The Great Gatsby on Film--They're Always Miscasting Daisy
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favourite novels. Indeed, I think it could well be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, it has yet to be translated well to motion pictures (at least any movies that survive--more on that later). The movies based upon the book have always fallen short of the novel. For me, at least, much of that reason is the fact that the part of Daisy Buchanan, the object of Jay Gatsby's obsession, has consistently been miscast. The actresses cast as Daisy not only don't look like the character from the book, but sadly they do not behave like her either. In fact, Daisy has been so badly cast in the movies based on The Great Gatsby that I have to wonder if the producers even bothered reading the book at all.
Of course, part of the problem in casting Daisy Buchanan (née Fay) is that she is in some respects a rather mercurial character. We know that she is from a wealthy family from Louisville, Kentucky. We know from her long time friend, Jordan Baker, that Daisy was "...by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville" and that "...excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolising her..." on a particular night. More men than simply Jay Gatsby were then fascinated by her. Even Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator and Daisy's second cousin once removed, seems a bit taken by Daisy's charms. Daisy appears to be educated (as one might expect someone from an upper class, Louisville family to be), intelligent, and outgoing. Unfortunately, Daisy also appears to be rather shallow. She tends to be a flirt, apparently thriving on the attention of men. She also has a need to make an impression on others. While Daisy is an intelligent and charming woman, she is also shallow, irresponsible, fickle, selfish, and materialistic. What Daisy wants most out of life is a life of ease filled with money and luxuries. To play Daisy, then, an actress would not only have to appear intelligent and charming, but also superficial, self centred, changeable, and irresponsible, something of a balancing act that presumably would not be easy to do.
Beyond the complexities of Daisy's personality, there is also the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald gives us no detailed descriptions of his characters in The Great Gatsby. We know little more of Jay Gatsby's appearance than he has a great smile and his tastes run to expensive shirts. Of Jordan Baker we only know that she has what today we would call an "athletic build" and her hair is the colour of "an autumn leaf (by which I take it to mean she was either a honey blonde, strawberry blonde, or a redhead of some sort)." Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald lets us know a little more about Daisy Buchanan's appearance. From the descriptions of other characters, Daisy appears to have been beautiful. At one point Jordan says of Daisy that she was "..."as lovely as the June night in her flowered dress." In a description of a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, it is said, "Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth." When describing the first meeting between Jay Gatsby (then a young officer at Camp Taylor) and Daisy, Jordan Baker says, ""The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since." Apparently Gatsby did not even notice Jordan, who was apparently not unattractive herself.
That F. Scott Fitzgerald meant for Daisy Buchanan to be beautiful may also be reckoned from the fact that two real life women who provided at least part of the basis for the character were both beautiful. The best known of the two women on whom Daisy was based was none other than Zelda Fitzgerald. It is easy to see how the legendary Mrs. Fitzgerald could provide some of the basis for the character of Daisy Buchanan. She was the daughter of an upper crust, Southern family (in her case, Montgomery, Alabama), who as a young woman craved attention and refused to conform to the delicate stereotype of Southern belles. What is more, Zelda Fitzgerald was also very intelligent and very talented. She had a lot in common with Daisy Buchanan.
The other real life woman to provide a basis for Daisy Buchanan was débutante and socialite Ginevra King. Miss King was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago businessman and one of the "Big Four" in that city (four débutantes who were considered the most attractive and marriageable in Chicago). F. Scott Fitzgerald was totally taken with Ginevra King, and she would provide the inspiration not only for Daisy Buchanan, but Judy Jones in "Winter Dreams" and Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise. Like Daisy, Ginevra King was both beautiful and intelligent. And just as Daisy broke Gatsby's heart by marrying someone else, so too did Ginerva King break F. Scott Fitzgerald's heart by marrying William Mitchell.
