Last weekend I caught the end of “The Great Gatsby” on television. Jack Clayton’s 1974 film adaption of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has aged well, in my opinion. I remember when I first saw it, after having read the book for the first time. I was disappointed. I suppose no film could ever capture what Fitzgerald had conjured up with his words. However, over the years as I watched it again on a number of occasions, I came to appreciate the film – and particularly Robert Redford’s performance as Jay Gatsby. This new found appreciation for the film was placed in high relief for me by Baz Luhrmann’s ill-conceived Gatsby film in 2013. At its core, the biggest problem with it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. He lacked the gravitas to play that role. Even though Redford was the same age (thirty-eight) when he starred in Clayton’s film, that DiCaprio was when he played the same part, he stands out as a grown-up, someone with both a romantic sensibility and mystery to his character, that DiCaprio failed to convey.
I read the interview Redford gave in the current edition of Esquire, and I found it quite interesting how he emphasized the flaws in the “golden boy” characters that he often played as a younger actor. Jay Gatsby certainly fits that model. Someone with a past, secrets, with rumors following him. This dark underbelly of Gatsby’s life only partially reveals itself during the film. But the hints are enough, of course, to suggest that his glittering façade has been built on sordid – even murderous – business dealings. Of course, Redford’s Gatsby is such a sympathetic character, particularly in comparison to the Buchanans, that it’s difficult to imagine him actually doing anything sordid or murderous. Yet, in a long-forgotten episode of a television series, I felt like I caught a glimpse.
In 1963, eleven years before the Gatsby film, a young Redford made a guest appearance on the Prohibition era detective drama, The Untouchables. In the episode named “Snowball” Redford plays the handsome and suave “Jack Parker” looking to make it big as a bootlegger selling booze to college students in Chicago. The problem is that Parker is selling a product containing wood alcohol, blinding his customers. He’s ruthless. And when his loyal, but not very smart, accomplice becomes a liability he murders him in cold blood. It’s chilling. I remember when I saw this episode recently on a channel that broadcasts a lot of older shows, filmed in black & white, I thought “that’s it!” “That’s James Gatz on his way to becoming Jay Gatsby.” Redford was such a highly-coveted leading man by 1974 that he probably was offered the role without Jack Clayton having seen that episode. But I wonder? For those of you that are Gatsby, or Fitzgerald or Redford fans it’s definitely worth giving “Snowball” a look before you watch the film again.