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Robert Redford The Great Gatsby Movie: One of Biggest Artistic Misfires of the Decade

Robert Redford The Great Gatsby movie
Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby movie version directed by Jack Clayton and co-starring Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, and Karen Black.

Robert Redford: The Great Gatsby 1974 misfire & box office hit The Way We Were

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month Robert Redford returns on Jan. 20, with three more films: two Sydney Pollack-directed efforts, Out of Africa and The Way We Were, and Jack Clayton’s 1974 movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic novel The Great Gatsby.

Check out TCM’s Robert Redford film schedule further below.

See also: “On TCM: Robert Redford Movies.”

The Great Gatsby: Robert Redford as iconic antihero Jay Gatsby

Long, long before Leonardo DiCaprio, there was … Warner Baxter. That’s right. Future Best Actor Academy Award winner Baxter (In Old Arizona, 1928-29) was the very first Jay Gatsby, toplining Herbert Brenon’s now lost 1926 silent drama. The first talking Gatsby was Alan Ladd – who was born to play the role – in Elliott Nugent’s hard-to-find and, from all I’ve read, unsuccessful 1949 film version (that I’ve yet to see). A quarter of a century later came Robert Redford’s turn to tackle that most iconic of American anti-heroes.

Released by Paramount Pictures, The Great Gatsby 1974 had prestige oozing from its every cinematic pore. Here’s why:

  • The film was based on what some consider the greatest American novel ever written.
  • Francis Ford Coppola, whose directing credits included the blockbuster The Godfather, and who, also in 1974, was responsible for both The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation, penned the adaptation. Coppola, by the way, replaced the hard-drinking Truman Capote, whose script was deemed unsatisfactory.
  • Multiple Tony winner David Merrick (Becket, Luther, Hello Dolly!) acted as producer of what was initially a pet project of Paramount honcho Robert Evans.
  • Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (The Lavender Hill Mob, The Lion in Winter).
  • Production design by John Box (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago).
  • Film editing by Tom Priestley (Morgan!, Deliverance).
  • And finally, direction by Jack Clayton, whose credits included one of the greatest ghost movies ever made, The Innocents (1961) – adapted to the screen by Truman Capote – and the well-received British-made drama Room at the Top (1959). Now badly dated, the latter earned Clayton a Best Director Academy Award nod and Simone Signoret the year’s Best Actress Oscar.

More prestige: The Great Gatsby 1974 cast

As for its distinguished cast, the 1974 The Great Gatsby featured:

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting co-star Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby – instead of original choice Warren Beatty.
  • Rosemary’s Baby star Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, replacing Ali MacGraw, who had recently left Robert Evans for Steve McQueen. (On the big screen, Lois Wilson and Betty Field had previously played the role; Carey Mulligan would – weakly – bring her back to life in the early 21st century.)
  • The up-and-coming Bruce Dern as the brutish, reactionary Tom Buchanan.
  • Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces, 1970) as the ambitious, desperate auto mechanic’s wife Myrtle Wilson.
  • Sam Waterston, fresh off of Much Ado About Nothing on Broadway and The Glass Menagerie (opposite Katharine Hepburn) on television, as narrator Nick Carraway.
  • In Cold Blood leading man Scott Wilson as the mechanic George Wilson.
  • Former blacklisted veteran Howard Da Silva (The Lost Weekend, The Blue Dahlia), who had also been featured in the 1949 movie version, as the wheeler and dealer Meyer Wolfsheim.

Monumental misfire

Yet, despite all this talent both in front and behind the camera, from an artistic standpoint The Great Gatsby could well be considered one of the biggest Hollywood misfires of the ’70s. Though a costly production, the film was a box office success; but dramatically speaking, the Jack Clayton-Robert Redford-Francis Ford Coppola collaboration falls into a coma the moment Sam Waterston’s voice begins narrating the fateful events that took place during a long, hot summer in the outskirts of New York City in the mid-1920s.

As Jay Gatsby, Redford does a lot of posing around, looking vacantly into space – something that, admittedly, adds to the character’s mystery whenever he is seen from a distance. But once the camera gets closer, missing from the star’s performance is that mix of obsessive passion and hickish ruggedness described in Fitzgerald’s novel – and which Leonardo DiCaprio would successfully bring to his own portrayal of Jay Gatsby nearly four decades later.

Mia Farrow The Great Gatsby Daisy Buchanan
Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

Inadequate casting + grating Daisy Buchanan

Now, if Robert Redford is inadequate as Gatsby (looking on the bright side, Warren Beatty would have been much, much worse), that’s nothing compared to wasting Karen Black in a poorly directed performance and the horrible miscasting of Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan and Sam Waterston as a sleepy, very gay Nick Carraway – much like in Baz Luhrmann’s version, in the Coppola-Clayton 1974 film Nick is head-over-heels in love with Gatsby.