Not only do we know that Daisy is beautiful, but she is also one of the few characters whose hair colour we know. In Chapter Five there is the line, " A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car" For Daisy's hair to have a blue sheen to it, it would seem likely that she was a brunette. That Daisy is dark haired is confirmed by the fact in Chapter Eight, which contains the line, "Now and then she moved and he changed his arm a little, and once he kissed her dark shining hair." Daisy's hair colour would seem to be inspired by that of Ginevra King, who was dark haired, rather than Zelda Fitzgerald, who was blonde.
While F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us only a little of how Daisy looks, we know a bit more about her voice. In Chapter One, Nick writes, "...she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh" and writes of "...her low, thrilling voice," adding "It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again." Of Daisy, Gatsby said, "Her voice is full of money." In his narration Nick agrees and elaborates on Daisy's voice, "That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.... high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl...." Much of Daisy's charm, then, lies not only in her intelligence and beauty, but in what must be a remarkably mellifluous voice.
Given the descriptions of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and the two women upon whom she was based, it would seem that the ideal actress to play Daisy would be dark haired, possessed of a beautiful voice, and capable of playing a character who is both intelligent and charming, but also shallow, fickle, and selfish as well. Sadly, it seems as if Hollywood has fallen short in casting actresses who fit the character well, let alone exactly. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know if Lois Wilson was miscast as Daisy Buchanan in the first screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby from 1926. The film has been lost and all that remains of footage from the film is a one minute long trailer.
On the surface it would appear Lois Wilson would have made a good Daisy Buchanan. She was beautiful. She was also a brunette. And, given her talent, it is quite possible that Lois Wilson played Daisy perfectly. That having been said, it is also possible that she might not have. Although she never married, Lois Wilson's screen image was described as "the soft, marrying kind of woman." When she was selected to represent Paramount at the British Empire Exposition in 1924, she was described as "a typical example of the American girl in character, culture and beauty.'' While Daisy was undoubtedly beautiful, she was hardly "the soft, marrying kind of woman," nor was she "typical" by any stretch of the imagination. The question is then whether Lois Wilson had the talent to overcome her screen image to play a character who is ultimately self centred, changeable, and materialistic. I certainly think it is possible, but given The Great Gatsby (1926) is lost, we might never know.
While Lois Wilson may have made an ideal Daisy Buchanan, the same can hardly be said to be true of the actress cast in the role in the 1949 version. Initially Tyrone Power was set to play Jay Gatsby and he would only do the film on the condition that Gene Tierney (with whom he had already co-starred in several films) was cast as Daisy. Gene Tierney would have made the perfect Daisy Buchanan. Not only was she dark haired, but she was also one of the all time great beauties of the silver screen. Gene Tierney was also an exceedingly talented, versatile actress, who would have had no problem with the subtle nuances necessary for playing Daisy. She possessed an incredibly lovely voice, as Daisy is said to have had as well. Unfortunately, the producers decided that Gene Tierney was "too beautiful" to play Daisy. To me this shows that they either did not bother to read the book or they seriously misinterpreted the character of Daisy Buchanan! If they had read the book or read it carefully, they would have realised that it is impossible for an actress to be "too beautiful" to play Daisy. Needless to say, when Gene Tierney was not cast as Daisy, Tyrone Power did not accept the role of Jay Gatsby, which went to Alan Ladd instead (who did do quite well in the part).
Sadly, the role of Daisy Buchanan would go instead to Betty Field. Betty Field hardly looks like the Daisy Buchanan of the novel. For one thing, Betty Field was a blonde, hardly the dark haired seductress described by F. Scott Fitzgerald. For another, while Betty Field was pretty, she was not the incredible beauty that Daisy presumably was. Of course, the difference in Betty Field's appearance from the Daisy Buchanan of the novel could have easily been overcome had she given a good performance in the role, which she sadly did not. While Betty Field was an immensely talented actress, her performance as Daisy Buchanan seems far off the mark. Even though Daisy was supposed to come from an upper class, Louisville family, Betty Field's Daisy seems at times as if she should belong to a lower social class. And while Daisy Buchanan was from Louisville, Kentucky, to this
Southerner's ear it sounded as if there were times Miss Field slipped
into her native, Massachusetts accent--at the very least she did not
sound like a Kentuckian!
