On April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gastby was first published. It’s a story of the Roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age, and Prohibition, revolving around two adulterous affairs, one towering over the other, all told by a sometimes unreliable narrator who’s enamored of his subjects. At least five film or TV adaptions of the novel have been made, but the two most well-known are undoubtedly the 1974 movie directed by Jack Clayton and the 2013 movie directed by Baz Luhrmann. Pour yourself a cocktail, slip into something more comfortable, and let’s compare the two films, shall we?
The Great Gatsby movie 1974
I probably first saw this version soon after reading The Great Gatsby in high school, and I’ve seen the movie a few times since. When I realized it was on Netflix, I had to watch this Gatsby again (a few times) because it so perfectly captures the novel, the language, the mood, everything. Also, it’s vintage Robert Redford at his dreamiest (and he’s not usually my type! but damn, those blue eyes!).
Looking at the 1974 version today, I notice some historical costume inaccuracies, but they’re minor. The women’s wear is quite accurate, and Daisy has an excellent range of fancy party clothes (featuring beading, fringe, ostrich-feather fans, etc.) and pastel sportswear with lovely headgear and hats on both. Occasionally some of the women’s hair is a touch 1970s-modern, and a couple of Daisy’s dresses have a faintly 1970s vibe more than a strictly 1920s look. But other things are excellent reflections of the period and what Fitzgerald wrote, down to “that pink rag of a suit” that Gatsby wears in the final scene before his death. These men’s suits were created by Ralph Lauren, and while some may quibble about the ’70s-style lapel width, the double-breasted waistcoats on Jay and the trousers and accessories on all the men look very period. Fittingly enough, the costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge won an Oscar for this film.
What I love most about this movie is that it’s extremely faithful to the book in both style and story. Much of the dialog is verbatim from Fitzgerald. Scenes may be left out, but very little is invented (as too often happens in literary adaptions; I’m looking at you, Pride & Prejudice 2005). This version reorders the events, because much of the novel is told out of sequence, and the filmmakers probably thought it would flow better on screen. That’s fine with me. The few added scenes are of Jay and Daisy’s romance, both flashing back to their memories and showing their present-day affair more obviously (though it’s quite tame and PG-rated). This works to help tell the story and does not distract.
The Great Gatsby movie 2013
The newer Gatsby isn’t terrible as a movie, in that it does tell essentially the story of the novel. The script uses all of the plot and even uses some Fitzgerald’s original dialog. But it’s telling that the New York Times review suggests you “put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you.” I’m a literary nerd, so that’s pretty hard to do. And even if I could, I’d be hard pressed to ignore the weak or atrociously bad casting, and the costuming, UGH, it screams modern adaption, not historical costume movie.
Surprisingly, the insertion of 2013 hip-hop music (the soundtrack was produced by Jay Z) bothered me a lot less than all the ruffles, modern makeup, push-up bras, and stiletto shoes. Costume designer Catherine Martin was reportedly inspired by the “archives” of Prada and Mui Mui, but while Prada was founded in 1913, they focused on leather goods like handbags and shoes and didn’t have a clothing line until the 1980s; Mui Mui is its second clothing line begun in the 1990s. Not exactly a great source of fashion history, and the women’s clothing in The Great Gatsby 2013 looks basically modern with slight 1920s accents. Not to mention the men’s suits — I’m no expert on 1920s tailoring, but lordy, did they just buy off the rack? Because the guys don’t have the faintest appearance that they’re in the 1920s. This film won the Best Costume Oscar, but I’m positive that’s because there were no other flashy historical movies available at all (the closest competition was 12 Years a Slave, and brutal and bloody just can’t win over rhinestones and ruffles).
In addition to the non-period costuming, the 2013 Great Gatsby seems to think the audience is kind of stupid. Everything must be SPELLED OUT in big, bold letters, underlined three times, with an exclamation point. Not that anyone who’s seen another Baz Luhrmann film might expect layered subtlety, but jayzuz, this Great Gatsby knocks you over the head with every point. Nick Carraway is TELLING THE STORY WITH WORDS. Jay Gatsby is MAGNETIC but makes his money ILLEGALLY. Daisy is SAD about her marriage. Tom is a JERK and CHEATING ON HIS WIFE. Myrtle is a TRAMP who will end TRAGICALLY. This movie HITS YOU OVER THE HEAD with the plot again and again so much I got a headache.