But worst of all is Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. Farrow can be a highly effective actress – e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, Blind Terror, The Purple Rose of Cairo and other collaborations with Woody Allen – but her flighty, high-pitch-voiced Daisy Buchanan is one of the most misguided and most irritating movie characterizations on record. (Susan Sarandon, at the time in her late 20s, would have been an excellent Daisy.)

In fact, on the acting front The Great Gatsby has one single saving grace: Scott Wilson’s simple-minded mechanic George Wilson, who, much like the apparently sophisticated Jay Gatsby, learns the hard way that the American Dream will remain a distant dream for just about every American.

Warning: Turner Classic Movies previously showed a washed-out print of the 1974 The Great Gatsby. That will likely be happening again tonight. So, if you would like to watch Robert Redford reach the top of the world so he can pine for a flickering green light across the bay separating West Egg from East Egg, I would suggest getting the DVD. It offers much better picture and sound quality.

Robert Redford Out of Africa Meryl Streep
Robert Redford in Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep.

Out of Africa: Robert Redford star vehicle stars Meryl Streep

Out of Africa (1985) is an unusual Robert Redford star vehicle in that the film’s actual lead isn’t Redford, but Meryl Streep – at the time perceived as a sort of Bette Davis-Alec Guinness mix: like Davis, Streep was nominated for a whole bunch of Academy Awards within the span of a few years; no less than six of her performances from 1978–1985 were shortlisted.[1] Like Guinness, Streep could (more modestly) transform herself both physically and vocally to fit the demands of her movie characters.

For instance, Meryl Streep was a New York divorcée at odds with ex-husband Dustin Hoffman in Robert Benton’s 1979 Best Picture Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer. Two years later, she was a British actress at odds – and in a relationship – with co-star Jeremy Irons in Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And the following year, she was a Polish Jewish woman at odds with her own past and life in general in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice.

In Out of Africa – at one point a David Lean project to star Julie Christie – Streep once again gets to display her knack for accents by bringing to life Danish author Karen Blixen a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, a woman trapped in a marriage of convenience and who falls in love with a dashing big-game hunter while living in a British East African coffee plantation in the early 20th century.

Klaus Maria Brandauer was cast as Blixen’s philandering husband, while the American-sounding and -acting Redford, who really doesn’t have much to do in the film except for looking very blond and very much like a movie star, plays an idealized version of British hunter Denys Finch Hatton.

Multiple Oscar winner

A visually stunning and for the most part – chiefly thanks to Meryl Streep’s remarkable performance – a dramatically effective box office hit, Out of Africa ultimately earned 11 Academy Award nominations. At the time it must have seemed like just about everyone in the film was shortlisted, with one glaring exception: Robert Redford, whose sole acting Oscar nod remains the one he received for George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973).

Out of Africa ultimately won a total of seven Oscars:

  • Best Picture (Sydney Pollack also produced the film).
  • Best Director.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Kurt Luedtke).[2]
  • Best Cinematography (David Watkin).
  • Best Original Score (John Barry).
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Stephen B. Grimes, Josie MacAvin).
  • Best Sound (Chris Jenkins, Gary Alexander, Larry Stensvold, Peter Handford).

Danish accent or no, Best Actress nominee Meryl Streep lost to seven-time loser Geraldine Page for her American-accented eccentric in Peter Masterson’s The Trip to Bountiful. As for Best Supporting Actor nominee Klaus Maria Brandauer, he lost to 1930s 20th Century Fox leading man Don Ameche (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, In Old Chicago), whose breakdancing turn was a highlight of Ron Howard’s Cocoon.

Out of Africa ‘spin-offs’

Even though there was no Out of Africa craze – like those spawned by George LucasStar Wars or Michael Bay’s Transformers, to name two sequel-friendly box office hits – Sydney Pollack’s Kenya-set film did, to some extent or other, inspire a couple of other releases:

  • Hugh Hudson’s I Dreamed of Africa (2000), a critical and box office misfire starring Kim Basinger as Italian-born author Kuki Gallmann, who in the early ’70s settled with her husband in an estate in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
  • Caroline Link’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Nowhere in Africa / Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001), a disappointingly conventional German-made drama based on Stefanie Zweig’s book, and starring Juliane Köhler as a Jewish refugee who settles in Kenya in the 1930s.
Robert Redford The Way We Were Barbra Streisand
Robert Redford in The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand.