Worst of all, Betty Field gave Daisy Buchanan no real depth. The charm and intelligence that Daisy displays in the novel are entirely lacking in her performance. It is perhaps for this reason that Alan Ladd and Betty Field have no chemistry whatsoever--the viewer is left wondering what Gatsby sees in Daisy! To be fair, given Betty Field's talent, I suspect that much of the blame for her poor performance may rest with the producers (who in not considering Gene Tierney perfect for the role apparently had not read the book) or director Elliott Nugent, who may have misdirected Miss Field in her performance of the role. Regardless, it would seem Betty Filed was miscast as Daisy.
Strangely enough, the actress cast as Jordan Baker in the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby was probably better suited to the role of Daisy Buchanan than Betty Field was. Dark haired Ruth Hussey was cast as Jordan Baker, the woman with hair the colour of an "autumn leaf" in the novel. Ruth Hussey was also beautiful. While not a beauty on the level of Gene Tierney (let's face it, few actresses in the history of film were), in my humble opinion she was much prettier than Betty Field. And I have little doubt that Ruth Hussey could have done a better job of playing Daisy Buchanan than Betty Field did. Ruth Hussey's particular niche in film was playing worldly, sophisticated, intelligent women. She could have then given Daisy the intelligence and depth necessary to the character, as well as the fickleness and selfishness. Miss Hussey would have actually been a better Daisy than she was a Jordan!
As miscast as Betty Field was in the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby, it was nowhere nearly as bad as the miscasting that occurred in the 1974 adaptation of the novel. The 1974 version of The Great Gatsby originated when then head of Paramount Robert Evans bought the rights to the novel for his wife Ali McGraw, intending for her to play Daisy Buchanan. At least physically Ali McGraw could pass as the novel's version of Daisy. She was dark haired and, while not necessarily one of the great screen beauties of all time, she was quite attractive. Ali McGraw may have also had the talent to pull off the role. She received very good critical notices for Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and The Getaway (1972). Unfortunately, Miss McGraw fell in love with Steve McQueen during the shooting of The Geatway and left Robert Evans for him. This put an end to her being considered for the role of Daisy Buchanan.
With Ali McGraw out of the running for the role, it was offered to Tuesday Weld. As a blonde Miss Weld definitely did not have the same hair colour as Daisy did in the book, but otherwise she would seem to have been perfect for the role. Miss Weld was one of the most beautiful actresses of her time (perhaps of all time) and one who was very talented as well. She could have captured the complexities of Daisy Buchanan. Unfortunately, Miss Weld would turn the role down. Natalie Wood was offered the role of Daisy Buchanan. Not only was she incredibly beautiful like Tuesday Weld, but she was also a brunette like the Daisy of the novel. An experienced actress who had been in the business since childhood, Miss Wood also had the talent to play a complex character like Daisy Buchanan. Unfortunately, she had not acted in five years and so the producers asked her to take a screen test. Natalie Wood took umbrage to this and so she did not get the part. In the end the search for Daisy Buchanan was narrowed down to five actresses: Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Katharine Ross and Lois Chiles.
Of these actresses Katherine Ross and Lois Chiles perhaps most resembled Daisy Buchanan in the book. Katherine Ross was dark haired and possessed a natural, sedated sort of beauty. Unfortunately, I am not sure she could have pulled off the role. In many of her roles, and particularly in her best known roles (The Graduate and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid), she seemed to be little more than window dressing. It could be that Miss Ross had the talent to play Daisy and she just never received any particularly challenging roles early in her career, so she perhaps she would have made a good Daisy. As she wasn't cast in the role we will never know. At least as far as appearance goes, Lois Chiles may have been better suited to the role of Daisy than Katherine Ross. Lois Chiles was dark haired and incredibly beautiful like Daisy was in the novel. She also possessed an absolutely beautiful voice, one with the musical qualities attributed to Daisy's voice in the book. While Lois Chiles may have looked the most like Daisy of the actresses considered for the 1974 version, it is questionable whether she had the talent at the time to pull the role off. Curiously, she was ultimately cast as Jordan Baker (who was decidedly not a brunette in the book) and she was one of the few actors in the film to deliver a fairly solid performance, so it is possible she could have played Daisy quite well. Unfortunately, we will never know because she was not cast as Daisy Buchanan.
