Vault Review: The Great Gatsby (1974)

Directed by:  Jack Clayton

Screenplay by: Francis Ford Coppola (Adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rated: PG

Running Time: 144 min. 


Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby

Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan

Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan

Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway

Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson


When I was 8 or 9 years old, my parents wanted to go see The Great Gatsby. I suppose they must have had a hard time finding a babysitter, so I was allowed to come along. We saw the film in an old, historic theater in Birmingham, Alabama. I can remember it vividly: the fake stars twinkling in the ceiling and these fake alcoves on the sides that made my young mind imagine princesses and dragons behind the walls. As the curtain opened and the film began, I was mesmerized. But nothing compared to what happened at exactly 35 minutes in: the moment the audience sees Gatsby and the moment I fell in love: with film, with Redford, with Hollywood. This film is the reason I do what I do. It's the reason I keep going back for more. It's the reason I keep falling in love with leading men and women. So even though I'm quite aware of another incarnation of this great story currently playing in theaters across America, I decided to review the original The Great Gatsby and my first love.

I'm sure most of us had to read the novel for high school, but I have reread it many times since. And even though I love the book, apparently its author disagreed. I've heard it said that Fitzgerald didn't care for the book and even went so far as to say he didn't put any energy into the writing of it. Be that as it may, I love it. I love it for its melancholy and nostalgia, for its richness, for its tragedy. 

As mentioned above, the eponymous Gatsby doesn't appear until well into the film. Up until that point, he is discussed as we get to know the other characters. First, there is Nick Carraway, the narrator. Holding true to the book, the narration comes pretty much verbatim from the text. As played by Sam Waterston, Nick is young, idealistic, and impressionistic. He moves to West Egg, just across the water from his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and just next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby. From his cottage, he has a front row seat to the lavish parties thrown once a fortnight at the Gatsby estate. The night air is full of the sounds of music and laughter as partygoers dance the night away. Little does Nick know that Gatsby and his world will play a crucial role in his life in the months to come. 

Just across the sound in East Egg lives Daisy Buchanan, the wealthy wife of Tom Buchanan. When we are introduced to her, we see her and her best best friend, Jordan, languishing in the summer heat on couches in an elegant white room. Despite the heat, she is always dressed immaculately in the latest fashion complete with hat and gloves. A brief mention of the name Gatsby piques her curiosity and lets the audience know that there is much more to the story. She is delicate, much like the flower for which she is named.  

Tom, on the other hand, is a racist brute. He is fond of pontificating about the virtues of racial purity, believing that the mixing of the races has led to the ill of society. Even though no one verbally agrees with him, nor do they disagree either. It seems as though his money and position in life grant him the permission to be deplorable in polite company. His depravity also extends to his marriage when we learn that he has a girlfriend. 

His girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson, is the wife of a gas station owner. She is rough and crude, clearly of a lower station in life than the Buchanans. But when Tom takes her to their pied-à-terre in New York City, she transforms herself into a socialite, complete with an upper crust accent.  

And then there is Gatsby. Jay Gatsby. Beautiful, elegant, mysterious Jay Gatsby. His story is never really clear. How did he make his money? Has he killed a man? Who is his family? Where did he come from? There are a million different versions and no one but Gatsby knows the truth. The one thing we do know is that when he was young, he knew and loved Daisy. When the war came, he went away and she tried to wait for him but failed. In the end, she married Tom and had a child. Over the years, Gatsby followed her life through newspaper clippings. Back then I suppose it seemed romantic; today, we would call this behavior stalking. Nevertheless, he put his whole life together with the one goal of finding her and winning her back. Thus the mansion just across from her, where he can stand on his wall and longingly gaze out at the green flashing beacon on her property. 

Nick plays a crucial role in bringing these two star-crossed lovers back together, but as we all know, they are not to have a happy ending.  

The screenplay, written by Francis Ford Coppola, is quite true to the novel and does a good job of bringing the story to the screen. Most of the work has been done by Fitzgerald so it would be difficult to find fault with the plot. 

The costumes and scenery are exquisite and manage to take the audience back to the rowdy 20's, when the rich lived without a care and the poor never had a moment without worry. It's an iconic film that really stands the test of time. If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend it. Luckily, it's available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

Thanks for stopping by and getting buzzed. Let me know what you think about The Great Gatsby by commenting below.