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The Great Daisy in Gatsby 1974


In literature and in film, The Great Gatsby has become an iconic piece of the modern American cultural landscape. Any reader worth their salt will know F Scott Fitzgerald’s book and many will probably know the three signature movie adaptations of that story from 1949, 1974 and 2013.

According to critics, each of these movies has failed to deliver key components of the connections, feelings and romance of the book. And it is possible that no film will ever secure or satisfy everybody’s desire to see their Gatsby and their Daisy on the big screen; novel adaptations are notoriously difficult in this respect.

The 1974 Gatsby movie earned what have been called mixed reviews, but there was an oddity in that mix. The film’s female lead, Mia Farrow, appeared to get most of the critical flack. Why was Farrow so entirely dismissed by critics for what appears to be a good performance given the constraints of the role? That is, Daisy is a wealthy socialite and female wealthy socialites back then, or earlier, needed to know their role in society and how to deal with it. Or, more precisely, how to deal with romantic attention that could not be realized, at least not publicly. It was a societal complaint that affected many women from the middle ages to the present day. Mia Farrow’s performance as Daisy demonstrated the caprice, whimsy and superficial shallowness of the idle rich as was needed. The “empty sophistication” that Roger Erbert mentioned in his original review of the movie was no doubt intentional. There was, literately, almost no other way to give this performance and she was directed to do it, so why the heavy-handed criticism?

The answer might be that The Great Gatsby 1974 was a product of its time, and as such came under more fire than was reasonable. The director, Jack Clayton, screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola , the producer, David Merrick and the cast, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Sam Waterson and Karen Black were all, at the time, up-coming Hollywood notables. Coppola, in particular, was very famous for his work on The Godfather (1972), which, in itself, stands alone as the best known movie of the 1970s and perhaps, one of the most successful Hollywood movies of all time. But Coppola may also be the key to one of the 1974 Gatsby’s problems. Frances, Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, asked that the screenplay should be ‘de-godfathered’ and it was this request perhaps that made Redford’s Gatsby seem a little flat and a little too genteel to be entirely believable as the tough self-made bootlegger that Gatsby was supposed to be.

Another problem for The Great Gatsby, 1974, was its provocation of another new wave of fortune, fame and stardom. The studio’s tactic was to go heavy on promotion, referred to by critics as the ‘hype’. Mia Farrow appeared on the debut cover of People magazine and with Robert Redford on the cover of Time magazine. The images, the clothes and the movie heralded a new era of retro style that hit all the best fashion magazines. The hippy t-shirts, and flared jeans of the sixties were replaced with flapper dresses, pastel suits, evening wear and pearls. All this hype looked like a revival of the Hollywood ‘system’ and it appeared that the machine was going full force on this movie. This was the beginning of the new wave of celebrity marketing that today we are so accustomed to, but back in the mid-70s those promotional tactics, and the new wave of glamour, may have been too much too soon.

The potentially vulnerable figure on screen in the Great Gatsby, 1974, became the very vulnerable off-screen. Although most actors received some criticism, Farrow’s Daisy was vilified. Even now you can find some of the reviews that describe her Daisy as “shrill” and “hysterical” and in 1974 these negative reviews rang through the newspapers and magazines like the chimes of church bells in a medieval city. The greatest injustice came when Mia Farrow as Daisy states, "They're such beautiful shirts” and sobs into their fabric. Some critics raged against this, but why? These were the words of Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan and not those of Mia Farrow. Critics saw the statement as a direct indictment of Farrow as the poor, dumb, little rich girl, when in fact the words were straight off the page of Fitzgerald’s novel. How did critics so easily manage to confuse the actor and the character? Could it be that misogyny was so rife in Western culture at that time, that critics actually made the mistake of scapegoating what they thought was a ‘dumb blond’?

Did all this negative criticism impact on Farrow’s career? Judging from appearances, that impact was evident. After Gatsby, Farrow was not chosen for any mainstream lead roles through the seventies.  In fact, Farrow was nowhere to be seen on film in 1975 or 1976. She didn’t reappear again until 1977 when she was a lead for the relatively obscure horror movie ‘Full Circle,’ aka The Haunting of Julia (1977), a British-Canadian horror film that flunked at the box office. During the same period Robert Redford appeared in four major movies and was the lead in three of them. A few better known movies followed for Farrow, but her career had taken a quite a hit.

The pity of it all is the contemporary reviews published around the time of the 2013 version of the movie. Many of these more recent blogs and internet reviews have the very same criticism of Mia Farrow that were given by the original reviewers of 1974, to the point where some are almost verbatim. The terms “shrill”, “squeaky”, “annoying” and “skeletal”, or close facsimiles of these adjectives, have all magically reappeared. For example, this from The Guardian 2013, “Mia Farrow, meanwhile, is a disaster as Daisy. She seems hysterical, over-excited and her voice, which in the novel seems to Gatsby to be "full of money", is here just shrill”. Surely the art of a good review lies in providing insights to the reader that are original, considered and independent? Although, in fairness, there are some reviewers who have managed well on their own terms and some have stated that the 1974 film was far better than they expected and did not deserve some of its original criticism.

Mia Farrow’s fortunes were to change again in the eighties when she began a relationship with the writer/director Woody Allen. At the point when their relationship failed, Woody Allen had used the term “neglected” to describe Farrow’s lack of critical approval and Hollywood acceptance. This was an apt and honest term to use, but that neglect was for a short but critical period of her career and was later redeemed by Farrow’s roles in Allen’s films. During the eighties and nineties Farrow appeared in several of Allen’s films and it was through the course of these movies that she won back her critical acclaim. High praise was given to Farrow for a good number of her roles including Broadway Danny Rose (1984), in which Roger Erbert describes her performance as a “treasure”, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1992). Those performances, and more, realized Mia Farrow for the great actress she was and is, and perhaps shone a light on the misunderstanding that was Daisy. Let’s hope that female leads today never get criticized for being the character they are being directed to play.

Perhaps the critics couldn’t understand that Farrow was too good for Daisy.

Stephen Vega

March 2019