In the end the role of Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby would go to the actress perhaps least suited to the role of those considered: Mia Farrow. Like Betty Field, before her, Mia Farow was a blonde rather than a brunette. Unlike Betty Field before her, in my humble opinion Mia Farrow would not even qualify as pretty, let alone beautiful--she was passably cute at best. Of course, the fact that Mia Farrow did not look like Daisy Buchanan in the book at all need not have been a detriment had she given the role the sort of intelligence and charm that would make it convincing that men would desire her. Sadly, she did not. Indeed, Mia Farrow's interpretation of Daisy seems wholly lacking in intelligence, wit, or charm. Instead she simply seems flighty, flaky, and none too bright. What is more, Miss Farrow seems to have no chemistry whatsoever with Robert Redford (who was miscast as Jay Gatsby as well).
Even Mia Farrow's voice ruins the idea of Daisy as any man's "dream girl." While in the book Daisy has the sort of mellifluous voice that makes people pay attention, Mia Farrow's voice in the film is weak and even whiny to the point that it grates upon the ear. As to her accent, if Mia Farrow was trying to do a Southern accent, one would not know it. In the end one leaves the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby wondering what on Earth Gatsby ever saw in Daisy. Mia Farrow's Daisy comes off as annoying rather than seductive, and she does not possess the great beauty that would necessarily lead a somewhat shallow man such as Jay Gatsby to ignore her grating personality and irritating voice. While most of the cast in The Great Gatsby (1974) was miscast, Mia Farrow is the one that stands out the most. Indeed, the casting of Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby may be one of the worst cases of miscasting in the history of film.
This coming May yet another version of The Great Gatsby is set to be released, this one directed by Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge (2001) fame. And, unfortunately, it seems as if Daisy Buchanan may have been miscast again. Carey Mulligan, who has appeared in An Education (2009) and Drive (2011) has been cast as Daisy. Here it must be noted that Miss Mulligan is blonde. It would seem that once more Daisy's hair colour as described in the book has been ignored. And while I would say Carey Mulligan is definitely pretty (particularly when her hair is longer), she is not quite the drop dead gorgeous woman I picture when reading The Great Gatsby. That having been said, Carey Mulligan may deliver a performance that overcomes the fact that she does not particularly look like Daisy Buchanan. From the trailers she seems to do well enough. In fact, unlike Betty Field and especially unlike Mia Farrow, her voice is convincingly pleasing enough to belong to the Daisy of the book. While I still think Carey Mulligan is miscast (I think Natalie Portman or Anna Kendrick would have been better choices), she could surprise me by being convincing in the part. At any rate, I am praying that we will not see a repeat of the 1949 version and especially not the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, in which one wonders why Gatsby pursued Daisy at all (and in the 1974 version why he didn't pursue Jordan instead).
Of course, the question for me and I suspect for many fans of the book is why the role of Daisy Buchanan was miscast in both the 1949 and 1974 versions, and possibly the 2013 version as well. I must confess that I have long been puzzled as to why in all but the 1926 version a blonde has been cast in the role when Daisy in the book is obviously a brunette. Indeed, whenever I have read the book the picture in my mind I have of Daisy is not Betty Field and definitely not Mia Farrow, but raven haired silent actress and classic beauty Louise Brooks. I have to wonder if the various producers of the adaptations of The Great Gatsby over the years have not seized upon the fact that Zelda Fitzgerald, who provided part of the basis for Daisy Buchanan, was blonde and so they have cast the role accordingly. Of course, this ignores the fact that in the book Daisy is described as dark haired and, for that matter, that Ginevra King, who also provided inspiration for the character, was a brunette.
