Like a great comet, Gatsby returns. I probably won’t make it to the new version, though. Francis Ford Coppola made such a dreadful mess last time around, mostly due to bad casting. Sorry, but Robert Redford doesn’t succeed as “gangster with a dark past,” he’s just too squeaky-clean, plus he had zero chemistry with Mia Farrow, and she was a waif and not the voluptuous Southern Belle I always pictured as Daisy. Robert Mitchum, on the other hand, would have made a perfect Gatsby in his prime.
They call it “The Great American Novel” today but even though it sold reasonably well that first year (20,000 copies) it failed to capture a mainstream audience or much of any praise from critics. In fact, it might have disappeared but for the printing of 155,000 copies distributed free to G.I.’s during WW II. This was the secret of the book’s eventual success. Fitzgerald and Hemingway became kings of the American novel until Kerouac knocked them off the perch with his paradigm-busting insights into the hollowness of the American Dream. The novel has a mixed message because although Gatsby makes the mistake of trying to recapture the past, the narrator ends up moving back to the Midwest, giving up on his dreams of entering the upper classes. Fitzgerald, you see, went to Princeton, a poor boy from the Midwest who desperately yearned to merge into the Eastern Establishment, a project doomed because the closer he got, the more he realized the elite were nothing like him, and there was no way to become a member of their class except to be born into it.
The story is basically a melodramatic pot-boiler while the love scenes are tame and heavily cliched. As an obsessive love story, I much prefer Edmund Wilson’s little-known masterpiece The Princess with the Golden Hair, which was the first truly explicit American piece of literature, and, of course, that book was banned for years because of its graphic sexuality. Wilson pushed the boundaries and lost. It didn’t help that his novel was buried inside a collection of short stories. Maybe we’ll actually get a movie of that novel someday because it’s much more emotionally complex.
I can’t believe the disrespect accorded to the great Arnold Rothstein in Coppola’s version, where the fixer of the World Series is portrayed so crassly. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway hated Jews and that bigotry turns up frequently in their work, although often disguised. They also had problems writing fully believable female characters, and, in fact, Gatsby has no truly sympathetic females.
Warner Brothers spent over $100 million on this version. Apparently, it runs very long and employs contemporary music. It all sounds very strange. We could have been looking at one of the biggest bombs in film history since the critics mostly hate it, but the first weekend reaped over $50 million, which means it’s a certified hit. The first film version was actually released in 1926 and has been lost, so it probably wasn’t that great (Fitzgerald hated it), although according to reviews it contained a scene where Gatsby threw $20 gold coins into his massive fountain and a gaggle of flappers jumped in to retrieve them. I wonder why no one ever includes that wonderful scene in the updates?