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Q&A: Film critic Molly Haskell discusses “Gone With The Wind”

By Sarah Strohl

Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.

 

In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.

 

Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.

 

You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?

​I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.

 

You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?

​If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!​

 

You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?

​I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such ​galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.​

 

 

When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?

​Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.​

 

 

When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?

​It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they ​were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.

 

Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?

​It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.

 

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Image: Cover of Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s papers open for research

By Elana Estrin

In the late 1970s, screenwriter Paul Schrader began writing a script titled Born in the U.S.A., and he asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for the film. The script sat on Springsteen’s table until one day, while working on a song called “Vietnam,” he noticed Schrader’s script, sang the title, and “Born in the U.S.A.” became the hit title song of one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Springsteen eventually wrote a new song for the script, which Schrader renamed Light of Day (1987).

Drafts of Schrader’s Born in the U.S.A. and Light of Day scripts and correspondence between Schrader and Springsteen are just a few of the many highlights found in Schrader’s archive, which opens for research today at the Ransom Center.

From drafts of the Taxi Driver (1976) screenplay to Schrader’s baby book, from an outline for Raging Bull (1980) to letters from Schrader’s parents, the archive encompasses Schrader’s career and personal life.

Photographs abound in the archive. Of particular note are film stills, on-set photos, and publicity shots for Taxi Driver, the film that launched Schrader’s career. One photo shows Schrader and a young Jodie Foster at the Cannes Film Festival, and another shows Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro laughing on set. Invoking De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle, Scorsese inscribed a photo of him with Schrader: “From one Travis to another.” In an e-mail, Schrader wrote that he felt like a Travis Bickle “at one time.”

Immediately following Jaws’s blockbuster success, Steven Spielberg asked Schrader to write a screenplay for what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg read Schrader’s script, but they didn’t agree on how the story should progress. Spielberg ended up writing the script himself, but drafts and notes for Schrader’s version are included in his archive.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan asked Schrader to direct a music video shot in Japan for his song “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Unhappy with the result, Schrader later called the video “a source of embarrassment.” In addition to scripts, photographs, and film documenting the video production, Schrader’s archive includes a 2002 letter to an executive at Sony in which Schrader looks back on the project 16 years later:

“It was a disaster. Bob had asked me to do it but I really didn’t ‘get’ the new music video language. He didn’t want to do it and by the middle of the shoot I didn’t want to do it. I remember saying to him at one point, ‘Bob, if you ever hear I’m making another music video, just take me out in the back yard and hose me down.’”

When asked how he felt about his archive opening to the public, Schrader responded, “I hope to be too busy to even give it a thought.”

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.