April 2009

Jessica Ferri

nonfiction

Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell

As a woman born and raised in Georgia, the character of Scarlett O’Hara has always been an inspiration for me, although I do, like many others, take issue with the inherent racism of Gone with the Wind. As a Southern transplant, I have mixed emotions about my hometown, and even more complicated issues with Northerners’ perceptions of the region. Differing opinions on Gone with the Wind, perhaps the most important Civil War novel ever written, and one of the most iconic films ever made, bring these complex feelings to a head for Yanks and Rebs alike.

Both the novel and the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind are practically synonymous with the region itself. Although a flawed, politically incorrect product of its time, its popularity continues to wax, thanks largely to the strength of its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, and the sweeping Technicolor saga that outdid practically ever other film of its time. When it was released in 1939, the film grossed over 1.3 billion dollars in domestic revenue, and since it was published in 1936, the novel has sold over 30 million copies. Molly Haskell, author and film critic, has taken on the daunting task of decoding not only the film’s but the book’s legacy through the avenues of gender and sexual politics in her new book, Frankly, My Dear.

Haskell herself was raised in Virginia, and touches briefly on her personal connection to the film through an interesting discourse on what it means to be a southern lady -- hint: no working in the dirt, no shooting of Yankee soldiers allowed. According to Haskell’s research, Mitchell intended for the demure Melanie to be the heroine of the novel, but her fans had other ideas. It is of course Scarlett that we love and hate, as she manipulates with sex and violence to survive, breaking all social codes along the way. In the book’s most interesting chapter, “Boldness and Desperation,” Haskell recounts the absurd lengths the studio went to in finding the right actress for the part: 1,400 women were interviewed. She goes into great detail about Vivien Leigh’s determination to prevail in winning the role, and her ferocity in giving an accurate portrayal of the character. Director George Cukor said she was “possessed of the devil” to be cast. Leigh’s life-or-death approach to her work, in terms of her health problems stemming from tuberculosis and her wild romance with Laurence Olivier, makes for compelling reading. Scarlett’s story is just as much Leigh’s and Mitchell’s -- and these powerful women are Haskell’s focus.

Gone with the Wind’s defenders define the story as a vehicle for feminism and a coming of age story. Haskell does a wonderful job of weaving Mitchell’s biography into the narrative of how the book and the film came into being -- telling us how much Mitchell fit like a square peg into the round role of Southern debutante. The attention to Mitchell’s biography helps one understand how she was able to write such an emotionally compelling story that still captures people’s hearts despite its problematic illustration of slavery. There is, of course, a need to discuss the racial politics at play here -- and Haskell attempts it, with a few pages dedicated to Mammy and Prissy and the actresses who portrayed them. After catching flak from the NAACP for participating in the film, Hattie McDaniel, the actress that played Mammy, responded, “What do you expect me to play? Rhett Butler’s wife?” While McDaniel’s response certainly speaks for itself, I wish Haskell had taken more time to discuss Mitchell’s racism, and what her reaction was, if any, to those who dismissed the book because of its portrayal of slaves. If you’re looking for a book on the racial politics of Gone with the Wind, this isn’t it.

Haskell is much concerned with Mitchell’s gender dynamics, light-years ahead of their time. A comparison between Scarlett and Sarah Palin made me cringe (poor Scarlett!), but still remains an intriguing link to the present day: “...the new spokesperson for bellicosity and confrontation emerged: a woman. A Scarlett -- who went by the name of Sarah Palin, vice presidential candidate -- posing as a Melanie!” Haskell continues to play up the film’s timeliness in comparing its impotent male characters

Baby-faced Charles Hamilton woos (or is wooed by) Scarlett, and after one night with her, goes off to war to die of measles and pneumonia. Frank Kennedy, a little old maid, can’t collect from his customers and is outwitted by his wife. Ashley Wilkes gives loserdom a high poetic sheen. Gerald O’Hara, a reckless drunk, falls apart with the death of his wife. By contrast, Scarlett is a generalissima on the battlefield of courtship and marriage. Sherman has nothing on the deadly belle-then-widow as she cuts a swathe thought the rolls of Georgia’s most eligible bachelors.

to the men in Judd Apatow’s films, whose accomplishments pale in comparison to their female counterparts. “Surrounded by women both beautiful and competent, and no longer capable of playing helpless... the guys retreat into boozy, stoner fraternities.” Apatow’s films stand in rebellion against the world that Scarlett has created -- where women can take care of themselves.

This book is certainly more of a social history than a cinematic one. Fans of the film and novel, will be hard pressed to find a better book on their cultural allure. Frankly, My Dear is about our obsession with the story of Gone with the Wind -- in particular women’s empathy and association with the character of Scarlett, who stands the test of time as a multifaceted, imperfect, genuine human being, where many of her contemporaries and inheritors have fallen flat as two-dimensional victims. The enduring power of Scarlett’s character, fueled by the passion of Vivien Leigh, is Haskell’s answer as to why the book and film have remained relevant when so many other films and novels were damned because of their political incorrectness. A lively read for any film buff, Frankly, My Dear has managed to capture a cultural giant whose relevance continues to mutate as we change. While it might be unnerving to think of Margaret Mitchell’s response to Barack Obama’s presidency, what would really be intriguing would be her response to Michelle, who morphed from terrorist fist-bumper to formidable first lady in Scarlett-like fashion.

Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0-300-11752-3
244 pages