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Monday, June 29, 2009

Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited

Molly Haskell examines the classic film

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The beautiful black-and-white photo of Vivien Leigh on the cover of Molly Haskell's compelling new book, Frankly, My Dear:Gone With the Wind Revisited (Yale University Press), casts an eerie shadow on the dust cover. It's an ominous reminder of the exhausting two-year search for the right actress to portray Scarlett O'Hara and of Leigh's own mortality, but the haunting photo gives no hint at the brilliance that Leigh's transcendent focus brought to the most challenging role of the century. The gentle Melanie was Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell's intended heroine, but Scarlett became the prime mover of book and film.

Haskell's short volume is more than a sentimental, redundant tribute to a much-loved film. Like the movie itself, the sheer enthusiasm of Haskell's analytic, well-documented style takes on a life of its own,making it readable throughout. She thoughtfully examines the book's social background and populist focus in a carefully developed comparison, sparing no pains to give full credit to the three driving forces behind the movie: Leigh, producer David Selznick and Mitchell, the accident-prone, sometimes bedridden, ex-flapper housewife who dreamed up a best-seller in bits and pieces stuffed in manila envelopes.

Haskell perceives a unifying driving force in these three: "something beyond ambition… something headlong and hurtling, something uncanny, yet complimentary in their personality contradictions."Vivien Leigh brings a manipulative, ferocious intensity to Scarlett long before the actress' own mental problems set in. She constructs Scarlett without apology, making her faults endearing, her flirtatious appeal beguiling yet demurely sexual. The film is unthinkable without her.

Selznick was one of the few movie moguls to genuinely love films and view them as more than businessenterprises, often showing rare creative judgment andwriting screenplays himself. The famous ending to Gone With the Wind("tomorrow is another day") is Selznick's creation. The writers, technicians, set designers-famous names like George Cukor, Sidney Howard and William Cameron Menzies-became journeymen subject tohis compulsive barrage of memos, dictated at whirlwind speed, "suggesting" mandatory improvements on set.

Although Haskell makes excuses for Scarlett's scheming, selfish nature, rationalizing her pre-feminist aggressiveness, she sidesteps a key point of her fierce determination. By the time of the great, incomparably moving return to Tara episode, Scarlett has become a classic earth mother, protecting her beloved plantation and shielding the other characters from the aftermath of the war.

The conflict itself is treated as a tangential disaster, molding the characters into a romanticized tableau of survival. There are no battle scenes in the film. Slavery is never mentioned. The cataclysmic effects of the war become a metaphorical subtext, a transformative agent forever changing the lives of the characters, but gradually subsiding into anirrational, irreversible composite of loss, a submerged yearning for that unrealistically idealized civilization gone with the wind. For us, the viewers, this translates, through the beauty of cinema, into anoddly fictionalized haven for our own buried nostalgia, triggering memories of our own past, prefiguringand distorting our most treasured memories into something that never was.

This might bethe key to the film's universality, aided by the magic of dreamy color photography, Max Steiner's score and silhouettes seen in haunting tracking shots. The scenes become forever embedded in our consciousness. The emotional pull of Gone With the Wind is without precedent. The film is better than the book.

And still it is considered great entertainment, not a great film. Haskell points out that the novel is not on the level of War and Peace, Don Quixote or The Iliad, but the film versions of those works seem tedious and unwieldy compared to the movie version of Mitchell's book. If GoneWith the Wind is not art, it raises the inevitable question: What, then, is art?