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Hamptons Life

Jun 2, 2009 5:48 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Frankly, it’s a surprisingly lively septuagenarian

Jun 2, 2009 5:48 PM

Seventy years after Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, “Gone with the Wind,” was turned into a cinematic blockbuster, author and critic Molly Haskell has written a new book about why, frankly, we should give a damn about Scarlett and Rhett and the tale of Tara in 21st century America.

The answer: The story and characters are more complex, more richly full of contradictions than most people give them credit for.

On Sunday, June 14, Ms. Haskell will discuss her book, “Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited,” with Wendy Keys, a board member for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, following a rare, free presentation of the 222-minute film at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. The screening will begin at 1 p.m.

Despite the popularity of the franchise—“Gone with the Wind” is the largest grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation, according to Ms. Haskell’s publisher—a rigorous defense of the texts and, in particular, the gender politics had never been written. Beloved by romantics but roundly dismissed by critics and scholars for its impolitic treatment of race and gender, “Gone with the Wind,” oddly enough, was in need of an apologist.

Enter Yale University Press, searching for an author to add a “Gone with the Wind” volume to its Icons of America series, which previously had tackled such varied subjects as Fred Astaire, Alger Hiss and the hamburger. The publisher tapped Ms. Haskell, who has written for The New York Times, the Village Voice, Vogue and New York Magazine.

“I never would have initiated this,” Ms. Haskell, a part-time Quogue resident, admitted during a recent telephone interview from her Manhattan apartment. “It was so

fraught with issues, it was almost too hot to handle.”

As someone who recognizes echoes of Scarlett O’Hara in her own biography—growing up in the South and resisting social expectations by escaping to New York—Ms. Haskell said she had consumed the novel as an adolescent with mischievous delight, as the book was not “approved” reading. Nonetheless, she confessed that she was not “a fanatical admirer” of either the book or the movie. That detachment, she said, was to her advantage as she investigated three general topics: how the texts were created; what they meant, and how they were received.

No one is arguing that “Gone with the Wind” is an underappreciated masterpiece but, Ms. Haskell does assert that the politics of the book and film have been oversimplified in critical and scholarly circles.

Digging into the history of the novel, Ms. Haskell discovered that Ms. Mitchell was a woman who underwent a remarkable transformation after 
starting out as a rebellious Jazz Age debutante who shocked the old guard by flaunting her sexuality at balls and 
marrying a bootlegger—“like Rhett Butler, only not as charming,” Ms. Haskell said. After she divorced her first husband, she morphed into a matronly lady who represented “everything Scarlett dreaded becoming,” eventually marrying an Ashley Wilkes type. “Everything in her life was put into the book,” Ms. Haskell said.

That the film should become first a hit and then a classic was even more improbable. “Fifteen screenwriters. Five directors. It never should have worked,” she said. “It goes against all of the rules.”

Ms. Haskell spends much of her book exploring the fortuitous convergence of Ms. Mitchell, producer David O. Selznick and actress Vivien Leigh—each unusually driven, battling their own eccentricities. Ms. Haskell digs up some juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes, such as fired director George Cukor continuing to work with Ms. Leigh and costar Olivia de Havilland on their characters in secret, and Ms. Leigh’s reliance on sexual escapades with Laurence Olivier to rejuvenate herself before re-shooting different scenes.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting argument is Ms. Haskell’s revisionist contention that Scarlett, even as her waist is cinched into the suffocating harness of fashionable Southern dresses, is a protofeminist: a tough, unrepentant heroine who struggles against accepted gender norms.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Ms. Haskell summarized her point: “Scarlett has left a mixed legacy: shrewd, manipulative and narcissistic, her legatees are celebrity survivors and ‘Sex and the City’ shopaholics. But the way she chafed against the restraints on her sex still resonates 
with women who have refused to go docilely into marriage and motherhood.”

Although the texts have lost shock value over the decades, the central questions of a woman’s role in “the new order” and how to negotiate the demands of work and home life still resonate, Ms. Haskell said.

“We can’t quite settle how we feel about her,” she continued. “One moment we want to wring her neck and the next we want to embrace her and forgive her. That’s what gives her an enduring edge.”

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