Tuesday, 25 September 2012
The Great Gatsby on Film--They're Always Miscasting Daisy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.