Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interview with Molly Haskell, Author of Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited

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: Margaret Mitchell, David Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.

Explain your fascination with Gone With The Wind?

For members of my generation—teenagers in the fifties and sixties—it was forbidden fruit, a book not on approved reading lists but one we “discovered” and read under the covers with a flashlight. (Margaret Mitchell said her own mother wouldn’t have let her read it until she was 18 years old.) It’s a Southern rite of passage, but my Northern friends were just as entranced with those steel magnolias, the flirtatious, rebellious Scarlett, the graces of the Old South, the clothes, the romance.

Why has the film endured?

For all sorts of reasons: it has appealed to every tribe and nationality across the globe as an expression of resistance to tyranny, of survival against overwhelming odds, a fable of loss and grief as well as thwarted love. It can be read (and was) as a Depression fable, but also as the story of a Jazz Age heroine clinging to the perks of youth. It’s a majestic (if one-sided) civil war story, a widescreen epic that pulls out all the stops, musically and visually, yet never loses sight of the characters who drive the plot. And because thanks to Vivien Leigh’s boldness in the part, her amazingly volatile and complex performance, there’s something still edgy and unresolved about the character of Scarlett.

She remains both heroine and anti-heroine—at once seductive and wicked, mean-spirited and courageous, a spiteful teenager who turns, way ahead of her time, into an extraordinarily smart and tough-minded businesswoman. And however much she suffers, or causes suffering, she’s never brought to heel. That is, she never repents and changes, is never transformed into the socially-acceptable chastened lady, in the time-honored Hollywood fashion.

Supposedly Melanie was originally Mitchell's main character. How did Scarlett steal the show and why do so many women emphasize with her?

She was the first real American heroine to challenge the status quo, the mystique of male supremacy, even the mystique of war itself. And the narrow constraints on the female sex in general. She thought it was a “terrible waste” that women had to spend their entire girlhood learning the arts of attraction and how to catch men, and then only use the knowledge for a year or two. She resisted giving up all that ‘girl-power’ to become a drab matron, relegated to the sidelines at the parties. And yet Mitchell did. Scarlett was Mitchell as Jazz Age rebel, Melanie was the conservative matron she became.

Many actresses were tested for Scarlett. Why was Vivian Leigh chosen?

She was fresh, unknown, didn’t bring any movie-star baggage with her. And she had the beauty, the fire, the determination, and the talent—all apparent from her first screen test.

I've heard you've compared Scarlett to Sarah Palin? What simliarities do they share?

A kind of awesome confidence, a willingness to run roughshod over men, women, the rules of decorum, anything that stands in their way. They have their own startling beauty, which they don’t bother to tone down to become more likable to other women. And they’re unafraid of the distress or unease their grab for power will cause. Even if we don’t like them, we can’t help but admire that fearlessness, even if it does come out of insensitivity: Narcissistic and self-obsessed, they possess zero empathy for the feelings of others, especially of men who might feel threatened.

Could Gone With the Wind be made today and still be successful?

No way. That whole kind of filmmaking is gone with the wind and the studio system. Those effects were real, not computer generated. The craftsmen were all geniuses of a sort. And the casting, it was perfect. Even if the rest could be duplicated, those kinds of stars and the whole dynamic between and among them is a thing of the past.

You're a former film critic. Are their any other films that resonate with you the way Gone With the Wind has?

I still consider myself a film critic, or “film critic and scholar” though I’m not reviewing regularly at the moment. This book is an act of film criticism as much as anything else.
There are movies that I consider greater works of art, thus more resonant for me, even from the banner year of 1939 (e.g. Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Only Angels Have Wings, Love Affair). My favorite films are not all woman-centered films.

Do you have a must-see list of films for women?

There are so many, but not many of recent vintage. Just check out any number of movies with: Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, a few with Jennifer Lopez, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Sissy Spacek, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Some good women’s roles on television series, Tina Fey, Mariska Hargitay. But for the most part, we’re living in a men’s world in movies and the media, and even the chick flicks feature chicks desperate for a rooster!

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. Visit her at


Anonymous said...

This book sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

JD said...

This post was great! I love Gone with the Wind.