The Way We Were: Robert Redford & Barbra Streisand superstar combo

In terms of box office success, Robert Redford had his best year in 1973:

  • George Roy Hill’s The Sting became one of the biggest blockbusters in history (admittedly, earning most of its money in 1974).
  • Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were, a romantic melodrama with political overtones, solidified Redford’s position as the Ramon Novarro-Tyrone Power-Rock Hudson of the New Hollywood.

Written by Arthur Laurents – whose film credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, but best known for the Broadway musicals West Side Story and GypsyThe Way We Were succeeds in creating a New Hollywood romance to rival the one experienced by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. But with a twist.

In the 1973 film, the Adonis-like hero – an ambitious WASP screenwriter (Robert Redford) – has a heart of clay, whereas its homely, loud, borderline obnoxious heroine – a Jewish Liberal activist (Barbra Streisand) – has not only a heart of platinum, but a singing voice of equal value. (Streisand’s The Way We Were record hit platinum status in the U.S.)

21st-century relevance

As for its political side, The Way We Were makes a mess of the McCarthy era; unsurprisingly so, as, after all, it’s a mainstream Hollywood movie made to please the masses. Even so, the failure of its political intentions is ironic, considering that Arthur Laurents himself had been blacklisted.

Paradoxically, The Way We Were is more relevant now than it was four decades ago, as its subplot will remind viewers of the similarities between the anti-Red hysteria of the post-World War II years and the anti-Muslim hysteria of the early 21st century. And how, in both instances, democratic institutions were eroded – if not outright destroyed – in order to preserve these very democratic institutions.

Erich Maria Remarque & Three Comrades

As an aside: After The Way We Were, Turner Classic Movies will show Frank Borzage’s perfectly watchable 1938 drama Three Comrades. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production based on a post-World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), Three Comrades tells the story of three friends (Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, Robert Young) in love with an ethereal – and dying – woman (Margaret Sullavan).

For her efforts, former Universal star Margaret Sullavan won the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Actress Award and received her one and only Oscar nomination.

See below TCM’s Robert Redford movie schedule on Jan. 20 (PST).

Robert Redford movies on TCM

5:00 PM OUT OF AFRICA (1985). Director: Sydney Pollack. Cast: Meryl Streep. Robert Redford. Klaus Maria Brandauer. Color. 161 mins. Letterbox Format.

8:00 PM THE WAY WE WERE (1973). Director: Sydney Pollack. Cast: Barbra Streisand. Robert Redford. Bradford Dillman. Viveca Lindfors. Color. 118 mins.

10:15 PM THE GREAT GATSBY (1974). Director: Jack Clayton. Cast: Robert Redford. Mia Farrow. Bruce Dern. Karen Black. Scott Wilson. Sam Waterston. Lois Chiles. Howard Da Silva. Color. 143 mins. Letterbox Format.

Meryl Streep vs. Bette Davis Oscar nominations

[1] Between 1938–1944, Bette Davis was nominated for six Best Actress Academy Awards:

Davis won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel; she had previously won for Alfred E. Green’s Dangerous (1935).

Meryl Streep’s six Oscar nods – the first two in the Best Supporting Actress category – were for the following:

  • Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978).
  • Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
  • Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).
  • Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982).
  • Mike NicholsSilkwood (1983).
  • Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985).

Streep won for both Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. She would take home a third Oscar, as Best Actress, for Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011).

Now, unfairly neglected in Oscar history is Greer Garson. Between 1939–1945, the MGM star was shortlisted for six Best Actress Oscars:

Garson took home a golden statuette for Mrs. Miniver – and talked her head out (or so it seemed to partygoers) while accepting her trophy at the 1943 Oscar ceremony.

[2] Kurt Luedtke’s Out of Africa screenplay was supposedly based on Isak Dinesen’s collection of stories compiled in the book Out of Africa, in addition to Judith Thurman’s Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Story Teller and Errol Trzebinski’s Silence Will Speak.

Robert Redford Jay Gatsby The Great Gatsby 1974
Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby 1974.


Robert Redford movies’ schedule via the TCM website.

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford The Great Gatsby 1974 images: Paramount Pictures.

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford Out of Africa image: Universal Pictures.

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford The Way We Were image: Columbia Pictures.

