, maybe even this very computer. Sure, I'll miss out on the 3D, but so what?

The Great Gatsby done right should yield many more dimensions than a paltry three. 


























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