Movies

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• David Merrick's production of THE GREAT GATSBY is the cinematic equivalent of classical sculpture. It is formal and highly stylized, played out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Jack Clayton's direction evokes a ghostlike atmosphere, slowly but steadily drawing the audience into the surrealistic world of high society during the 1920's. Many of the actors have been cast against type, with mixed results. Robert Redford plays Gatsby as a mysterious, withdrawn introvert, more in keeping with the Oxford graduate he pretends to be than the bootlegger he actually is. Mia Farrow turns on just the right amount of superficial charm as Daisy, Gatsby's long-lost love, shallow and irresponsible at the core. Daisy's cousin Nick, who is also the narrator, is rendered in a superbly understated performance by Sam Waterston, whose appearance and style resemble Tony Perkins at his best. Bruce Dern seems wildly miscast as Tom, Daisy's husband; he comes across not as a ruthless, rich hypocrite, but simply as a semi-intelligent lout. Karen Black, as Tom's mistress, screams and bleeds a lot, but her portrayal is oppressively ordinary. The plot, centered around Gatsby's attempts to woo Daisy away from her husband, moves with methodical precision, though a bit too slowly at the beginning. An interesting counterpoint is achieved between the wild, elaborately-staged all-night parties at Gatsby's mansion and the icy progression of the film, which maintains its wider perspective even in the midst of the revelry. The sets, costumes and period automobiles are authentic and carefully detailed; obviously there has been no skimping on production values. The movie may not live up to F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic prose. But what it lacks in fire, it makes up in craftsmanship. Rated "PG."

• THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS succeeds in the quite tricky business of being entertaining and serious, subtle and obvious at the same time. Its plot is straightforward, and based upon a true incident: A mother, recently released from prison, where she served time for shoplifting, discovers that Texas authorities have taken her two-year-old son and placed him in a foster home. She thereupon helps her reluctant husband to escape from another prison to rescue the child. The pair kidnaps a Texas highway patrolman, intending to release him in return for their child, and leads a seemingly endless caravan of state police cars on a not-so-merry chase. Goldie Hawn, in her first dramatic outing, effectively portrays the immature, naive but very determined mother out to reclaim her child. The semi-sympathetic role represents quite a departure for the giggly former star of LAUGH-IN, but the transition is successful, and after a few minutes even her heavy Southern accent sounds natural. Ben Johnson contributes a needed touch of controlled irony as the Highway Patrol chief, anxious to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. William Atherton as the husband, and Michael Sacks as the kidnapped highway patrolman, are effective as ordinary people coping as best they can with a situation beyond their control. Wry social commentary is presented in scenes where vigilantes attempt to shoot the pair in a used car lot, and where a town gives them a hero's welcome as they drive through with the kidnapped patrolman. Steven Spielberg's direction is natural and unpretentious; the visual effects are superior, though the editing is a bit loose in spots. The moral conflict, involving as it does the rights of parents and the rights of children, is not resolved in the movie, but should make for some interesting discussion among libertarians. Rated "PG."

• It's rerun time at the movies, or so it would appear. MAME, a flashy, gushy new multimillion-dollar musical, is strongly reminiscent of a flashy, gushy multimillion-dollar old musical of five years ago, HELLO DOLL Y. It is a star vehicle, pure and simple, with no plot, no coherent development, no depth of characterization to stir the enthusiasm of serious devotees of musical comedy. Compared to Rosalind Russell's performance in the 1958 movie, AUNTIE MAME (the basis for the current musical), Lucille Ball's portrayal lacks bite, and is infused with so much sticky sentimentality that it appears to be a put-up job. During close-ups, the camera gives Lucy such a soft focus that she dissolves into a blur, highly irritating to the eyes if you happen to be sitting close to the screen. The movie does have its successful moments, most of which have been lifted intact from the earlier film. Lucy's acting sometimes rises far above the level of her television series, although it quickly becomes obvious that she can't sing worth a damn. Beatrice Arthur is appropriately garish as Marne's best friend. She can't sing either. Kirby Furlong plays baby Patrick and Bruce Davidson plays grown-up Patrick, Marne's nephew. Both turn in creditable performances. Robert Preston is wasted in the role of Beauregard, Marne's husband. The paper-thin story is about a sophisticated yet Bohemian woman, living what passes as an unconventional life in the 1920's and '30's, getting away with it all because she is so adorable and charming.

In case you are unable to decipher this plot from the movie's events, the songs spell it out for you. It's better than having a road map. Rated "PG."