It’s interesting to note that both of these film versions of the novel got mixed reviews when they came out. Critics and audiences generally complained about a lack of accuracy to the book and overall entertainment level, though the 1974 adaption is generally considered a good historical costume movie. OK, then, let’s compare the characters in the two Great Gatsby movies, head to head…
Jay Gatsby: Robert Redford (1974) vs. Leonardo DiCaprio (2013)
Redford is really the perfect Jay Gatsby. He’s gorgeous, he’s suave, he’s cool (literally, he doesn’t sweat when everyone else does; that’s in the book!), and yet you can tell this Gatsby has come from nothing and did it all for love. And Robert Redford has that smile that makes you think he “understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” Redford not only has great chemistry with Mia Farrow’s Daisy, he has good (platonic friendly) chemistry with Sam Waterston’s Nick. Redford in his prime was just that charming. And I already mentioned his suits — he really, really looks the part. He is the ultimate Gatsby, the end.
Unfortunately, the biggest casting mistake in the 2013 version is undoubtedly Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. Maybe it’s because I don’t get him as an actor. To me, he always looks like the same kid he’s been since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. Except for The Aviator, where they somehow made him resemble Howard Hughes, and DiCaprio rode that line between inspired and crazy quite well. But sorry, all of Luhrmann’s stupid special effects can’t make DiCaprio into the man with “one of those rare smiles.” He’s a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t have genuine magnetism. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is a bit too smarmy and shallow — there are several added scenes explicitly showing Gatsby’s illegal business operations, which are only alluded to in the book. This further undercuts DiCaprio’s performance. He can’t be the smooth guy who made it to the top when we’re constantly reminded how underhanded he really is.
Daisy Buchanan: Mia Farrow (1974) vs. Carey Mulligan (2013)
Mia Farrow is almost perfect as Daisy Buchanan. She’s fragile and flighty, indecisive, she has grand passions yet she also wants everything made easy for her. Farrow looks like she’s made of spun glass. Her face even has that doe-eyed 1920s look, so while the makeup is occasionally a bit contemporary on the other women, Farrow still looks like a flapper. And Redford and Farrow make a beautiful couple, so you can see that Jay and Daisy belong together. As in the book, Farrow’s Daisy epitomizes the contradictions of the women of her age, wanting freedom but still feeling the constraints of earlier society. Her actions somehow make sense through Farrow’s performance. In fact, you’re a little surprised that she doesn’t run away with Gatsby in the end.
As Daisy, pretty little Carey Mulligan is a nonentity. She has all the appeal of wet wallpaper. She’s a languid dress-hanger, not a flighty flapper. It’s funny, her dresses are the most ‘ruffled’ thing about her (geez, did Catherine Martin look at any other 1920s fashion plates?). Mulligan barely gets ruffled up about the turn of events in her life. She’s not torn up by her choice between Jay and Tom, she vaguely floats from one man to the other. There’s little tension in her face, body, or voice. She doesn’t get excited, she doesn’t much care.
This leads to another problem with DiCaprio as Gatsby. Because Mulligan is so bland — is it the script or her performance? I can’t tell — DiCaprio’s Gatsby practically mansplains her into the affair and trying to leave her husband. It’s not forceful enough to be bullying, but he has to talk her into it. He talks Nick into it as well. He talks and talks. Shaddup already! We get it, Jay + Daisy 4-ever! Blah blah blah.
As a director, Luhrmann is known for all the crazy camera tricks and effects he relies on (and he does here, pointlessly, they’re an unnecessary crutch), but even worse is his tendency to over-talk a scene. Maybe he thought “it’s a book, there’s interior dialog, I have to PHYSICALLY PUT THAT ON SCREEN,” with voiceovers and actually using print on the screen. As if that makes it more legit. Um, no. How about actors who can convey emotion? That might work.
