The Great Gatsby
is both irresistible to filmmakers and notoriously hard to adapt. All that
color and glamour comes crashing up against the eloquence of Fitzgerald's prose
and the ineffability of Gatsby's dreams. Baz Luhrmann's new version gives us a wondrous
performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and a dreadful, flat performance by
Tobey Maguire as the narrator, Nick Carraway. (You can find my review here.) But take
a look at two better Nicks and one good, maligned Gatsby:
THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)
Attacked by critics on its release, this Gatsby (directed by Jack Clayton, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola) never recovered. Robert Redford's performance unfairly took a lot of the blame. In fact, he's quite good, stiff when Gatsby is supposed to be stiff (the phrase "Old Sport" is not meant to roll off Gatsby's tongue easily), warm when he needs to reveal his passion for Daisy. Mia Farrow's chilly, charmless Daisy is the real weak link here.
But the film's strongest weapon is what every Gatsby needs: a brilliant Nick, which it found in Sam Waterston (photo at top). His voice is just elegiac enough, just awed enough, and always nuanced. Waterston's is the definitive Nick, the rare performance that captures the eloquence of the novel.
THE GREAT GATSBY (2001)
For some bizarre reason, in 2001 A&E gave us a version with Toby Stephens as a totally unconvincingly Gatsby, too thuggish to exude any mystery, and Mira Sorvino as a Daisy with a breathless Minnie Mouse voice. No, it was not meant to be a satire. The proof is the one strong element: Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway.
Before he became the most likable star in romantic and goofball comedies, Rudd gave a terrific, solid, sensitive performance as Nick. Maybe that's not enough to make you rent this film, but if you're looking for curiosities – or you're a Rudd or Gatsby completist – there it is.