Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“The Great Gatsby” at Newports Rosecliff Mansion

Some of those Rhode Islanders have fond — and not so fond — memories of several cold, damp nights when, as former Providence Journal theater critic William K. Gale recalled, the extras would arrive around 6 p.m. and then “sit there for hours in tents before they called us. Then you’d line up and the assistant director would say, ‘DON’T LOOK AT THE CAMERA!’ And anyone who looked at the camera would be pulled out of the scene.”
In a column he wrote upon the film’s release in March 1974, Gale said that although the party looked glamorous onscreen, “much of the time in Newport it rained. In truth, the extras, dressed in gay 1922 party frocks and dress suits, were often wet, muddy, cold and tired.” (Thursday’s Rosecliff screening of the film was part of a three-month-long series of activities in Newport centered on a program to encourage reading that’s cosponsored by the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns Rosecliff, and the Newport Public Library.)
Mary Riggs of Newport was one of the revelers in the party sequence, which was supposed to be taking place in a mansion on Long Island in 1922. She recalled, “We wore original ’20s things that they had gotten from some costume collector in California. I had a dress that had a very low back because somehow they decided that I had a lovely back.
“I never knew. I mean, who sees one’s back very often?”
Gale said the party sequence was shot over “six or seven nights. We’d get there around 6, get dressed in dorms at Salve Regina [University], all in period costumes.”
It all looked very glamorous onscreen, even the elaborate food displays. But Riggs recalled that because the same food was set out night after night, “it began to stink.”
Nathaniel Tingley Jr., whose late father was an extra on “The Great Gatsby,” also remembered his father coming home and saying “all that luxurious food started to smell after a few days.”
“And we were supposed to be drinking champagne,” Riggs added, “but it was ginger ale. And they never changed the glasses. So you were supposed to be drinking and having a good time, but wondering whether the night before someone had sneezed into the glass you were holding.”
ale said that although he wore a tuxedo, whose style hadn’t changed all that much in a half century, the ’20s-era suit “must have weighed 20 pounds. The material used was heavier in those days, all wool.” But that turned out to be not such a bad thing because although it was July, the nights were very cool. It was not such a good thing, however, for the female extras who had to smile as they skittered down the steps of Rosecliff as dawn was breaking and jump into a fountain pool in below 50-degree weather to dance the Charleston with enthusiasm for the third time.

Riggs remembers “it was very cold when we were shooting at night. One night the wind blew up my ‘lovely’ back. I jumped and the director had to yell, ‘Cut!’ And then everybody would turn and look at you.”
Yet despite the long overnight hours, the rain and the mud, Gale, who lives in North Kingstown, looks back on those nights of filming “The Great Gatsby” with Farrow and Redford as “fun, but exhausting. You’d be there sitting around for 10 hours and then they might call you and you’d work for maybe an hour.” He said the crew would pass out colored tickets to the extras. Which color you were handed determined whether you were slated to stand in the background of a party scene or in the middle of it or in the foreground, up close with Farrow and Redford. But after a time, he said the extras had figured out the system and tried to jump into the foreground.
“Everybody came out of the woodwork for this one,” Riggs added. “It was the thing to do.” However, although 400 extras were hired (at about $20 a day) for the nighttime shooting at Rosecliff, as the filming dragged on and the extras realized the hurry-up-and-wait reality of filmmaking, they began to drop out. “Many of them were socialites,” said Riggs. “They came for the first few days. But after a while, they thought, ‘I don’t think so.’ Many of them fell out, so they had to have a second cattle call for extras.”
But not all the extras were unhappy. Maybury Fraser, widow of Nathaniel Tingley, remembers that her late husband “really enjoyed it.” She recalled that she’d be getting their three children up and ready for the day just as he’d be coming in from a night on the movie set and going to bed. “I told him I could never be the wife of a movie actor,” she said with a laugh, then added: “I’ve seen him in the movie a couple of times.”
Gale’s big scene came when he was standing near a heavyset man who was supposed to be causing a problem at the party and a bouncer in a tuxedo comes over and slugs the guy. Gale was directed to look on in shock and point, as if to say, “Look at this!”
“I thought they had me overact in the scene,” he said ruefully. “I wanted to do it with a little more subtlety.”
Riggs appeared in a scene standing behind Farrow and Redford as they talked, but she says that when she watches a video of the scene with friends, “by the time I tell people I’m in that scene, they’ve already missed me.”
Yet one of her fondest memories was the night when the Fourth of July dawned and British director Jack Clayton had fireworks shot off into the night sky over Newport to celebrate America’s Independence Day. At last, some real Hollywood glamour … and class.


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