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Leo Honeycutt -

I actually studied this Gatsby not long before I entered the American Film Institute where Barbra Streisand expounded on working with dreamboy Bob Redford. She conjured electricity for The Way We Were. But in Gatsby the problem really was the invisible hand of David Merrick, a successful Broadway producer who evidently didn’t see that a film, unlike a stage play, is 3-D. Film’s power is its intimacy. The camera magnifies performances good and bad and when they are passionate, we become the character. But when they are cardboard, even cast members are checking their watches on set. Clayton should’ve seen this. This was cardboard set in majestic environments such as Rosecliff and The Breakers in Newport, elegant edifices on tour to this day that directly reflect Fitzgerald’s point that money doesn’t give class or contentment and certainly not love. They would be pigeon roosts today were it not for romantics with money, and films like Gatsby. Conversely, the unsung hero of the 1974 version is Nelson Riddle whose music filled in the wide gaps in emotion (the deeply personal “What’ll I do when you are far away?”) that Redford and Farrow did not convey. For all the posing and soft focus pastels, I kept directing Redford, “Just get on with it! You built all this, for what?!” When he delivers Fitzgerald’s pivotal line, “In any case, it was just personal,” Redford might as well have been saying to the crew, “Why did we all come here anyway?” I always read that line that Gatsby was keeping his crushing defeat at arm’s length by unconvincingly trying to toss it aside while his world was unraveling. Look, Redford knows his perfect face got him to the party and kept him there. Pollack said as much. I understand now why Redford never watched his own films. Perhaps he should have, because I believe he’s a good man. Interestingly, Gatsby came out just 5 months after Redford’s blockbuster The Way We Were, which was probably why this Gatsby quadrupled Merrick’s money. And a final parallel: Gatsby regrets losing Daisy at The Plaza Hotel. Hubble regrets losing Katie, again, at The Plaza Hotel. I avoid The Plaza.

danemodsandy -

I’m not sure I agree here. While Redford is obviously in some trouble during ‘Gatsby,’ I think much of the fault lies with the script. A conscientious, praiseworthy attempt was made to keep as much of Fitzgerald’s dialogue as possible. While this was certainly respectful, it completely overlooked the fact that novel dialogue is not movie dialogue; Redford had so speak quite a few lines that would have taxed the ability of Ralph Richardson or Laurence Olivier to deliver credibly. This production of ‘Gatsby’ had one other fatal flaw it shares with every other version I’ve seen. That fatal flaw is this: The role of Daisy Buchanan is uncastable; NO ONE could play the chimera in the novel satisfactorily. I personally find the 1974 version an odd, interesting failure of quality; there was a genuine attempt to transfer what Fitzgerald wrote to the screen as intact as possible. You don’t get that from any other version.

Bill B. -

Redford was my favorite actor while growing up and was in many fine films, though not many of them are mentioned in this article. Gatsby is probably the worst film he was ever in and from War Hunt till today, it is without a doubt his worst performance. He is as wooden as everything else is in the film. Everything seems fake and unrealistic. I remember the first time I saw it in theaters being sort of fascinated how all of the party scenes seemed so forced, not fun and unnatural. As for Farrow, who I don’t think was much of an actress at all when not in the hands of Woody Allen (yes, the two mentioned here are her two best w/o Allen), she at least emotes a bit here compared to Redford who seems to be waiting for the movie to be over throughout, but perhaps not for the good. She even looks awkward in the role. Since I was a huge fan of Redford, at the time, I was happy that it was not a flop, but I really don’t understand why it wasn’t. There is nothing good about it, though I thought Wilson and Black both were more like real life humans compared to the two leads.

I drove from the Jersey shore to NYC the day The Way We Were opened. Not only was I huge Redford fan, but, at that time, I was also equally a fan of Streisand and Sydney Pollack had not too long before this made They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I considered to be one of the best films I had ever seen, something that I still believe. The expectations for this film were probably like no other film in my life, which is most likely part of the reason for my disappointment. To my knowledge, this was the first major film to take on the McCarthy era, but it is simply background material for a love story that sometimes felt forced and I left as one unhappy camper. Over time though, the film seems better. Streisand gives one of her stronger performances, Redford is perfectly cast and the camera is simply in love with him in this film, which is appropriate as the role calls for someone who simply dazzles and dazzle he indeed does. Much of the love story seems more genuine now for some reason, though the McCarthy era footage is still a mess and nearly an afterthought, but it is a good schmaltzy love story. It’s still not terribly well directed though and the rest of the cast are mere set pieces for the two leads. And that damn song can somehow still be effective at the right time, in the right place when in the appropriate mood.

Shani3 -

In regards to Nick Carroway being gay in “Gatsby”, it might be interesting to note that an early draft of the screenplay was written by Truman Capote. In it, both Nick and Jordan are gay (I guess Jordan was supposed to be in love with Daisy). And I absolutely agree about Mia Farrow’s Daisy–it would be interesting to see what Ali McGraw (or ANY other actress) would have done with the role. Still, I have a soft spot for the “74 “Great Gatsby”; maybe because I was so young when I first saw it and it was, to me, anyway, the perfect love story.


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