The Ghost of Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

directed by Jack Clayton

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

I don’t know what David Merrick will be sprinkling over himself to atone for Jack Clayton’s spiritless direction of The Great Gatsby, but I suspect it won’t be gold dust. For though the film’s probably the most elegant recreation of the Twenties since The Razor’s Edge, the most sumptuous clothes-opera since Funny Face or Lady in the Dark, it has neither Fitzgerald’s “promises of life” nor even the “divine romance” the ads suggest. And it hardly seems American at all. For a while I thought I was watching one of those dramas about wicked weekends at country houses around Surrey which used to flourish on the London stage. I almost expected Beatrice Lillie to emerge from among the guests at Gatsby’s parties and talk about Nounou and Nada and Nell. Would that she had.

Mia Farrow, a modest actress, affecting enough under Losey or Polanski, is simply an incredible Daisy. Fitzgerald thought of woman as sorceress, as minx who “meant no good” (a phrase he uses about Zelda in a letter to his daughter); but he also evoked “the spectre of womanhood that, for a little while, makes everything else seem unimportant.” He gave to Daisy a face “sad and lovely” with “bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth,” and a “tense gaiety” as well. These qualities, however, are beyond Mia Farrow’s reach. Her natural inclinations are to be always hiding her elbows, or pouting in the most winsome fashion, like Mary Pickford in Coquette. And if Daisy’s voice is “full of money,” poor Mia seems to have tasted nothing more corrupting than humble pie.

Robert Redford, of course, is physically apt: a healthy, handsome plebeian, with ginger hair and blue eyes, at ease even in Gatsby’s “gorgeous pink rag of a suit.” But he has the emotions of a telephone recording from Con Ed. Only Bruce Dern as Daisy’s husband, the implacable Buchanan, with his carbolic smile, bristly moustache, and string of polo ponies from Lake Forest seizes on something of the derisive superciliousness of the rich, and so seems appropriate. At least, alive.

The real trouble, though, and the folly of the film, lies, I think, in the damage done to the character of the narrator. Fitzgerald’s novel is one of the most romantic ever written, but its harmonies are classical; a graceful, courtly, faintly ironic tone sustains it almost perfectly from page to page. And it is that tone which defines Nick. Everything Fitzgerald wants us to know about Gatsby, Daisy, and Buchanan is seen through the narrator’s slow, steady, discriminating gaze. Nick is Aristotle’s virtuous man, the virtue that comes from always aiming at the mean. He preserves the balance, distributes himself neatly as Daisy’s cousin, Gatsby’s friend, Buchanan’s classmate at Yale; and though full of “interior rules that act like brakes” on his desires, as befits a bonds man from a city in the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.