Discuss Redford's performance in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.  With detail, address if the acting added meaning or led the audience to an altogether different path. Where has the...

Discuss Redford's performance in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.  With detail, address if the acting added meaning or led the audience to an altogether different path. Where has the casting enhanced or detracted from your vision of the characters?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An exploration of the acting in Clayton's version of The Great Gatsby is going to be rooted in personal reflection.  I think that a starting point could be that critical reception of the film revolved around the "lifeless" element present. In his review, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby suggested as much:

[The film] moves spaniel-like through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text, sniffing and staring at events and objects very close up with wide, mopey eyes, seeing almost everything and comprehending practically nothing. . . The sets and costumes and most of the performances are exceptionally good, but the movie itself is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Roger Ebert echoed similar sentiments with his assertion that "Clayton fails to give us a Gatsby we care about."  These sentiments point to challenges within the acting in the film.

Certainly, as the title character, part of this lies with Redford's acting.  It can be argued that the script might have limited him, but Redford might not have been the optimal choice to bringing a sense of life within the role of Gatsby. There could be several reasons as to why this could be the case.  Yet, the multiple dimensions within Gatsby challenged Redford's acting. One instance of this can be seen in the shirt scene.  When Gatsby goes through the shirts, his expression is almost business- like.  Redford's demeanor in this scene is very stiff as he interacts with the shirts. In this instant, Redford could have shown so much more as this is the moment when he can "win" Daisy.  This is the instant when he is able to work his way into Daisy's heart.  Yet, his manner is distant and cold, not reflective of the energy in the text.  Nick describes Gatsby "throwing" the clothes, as their folds disappeared in a "many color disarray." Yet, Redford's demeanor is distant and removed, as if the shirts are separated from him as opposed to being an extension of him.  

When Gatsby chases after Daisy in the midst of the confrontation with Tom, there is little of the multiple dimensional element in his characterization. Consider the description in Fitzgerald's text preceding this moment: "For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way."  This condition is not evoked in Redford's portrayal. Once again, it is as if we are seeing Robert Redford play Gatsby as opposed to being Gatsby.  I think that this might be one of the criticisms offered in Redford's portrayal of Gatsby.  When we go back to the idea of a drama without life or a Gatsby "we could care about," we might point to these moments.  Ebert suggests in his review that the audience fails to understand why Nick says that Gatsby is "worth the whole crowd of them" unless the book has been read.  This becomes critical in that Redford's portrayal does not enhance a connection with Gatsby for it merely carries it over from the book.  The audience is led back to the text, while meaning about the characterizations is not necessarily enhanced.

The larger issue might be that the script and direction failed to yield much in way of effective acting or casting in the film. I think Bruce Dern captured Tom really well, while the rest of the acting came across as stilted and lacking dimensional depth. Given what was in the Fitzgerald text and its multiple layers of understanding, Redford's acting might have been reflective of a larger challenge with script and direction. 

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The Great Gatsby

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