Jack Clayton’s 1974 rendition of The Great Gatsby is the quintessential American epic, as well as a sophisticated blockbuster.
While the film is anything but a masterpiece - in fact, it becomes quite disjointed during the end of the second act - the fabled 1920s are recreated to such a stunning extent that the atmosphere alone almost makes up for this.
A breakout performance by Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, along with an enchanting Jay Gatsby in Robert Redford and highly alluring Jordan Baker portrayed by Lois Chiles, add nicely to the mix. What is really confounding is the sheer emotional output that Gatsby offers Daisy Buchanan, whose role was badly miscast with Mia Farrow.
For awhile, the love is reciprocated, but even in the couple’s most tender moments, it is clear that Gatsby gives far more than he gets. This unfortunate fact is noticed early on by Carraway, as anyone who has seen the film or read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary novel knows.
Nick tells Jay that his expectations are too high for Daisy, who is entangled in an unhappy but socially acceptable marriage. Nick also mentions that Jay cannot feasibly expect to repeat a distant period in which the war hero-turned-bootlegger and society woman were lovers.
Gatsby, for all of his business and military acumen, appears stunned, only muttering that such a thing is indeed possible. It is this naivete that really catches attention. In the end, Gatsby pays the ultimate price for his wish to integrate fantasy and reality.
Carraway notes with disgust that Daisy refuses to acknowledge the funeral, much less attend it. Obviously, the lesson here is that looking back to days gone by does no good in the long term.
However, I note something deeper.
The love that Gatsby had for Daisy was of a patently emotional nature. There was no reason applied; after all, would a rational individual expend so much time and energy on someone who does not appreciate these truly meaningful things?
Not in my book. Carraway comes to the conclusion that it was Gatsby’s decision to operate on feeling rather than thought that killed him.
This is the message that ought to be taken away from the story of Jay Gatsby. It should not be applied only to romance, but any other situation in which objective facts have to be weighed and hard choices made.
Anyone else thinking about this year’s midterm elections, or the next round of presidential primaries? If they don’t fit the bill for Gatsby’s lesson, then nothing does.
Trying to recreate an America whose values are beholden to decades gone by or expecting politicians to solve the underlying problems which plague our society is a strategy for failure. While, so long as no laws are broken, each of us can live as we wish, popular culture cannot be upended by public policy. Indeed, the latter typically informs the former.
“Traditional morality” or “family values” only go so far as the people willing to live by them. Public officeholders should not be looked to as messiah-like figures who can somehow turn a ship around. In terms of raw power, the presidency is dwarfed by Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, and wherever academia flourishes. People create the culture they live in, and if one wants real change, then millions upon millions must be persuaded to think differently.
Following Gatsby’s lead by creating a world where our desires reign supreme seems wonderful at first, but quickly leads down a dark path. Imposing our own dreams onto politicians, political parties, and election cycles will surely leave us with profound regret.
Placing emphasis on mind over matter takes anyone willing to do so a long way. If nothing else, it sure beats the alternative.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at email@example.com