While I am puzzled as to why blondes have been cast in the last three movies, I am also puzzled by the casting of women who are not necessarily great beauties in the role of Daisy. Indeed, Gene Tierney was passed over for the role by the producers of the 1949 version because they thought she was too beautiful. It seems clear to me in the novel The Great Gatsby that Daisy was not only beautiful, but the most beautiful female character in the entire book. She was the belle of Louisville who had it all--looks, intelligence, charm, and money. Given this fact, it seems impossible that an actress could be "too beautiful" to play Daisy Buchanan. It would be like saying a woman is "too beautiful" to play Cleopatra or Helen of Troy!
The sad fact is, that in my opinion, in both the 1949 version and especially the 1974 version, Jordan Brewster is actually more physically attractive than Daisy Buchanan. The fact that the women who have played Daisy in the movies have not possessed the legendary beauty necessary to the role has me more puzzled even than the fact that blondes have been cast in the part. That leaves me with two theories. The first is the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and while I might not think Betty Field or Mia Farrow are great beauties, the producers may have (although I still fail to see how anyone could think Mia Farrow was prettier than Lois Chiles...). It could then be that I am at fault here and I am judging the casting of Daisy too much by my own tastes. The second is tied to the thought on the part of the producers of the 1949 version that Gene Tierney was "too beautiful" to play Daisy. Quite simply, maybe the producers of the various versions of The Great Gatsby do not think Daisy was particularly beautiful. If this is the case, then, I have to wonder if they have ever read the novel or simply chose to ignore the novel. Not only Jay Gatsby, but Jordan Baker also describes Daisy in terms that would lead us to believe that she is quite beautiful.
Of course, here I must point out that men are drawn to women for more than their appearance. An intelligent woman with a good deal of charm can draw more men than a classic beauty who possesses no charm or intelligence whatsoever. In this case, Daisy would not have to be a great beauty to fascinate the officers of Camp Taylor. She simply needed to be intelligent, witty, and charming. The problem is that the actresses cast as Daisy Buchanan have failed to capture Daisy as a woman intelligent and charming enough to entice men. Betty Field shows a little bit of Daisy's intelligence, but not nearly enough, and she shows none of Daisy's charm. Indeed, Betty Field's Daisy seems a bit low class for a woman who was the belle of the ball in upper crust, Louisville society. Mia Farrow was even worse as Daisy Buchanan. Not only does she lack intelligence and charm, but she seems to exude the exact opposite of both. Mia Farrow's Daisy Buchanan seems so annoying and so silly that she would drive men away rather than lure them to her. Jay Gatsby would not have fallen for her, but probably would have run the other way! While I am puzzled by blondes being cast in the role and producers not considering great beauties for the role (Gene Tierney and Lois Chiles both would have seemed perfect), I am even more puzzled by the performances of Betty Field and Mia Farrow in the role. It is as if both actresses focused only on Daisy's fickleness, superficiality, and selfishness, entirely missing her intelligence and charm. Of course, in doing they gave us no reason to believe that Jay Gatsby was in love with her, let alone obsessed with her.
Whatever the reasons Daisy Buchanan has been miscast over the years, it seems to me that she most definitely has been. Indeed, I am worried at the performance Carey Mulligan will deliver in the latest version of The Great Gatsby. She might well surprise me and play Daisy precisely as she is written in the book. So far I must confess she seems convincing in the trailers I have seen (although I still don't think she looks like Daisy). If Carey Mulligan does not deliver a great performance as Daisy Buchanan, I suppose it will simply stand as one more case of the role being miscast. Sadly, in that case, fans of the novel will have to wait another 20 or 30 years for a film adaptation in which Daisy is presented as true to the novel as possible.