I must admit, there was a time in my youth when I was a bit obsessed with Gone with the Wind, both the book and movie. I was enamored with the epic story, sweeping romance, and strong heroine Scarlet O'Hara. I have since come to realize that it is the epitome of the antebellum melodrama, romanticizing a lifestyle built on the inhumane system of slavery, one we fought a war to eradicate. But it never occurred to me that the makers of the film struggled with that too. The character of Ben Hecht, who in real life was a Civil Rights activist and Zionist, had never read the book before being asked by Selznick to rewrite Sidney Howard's screenplay, and is flabbergasted when he learns that the hero of the story is "a two-timing adulteress slave-owning murderer," calling the book "an elegy to the Old South." He continually questions Selznick, asking him how his conscience can allow him to tell this story in which the "heroes" participate in a Klan raid, calling on him as a fellow Jew to think about what's brewing in Europe (did I mention this is 1939?) and the parallels to slavery. Selznick claims he's just giving the audience, the true power holders, what they want, and promises to make the black characters as fully formed as the white characters. A sad compromise but maybe a necessary one at the time, and while Hattie McDaniel did become the first African American actor to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy, she did so by playing a stereotypical role (see By the Way, Meet Vera Stark for more on that issue). In the end Ben decides to help his friend David make the movie he wants to make out of what he calls "either a very good bad book or a very bad good book."
|the director, the screenwriter, and the producer|
(Warren Sampson, Jeffrey Maas, and David VanDerGriff)
While it is really funny, there are a couple things about this play that are uncomfortable, perhaps intentionally so. The men use sexist and homophobic language common at the time. At best the audience reacts with: wow can you imagine people used to talk like that? At worst, they laugh at the inappropriate comments rather than being shocked by them. But what made me most uncomfortable was when Fleming acted out the role of the young black maid Prissy (in the infamous "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies" scene). A white man adopting a high-pitched voice and speaking pidgin English in the impersonation of a black girl feels inappropriate, as does the laughter elicited from Lyric Arts' predominantly white audience (bringing to mind the recent conversation co-hosted by the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and the Guthrie, in which the issue about laughing for the wrong reasons was brought up). In fairness the audience does also laugh at Fleming's Clark Gable impersonation, but there are larger implications in the Prissy impersonation. I hope that the audience thinks about those implications rather than just laughs as the easy humor on the surface of it.
Ben Hecht wants David Selznick to make movies that will force American to look at its ugly history (and present) in the face. David Selznick wants to make the escapist entertainment that America wants. Hopefully this play is a little bit of both - a hilarious romp through one crazy week in Hollywood history, with a little something serious to say about the purpose of art and our difficult history as a nation. Moonlight and Magnolias continues at Lyric Arts in Anoka through June 18.