The Okay Gatsby


Robert Redford is not an actor one associates with words like “interesting”, or “necessary”, but once in awhile he’s actually surprising, which is one of the very best things an actor can be.

In Jack Clayton’s admittedly slightly flabby film of THE GREAT GATSBY (but note how, in this pre-air-conditioning tale of the ‘twenties all the fabulously rich people are covered with a sheen of sweat), Redford as the mysterious Jay Gatsby gives a brief precis of his history to date. The speech contains lies, and is delivered to someone who hasn’t asked for this information, which makes it all rather suspicious. There are various obvious ways it could have been handled:

1) The actor could try and be as convincing as possible, letting us discover the truth later.

2) He could show the audience, by some slight nervousness and evasion, that he may not be telling the whole truth.

3) He could be VERY unconvincing, using obvious hesitations and nervousness.

Redford reads the lines as if he’s reading lines, stuff he’s memorised by heart and is now TEACHING to the listener, so that he can repeat them to others. This is Gatsby’s actual hope, he wants to spread this information around. So he’s very slow and deliberate.

I think it’s quite a funny, weird effect, and brave, in the sense that it’s designed to look like bad acting. And it’s convincing as such. An audience could assume that Redford is just a lousy actor. I think we know he isn’t quite THAT, so we have to assume this is a deliberate choice. It’s also delivered like bad exposition, which makes it even funnier.

The speech is delivered in a car, with Redford concentrating VERY hard on the road, and he also appears to have been dubbed. Even better!


The most impressive piece of Redfordiana is maybe in Michael Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE where he repeatedly corpses while rehearsing a political speech he has to give. I think it’s the word “integrity” that trips him up every time. Convincingly acting spontaneous and involuntary laughter, again and again, strikes me as a NEAT TRICK.

11 Responses to “The Okay Gatsby”

  1. Never really cared for Redford very much as an actor. He’s an ideal unobscure object of desire for Babs in The Way We Were but for that very reason too passive to be heroic in anythign else.

    To my mind he’s miscast in Gatsby. Redford is who Gatsby thinks he is — when he’s actually a lot closer to Robert Blake.

    Don’t forget, Gatsby is a hood trying to pass himself off as a swell. That’s why Daisy is attracted to him. She’s slumming.

    Mia Farrow is a perfect Daisy, BTW.

  2. Clayton apparently cast Redford after sensing an air of danger about him. I think he may be the only person who ever sensed that, it certainly doesn’t photograph.

    If Biskind’s book is at all reliable, and I’m not sure if it is — you would know better than I — “passive” does seem a good word for RR.

    Mia Farrow is AMAZING.

    Robert Blake is AMAZING also. His In Cold Blood killing partner, Scott Wilson, is very good in The GG.

    So what’s needed for Jay G is an actor who seems like Redford but is like Blake underneath? A tall order…

  3. Robert Redford was always boring to me (outside his essential pairing with Paul Newman) until I saw…The Great Waldo Pepper, in which it is clear to me that he may in fact be the most dedicated actor…EVER.

    Think about acting on the wing of a plane being piloted by your film’s director!!! Wow!

  4. Indeed. But it’s why the film doesn’t come off — though Clayton’s direction is admirable overall.

  5. I remember thinking Karen Black was great in The Great Gatsby, but now I see from the IMDB that she didn’t play Jordan Baker, as I’d thought, but Myrtle Wilson. So what do I remember: was Black great or am I thinking of Lois Chiles, who actually played Jordan Baker?

  6. Black is great, as ever. Lois Chiles is stunning, with a great voice. she’s very cool but doesn’t have to do much obvious Acting. But I was amazed how effective she was, since I recall her failing as a Bond girl. The difference in directors might account for that.
    If you remembered somebody being stunning to look at, Chiles. Stunning performance (and V. REWARDING to look at), Black.

  7. Dedication = Buster Keaton.

    Sadly, Redford shows also that you can be dedicated and talented and still not terribly interesting, at least much of the time.

    Gatsby also has the problem of a passive central figure (Sam Waterson) multiplied by a passive-seeming Redford, Despite compression, the first 2/3rds drag along. It’s gratifying whenever Bruce Dern appears and gets the film up on its feet.

    This and Coming Home suggest that the archetypal Bruce Dern part is The Unsympathetic Cuckold — not the most rewarding role to be typed in, but he’s the right kind of complex actor to pull it off.

  8. Nick Carraway must be a tough acting assignment–much like Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, he’s mostly just there: watching, thinking, sometimes finding himself unwittingly complicit. It’s the portrayal of a thinking window.

    And I think was actually remembering both Chiles and Black: I remember Jordan Baker’s voice absolutely making the role, and I remember Black being very good just because she’s unforgettable. So my brain is only about half mush.

  9. Sam W’s kind of like that in every film, so he’s ideal — if you actually need the character in a film at all. Maybe the camera should have his role.

    Is there a really successful film or TV adaptation of Fitzgerald out there at all?

    I vaguely thought the Pat Hobby stories could make a good mini-sitcom, they have some of the same great cringe factor as Extras.

  10. Karen Black is at her most unforgettable in The Day of the Locust.

  11. I wish I could have seen her cabaret act, singing Bowie’s “Time” while dressed as a stormtrooper (Nazi, not Imperial).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: