Sunday, May 31, 2015

1939: Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind

In this epic Best Picture Winner, which I blogged about before here, Vivien Leigh plays Scarlett O'Hara, a strong-willed Southern Belle who is desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes. Unfortunately, he is engaged, and later married, to Melanie, who is probably the kindest person on the planet, but whom Scarlett despises. It takes Scarlett three marriages and a civil war to discover that she and Ashley really aren't very well suited, and she actually loves her third husband Rhett Butler, but by then he frankly and famously no longer gives a damn.

When Margaret Mitchell's novel was published in 1936, it became an instant bestseller. The public loved its main characters, and people were pretty much in agreement from the beginning that Clark Gable should play Rhett Butler. But the casting of Scarlett was far more controversial. The studio gave the public opportunities to vote on which star they wanted, and dozens of actresses were screen-tested, including Bette Davis, who had just played a remarkably similar character in Jezebel. But no one was quite right, so they actually started filming before the role was cast. Apparently, Vivien Leigh came to watch them shoot, and the producer, David O. Selznick, noticed that she looked a lot like the way Scarlett was described in the book, so he offered her the part. Given that she was born in India to an English father and French/Irish mother, she must have seemed an odd choice to play the Belle of Georgia, but now no one questions it because she did such a phenomenal job.

In some ways, I find this performance very difficult to evaluate, simply because Scarlett O'Hara is one of the most frustrating characters for me to watch. On the one hand, I admire her for pursuing her dreams in the midst of extreme hardship, especially in such a restrictive society, but the way she goes about it is so despicable that I also kind of hate her. I typically spend most of the film yelling at her (as my family members who were watching it with me this time can attest), mostly something along the lines of, "No you do NOT love Ashley, so just stop it!" or "Come on, just ask Frank for the money, don't steal him from your sister!" Then, in the last hour or so, when she's finally starting to realize that she loves Rhett but won't let him know, I usually shout, "USE YOUR WORDS!" at least four or five times. But the fact that I get so frustrated with her means that I do actually care about her, which would not be possible if she hadn't been played so well.

So while I really don't know how to feel about the character, I do know that this is one of the best onscreen performances I've ever seen. Leigh perfectly brings Scarlett to life with her facial expressions, her mannerisms, her emotions, and a very convincing Southern accent. This movie is literally four hours long, and she's in pretty much every scene, and she has to portray a wide range of emotions that involve lots of different types of crying, not to mention significant character growth shot out of sequence, and she is always perfectly spot on. I'm fairly certain there's not a moment that could have been played better. I understand why people have problems with a Civil War film from the South's point of view, and the "happy slave" aspect is certainly cringe-worthy, but if you let that stop you from watching this film you're seriously missing out. Vivien Leigh's fantastic performance alone would make this film well worth watching, but when it's combined with the rest of the incredible cast all giving some of their best performances, gorgeous cinematography, and an engaging - albeit frustrating - story, Gone with the Wind becomes a must-see.

Vivien Leigh is an unusual movie star in that she won both of her Oscars for her two most famous, and quite possibly best, performances. Her second was for 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire, so stay tuned for more about her in a while. But in the immediate future, I get to talk about Ginger Rogers.

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