Nick Carraway: Sam Waterston (1974) vs. Tobey Maguire (2013)
Nick Carraway is well cast with the always-brilliant Sam Waterston. This character is the storyteller, and he reflects back the good and bad aspects of all the other characters’ personalities. It’s a pretty crucial role, and Waterston gets this spot-on. The voiceovers by Waterston include more of Fitzgerald’s text, but they’re not over-used (which Luhrmann does) — they’re just at the right moments to tell things that need telling, not showing. Waterston’s Nick is a believable part of the story. His last line to Gatsby makes me want to cry, it’s that poignant.
But ugh, in The Great Gatsby 2013, why did Baz Luhrmann need to invent a new tale for Nick and stick him in an asylum as an alcoholic, thus painting the whole Gatsby story as some kind of bad dream or drunken fantasy? Did the director/screenwriter think a modern audience couldn’t believe the story otherwise? Aren’t kids in 2013 still assigned The Great Gatsby to read in school, at least? Jayzuz, give me a break. This addition makes Nick into a loser, a fuck-up, and casting Tobey Maguire as Nick furthers that impression (admittedly, I find Maguire one of his generations’ most boring actors ever). This Nick is so weak and pathetic. He doesn’t have a point of view or a reason for being. He’s supposed to be what holds this story together; instead, he’s an adjunct. I don’t think Luhrmann really understood how Fitzgerald constructed the novel here.
Tom Buchanan: Bruce Dern (1974) vs. Joel Edgerton (2013)
My only casting quibble with The Great Gatsby 1974 is Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan. He’s supposed to be an former polo star, not necessarily burly, but sturdy and a strong contrast to Gatsby. Bruce Dern isn’t as typically handsome as Redford (at least here), but otherwise, Dern’s Tom is just another guy in a tux. That said, his acting is top-notch, especially during the uncomfortable confrontations. Those are straight from the book, and just as intense.
The one thing Luhrmann gets right in the later movie is casting Joel Edgerton as Tom. Finally, a muscular, husky Tom Buchanan as described in the novel. This Aussie actor really fits the role; pity he’s the only one in the 2013 film who does. While he looks the part, he’s not Bruce Dern’s acting equal, or it could be the script or the fact that he’s acting against practically comatose Carey Mulligan.
Myrtle Wilson: Karen Black (1974) vs. Isla Fisher (2013)
As Tom’s bit on the side, Karen Black does a fine job showing how Tom keeps his secret from not only his wife but from George Wilson, the mechanic that Tom maintains a fiction of business dealings with. Black’s Myrtle transforms from downtrodden wife (with a touch of ragged ruffles, albeit) to hotsy-totsy party girl and back again believably, which makes her death all that much more tragic. She literally changes costumes to express her personality; again, faithful to the novel.
On the other hand, in The Great Gatsby 2013, you have to wonder how George ever married Isla Fisher’s Myrtle. She’s SO flashy and SO over-the-top sexy, yet she’s stuck in that dusty garage. The hell? Also, her outfits are a crazy-town fantasy of 1920s flamenco weirdness (which I’ve mentioned before). Designer Catherine Martin really really likes ruffles, I guess.
Jordan Baker: Lois Chiles (1974) vs. Elizabeth Debicki (2013)
Something both movies fail at: Jordan Baker, Daisy’s old friend, is supposed to be a blonde (Fitzgerald describes her as having “autumn-leaf yellow” hair — I know, in movies, it’s easier to have the lead woman with one color hair and the supporting female with a different color hair; audiences will just mix them up otherwise eyeroll), and she’s more or less Nick’s girlfriend throughout the novel (he says he’s “half in love with her”). Admittedly, the book uses Jordan mostly to reveal details about Daisy, past and present, but her character’s actions also give insight into Nick. These episodes are glossed over or completely removed from both films. In the 1974 movie, Jordan is a gossip and a go-between, while in the 2013 one, she’s merely a party girl. Meh. At least in The Great Gatsby 1974, she does wear some excellent ’20s sportswear, appropriate to Jordan’s description as a well-known lady golfer.
What do you think of these two adaptions of Fitzgerald’s novel? Do you prefer The Great Gatsby movie from 1974 or 2013?