Frankly, My Dear: "Gone with the Wind" Revisited (Icons of America)

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How and why has the saga of Scarlett O’Hara kept such a tenacious hold on our national imagination for almost three-quarters of a century? In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s beloved novel and David Selznick’s spectacular film version of Gone with the Wind, film critic Molly Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked. What makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities that Haskell dissects here: Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, and Vivien Leigh. As a feminist and onetime Southern adolescent, Haskell understands how the story takes on different shades of meaning according to the age and eye of the beholder. She explores how it has kept its edge because of Margaret Mitchell’s (and our) ambivalence about Scarlett and because of the complex racial and sexual attitudes embedded in a story that at one time or another has offended almost everyone.

Haskell imaginatively weaves together disparate strands, conducting her story as her own inner debate between enchantment and disenchantment. Sensitive to the ways in which history and cinema intersect, she reminds us why these characters, so riveting to Depression audiences, continue to fascinate 70 years later.

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About the Author:

Molly Haskell is a writer and film critic. She has lectured widely on the role of women in film and is the author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. She lives in New York City.

From The Washington Post:

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Dan Zak Why should we give a damn about "Gone With the Wind," a moss-covered cultural landmark long since rooted and constantly pruned in pop culture, academia and filmdom? Its 1,000-plus-page book version and 226-minute film version are too sprawling, too dredged, too sundry to address altogether, in a fresh and compelling way, in one fell swoop. Yet that is what critic Molly Haskell does in the 228 dense, driven pages of "Frankly, My Dear." The blazing orange sunset over the silhouetted hills of Tara is an image that calls to mind an epic story set to the soaring strains of Max Steiner's symphonic score. With this book, Haskell strips away the iconographic baggage of "GWTW," exposing the heat of the creative inferno behind those Technicolor backdrops. It's a task more daunting than wooing Ashley or keeping Rhett, but Haskell divides and conquers. She wrangles "GWTW" through an affectionate dressing-down of its three main creative forces: the neurotic, ambitious novelist Margaret Mitchell, the megalomaniacal producer David O. Selznick and the tornadic actress Vivien Leigh. Together these artists were a triumvirate of gumption. The scope of their outsize personalities was crucial to the outsize picture's success, and to exploring its particulars 70 years after the fact. "Frankly, My Dear" is many things at once -- blunt biography, poetic love letter, skeptical appraisal, backlot gossipmonger -- and only rarely feels scatterbrained. Haskell's five chapters have little to do with chronology and more to do with a careful overlaying of themes. In the penultimate chapter, "E Pluribus Unum," a title invoking battles for unity on both historical and cinematic fronts, Haskell concludes that "GWTW" holds together because of its opposing forces, its yins and yangs, its leading players and its unsung heroes. Its contradictions are its glue. North and South. Black and white. Vulgarity and refinement. Timeless truths and campy stereotypes. Miniaturist detail and grandiloquent sweep. The film is an "inimitable mixture of acerbic forthrightness and demure femininity," molded by bold, no-nonsense director Victor Fleming and polished by the man he replaced partway through the filming, George Cukor, who remained as counselor to Leigh and Olivia de Havilland after his dismissal. Selznick was the axis on which the production spun, yet Haskell says it's impossible to consider "GWTW" without the crucial contributions of "minor" players like production designer William Cameron Menzies (whose vision ensures that the film's "sprawling canvas . . . doesn't break into fragments") and actress Hattie McDaniel ("an abiding presence" in a roiling, anchorless story). Haskell's description of the production is the most delicious part of the book. Selznick wielded power on a diet of peanuts, bananas and Dexedrine. Ben Hecht, one of more than a dozen screenwriters, flew in for quick rewrites and fled on the verge of emotional collapse. Mitchell, riven with self-consciousness, quarantined herself from most of the production. Leigh, charged with bringing to life one of literature's most celebrated characters, swung between brilliance and madness. Haskell's triumph is articulating how a hulking masterpiece emerged from the messy interplay of the unlikeliest of players, how nervous breakdowns yielded a one-of-a-kind creative construction, how the forces of Mitchell, Selznick and Leigh churned into a perfect storm. Haskell's writing style, mostly eloquent, sometimes teeters between pedantic and playful, and her psychoanalysis sometimes prevails in places where fact-based reportage would've been more suitable and enlightening. An expert on women in film, Haskell considers the feminist angle of "GWTW" ("how unusual it was to create a heroine of such wicked proportions . . . and to refuse the consolations of a romantic ending") but is careful to give the men equal consideration, concluding that they are "wimps and weaklings" (even Rhett) when compared with Scarlett O'Hara, the "generalissima on the battlefield of courtship and marriage." "Frankly, My Dear" is heralded by its inside jacket flap as "the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell's beloved novel and David Selznick's spectacular film version," but it spends most of its time on the film and on Mitchell herself rather than on the mechanics of the novel. It's just as well. The story of "GWTW," while hugely successful on the page, moved past melodrama to psychodrama on its way to the screen. "Frankly, My Dear" demands to be followed by a viewing of the film in order to scrutinize the seams of the production, to catch the flashes of torrid madness between the gauzy close-ups and those Tara sunsets.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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