Gone with the Wind plays this weekend in Film Forum’s Victor Fleming festival, but is it really a Fleming film? Uber-producer David Selznick is the most consistent author, and Selznick doppelganger George Cukor directed a significant amount of scenes, giving this domestic war film some moments more delicate and subtle than anything else in Fleming’s oeuvre (and after macho Fleming was brought on replace the openly gay Cukor at Clark Gable’s urging, the “women’s director” went on to coach Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland on weekends, at their insistence, throughout the shoot); and Vivien Leigh gives a scarily mercurial performance in almost every scene, owning the film entirely. At the time of the film’s release, Frank Nugent in the New York Times wrote, “Is it the greatest motion picture ever made? Probably not, although it is the greatest motion mural we have ever seen.”
It’s a mural made by many hands, and the esteemed critic Molly Haskell’s latest book, Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited does a fabulous job of parsing out the contributions. She reveals nuggets like Howard Hawks’ supposed uncredited contribution in rewriting some of the dialogue in the last section, the battle of the sexes showdown between Rhett and Scarlett, which helps make sense why this particular section feels like an entirely different film from the historical romance of Part 1. Another uncredited writer was F. Scott Fitzgerald; Haskell's digging suggests that what he eliminated from the film may be as important as what anyone else contributed. She also describes writer Ben Hecht maintaining as a point-of-pride that he had never nor never would read the mass-market epic romance on which the film was based—so Selznick and Fleming stayed up all night on a diet of speed and peanuts acting out the story for him (with Selznick as Scarlett and Fleming playing Melanie). Haskell’s book also focuses on the one-hit-wonder novelist Margaret Mitchell, telling the fascinating history of this flapper-turned-frumpy matron who rebelled against her serious, feminist southern belle of a mother by becoming a connoisseur and practitioner of frivolity as an art.
As Mitchell’s background might suggest, Gone with the Wind is a complicated universe for a feminist to tackle. And yet this is exactly the sort of conflicted, non-PC and pre-Second Wave world of women that Haskell has consistently celebrated and examined through films, serving a unique and crucial role in American feminism. As Haskell describes this position in connection to a 1972 panel she took part in on women in film, in which Gloria Steinem deplored the scenes in Gone with the Wind of Scarlett O’Hara squeezed into a corset and Haskell then rose to defend that character as a courageous survivor: “Both of our reactions were in their own way, right. But this difference of perspective was also an early augur of the fault lines in feminism or perhaps a necessary split focus: between those predisposed to see and proclaim signs of the victimization of women in a benighted world now progressing toward enlightenment and equality and those inclined to be heartened by the contradictions—the women in the past (both real and fictional) who’d held their own in a chauvinist culture, who’d subverted the norms and gained victories not always apparent through a literal reading of the plot.”
Of course, just as Gone with the Wind is both tricky and rich personal territory for a southern-raised feminist like Haskell to examine, it is also difficult—even in coverage this brief—for a black feminist like myself to look at honestly. Gone with the Wind is unarguably, painfully racist, yet extraordinarily valuable for examining just how and why. The film displays insipid white stereotypes in some of the minor characters as much as it does obscenely destructive black ones, and yet the main characters Rhett and Scarlett seem to exist outside of this orbit, beyond expectations of both gender or race; identification with these two characters is widespread and complex, by all races. Just as Selznick’s Duel in the Sun inspired Laura Mulvey to overhaul her views on female identification, GWTW is ripe for looking at where racial identification splits and falls in this film, even after Haskell’s sharp, thorough and artfully written book has covered so much intellectual and historic territory. Haskell will be on hand at 3pm screening at Film Forum on Sunday to introduce this problematic and fascinating piece of film history. She’ll also be signing copies of her book, a coup of single-work film criticism that is highly intelligent, personal and never relies on jargon or cliches. Besides her unique and crucial role in American feminism, Haskell is also one of the best writers on film in America, and both as a critic and stylist she’s only getting better.