Robert Redford’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ is how white people hope they look

As preparation for the much anticipated Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” I took to Netflix and watched the 1974 version which starred Robert Redford.

Law & Order fans might gasp at the sight of a young Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway. Carraway is the story’s narrator. His Nick is out-of-place, somber, almost passive bystander to the life that he both envies and eventually reviles. Nick is in a low-rent cottage on Long Island in 1922, next to the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a rich man who hosts lavish parties, but doesn’t seem to be a party boy. Nick’s distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), is directly across the water, living in a beautiful house with her loutish rich husband Tom (Bruce Dern).  Gatsby is in love with Daisy and continues to pursue her despite her marriage. Nick witnesses both Gatsby and Daisy’s adulterous affair as well as Tom’s relationship with Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black) the wife of an auto mechanic, George (Scott Wilson). Tom has been promising to sell one of his old car’s to George who needs the money.

The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (based on the 1925 book by F. Scott Fitzgerald of the same name) and the direction by Jack Clayton provide a nostalgic look at how white people would like to see the 1920s. The people at the parties are respectable looking enough. The British-born Clayton had received an Oscar nomination for directing the 1959 “Room at the Top,” a criticism of the British class system. Yet perhaps with this version of “The Great Gatsby,” it wasn’t the right time and Clayton didn’t understand the American class system.

Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in 1968.  The race riots of the 1960s–the Harlem Riot of 1964, the Watts Riot of 1965 and the King riots of 1968 in several cities–were still part of an uneasy national consciousness. In 1974, Hank Aaron became the all-time MLB home run king. He had played in the Negro American League (for the Indianapolis Clowns) before becoming a an Atlanta Brave. Aaron received death threats and hate mail from people who didn’t want to see an African American break Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Many audience members might cringe at the Tom’s racist rants, but in the movie, the presence of African Americans doesn’t seem enough to merit the remarks except to set up Tom as an boorish man. The book is supposed to represent the Jazz Age, but jazz wasn’t born in the homes of the East Coast rich and wealthy–old money or new money.

The movie is lovely. The poor aren’t so much downtrodden as poorly dressed and in smaller houses. Nick’s cottage is like one of those TV show New York apartments–impossibly big for someone supposedly working class.

Redford’s Nick is less ambiguously immoral. He’s a steady guy in love with an unsteady girl, but no one doubts his love and that purifies all the measures he has taken to get the girl. Farrow’s Daisy is sweet but unstable, her voice often tremulous in that way Mia Farrow has that suggests both mental and moral weakness. Her Daisy lights up the screen when she is well-dressed and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, but lost in her own home. She is also a woman without much maternal instinct. As Daisy’s counter-part, the mistress of Tom, Black is just a girl looking for a good time and a good opportunity, but she’s not necessarily a gold digger.

Dern’s Tom is repellant, but not particularly a physical threat. Do you believe him as a former football player? As George, Wilson is a clean, decent white man with a weak will. His crime of passion comes with much more deliberation than the George of the more recent movie.

This version of “The Great Gatsby” was praised by Truman Capote, but found to be bland by others. As a story about beautiful people having a beautiful time and one beautiful poor boy who finds tragedy when he tried to join them, “The Great Gatsby” is a fairly faithful though sanitized version. If you have a nostalgia for the flappers, and want to see some fine flapper fashion and have a taste of the Jazz Age without the people who created jazz, this is the movie for you.

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