In the late summer of 2004, I had the great honor of being invited to interview Olivia De Havilland for Premiere. We spent a little over an hour and a half in a suite at The Pierre in Manhattan, and out discussion ranged over a large number of points in her career and life, not including her musical number in Thank Your Lucky Stars or her strained relations with her sister, Joan Fontaine. And of course Gone With The Wind came up. I no longer have a transcript of the interview, but I do have the finished article. I structured the piece so that my questions were not included (I rather enjoy this anachronistic practice, particularly when more and more these days when I read interviews with performers and directors the questions are longer, more tortured, and more self-important than the answers), and so, Miss De Havilland's thoughts about the movie appear as below, in the article under a subhead of the film's title.
The movie has universal appeal for not only individuals but for whole nations. I got letters from every country in the worlds. All countries have experienced war and defeat. And survival. They can identify with that film for, I think, that reason. Whole populations know what it’s like to flee. And then of course individuals, their lives go through great crises and events and disappointments and worse than that.
The film was beautifully cast. It’s a most remarkable job of casting. Vivien, especially. Perfect, perfect, perfect. Clark was perfect, perfect. Prissy [Butterfly McQueen] was perfect. All of the others.
It was an immense responsibility for the different actors. Especially for Clark. Because he had to match in the film the readers’ impression, image, of Rhett Butler. And his career was at stake. And, well—he matched the image, didn’t he?
I just loved the character of Melanie. And had wonderful help, both from George Cukor and from [director] Victor Fleming in developing the character. She was such a loving person. Of course, to play a loving person well, you become loving. And you become happy. I think loving people are happy people. Scarlett did not have that happiness. She had other emotions, but I don’t think she had happiness. Melanie did. So she was a beloved character and one that blessed me during those six months of playing her.
As I mentioned, I don't have the transcript so I can't tell you what my question was, but I still do recall, vividly, how disarmed and surprised I was when she began talking about the film from the perspective of countries/populations experiencing war and defeat. And I thought, in all honesty, that her perspective was interesting and legitimate, and it helped me look in the movie in a new way, because for a very long time I considered it a movie about how awesome plantations were, and as awesome as they looked in the film, designed as they were by the great William Cameron Menzies, I took some exception to that view.
And of course Gone With The Wind is about more than how awesome plantations were, and it is about what De Havilland was talking about, and I was happy to, when I brought up the film, let her take the conversational reins. I declined to interject, "But racism!"
One the one hand, this arguable makes me a bad journalist. On the other hand, why should I, in the context of an interview meant to constitute a career retrospective, hold De Havilland responsible, or answerable, for what was/is in fact a systemic concern? I mean, quite a few of the people responsible for adapting Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-Prize-winning (yes it did!) novel to the screen were not un-progressive in their politics, at least for their time. David O. Selznick might have been a garden-variety Yankee racist in his everyday life but he did not advocate slavery. George Cukor was a gay man. The racial politics of both the film itself and the people who made it are delved into in revelatory detail in a 1999 Atlantic article by Leonard J. Leff that I recommend highly.
"I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film," Leff quotes Selznick, in a memo to screenwriter Sidney Howard. I have no doubt that Selznick was sincere. But, not to be a kind of socio/psychotherapist, that statement also underscores how poorly Selznick understood whatever racism he himself harbored. Because there's no doubt that Gone With The Wind is a racist film. It doesn't merely put forth "unfortunate racial attitudes" (and what a very caucasian phrase that is), racism is in its DNA. It is not a difficult point to understand. Try a thought experiment: were you to undertake a remake of Gone With The Wind that would expunge the material of its racist content, how would you go about doing it? Well, easy, right: first thing you'd do is take it out of the antebellum South. Oh wait.
As Claudia Rankine points out in a recent New York Times Magazine essay, "Anti-black racism is in the culture. It’s in our laws, in our advertisements, in our friendships, in our segregated cities, in our schools, in our Congress, in our scientific experiments, in our language, on the Internet, in our bodies no matter our race, in our communities and, perhaps most devastatingly, in our justice system." It is quite explicitly on display throughout Gone With The Wind, in ways, as Leff's article demonstrates, that its filmmakers were somehow completely unaware of. But to acknowledge that it's a racist film makes many, many people very uncomfortable. Which is arguably an indication of the way racism is so deeply ingrained in the white American character. I allow that people can have a meaningful relationship with Gone With The Wind either in spite of or without acknowledging its racism. But to use weasel phrases like "unfortunate racial attitudes" instead of racism is pure bullshit.
I bring all this up, of course, because my friend Lou Lumenick recently turned some heads with his brief essay in the New York Post suggesting that Gone With The Wind ought not enjoy pop culture pantheon privilege. Reading the piece now, it looks quite a bit milder than its many detractors are making it out to be; in the time-tested tradition of Salon think pieces, it asks why "we" continue to embrace GWTW while deploring the Confederate flag. And then it says "maybe" the movie's best off relegated to museums rather than regular theaters for its 75th anniversary. And for that "maybe" Lou gets called a Nazi! Whoa!
I actually don't agree entirely with Lou, and because I'm a bad person, I actually find it somewhat mordantly amusing that Gone With The Wind gets the conventional-wisdom cultural pass that Birth Of A Nation doesn't merely on the unstated grounds that GWTW's racism is arguably less virulent/more benign than Nation's. How virulent does your racism have to be before you recognize it as racism, I wonder. Because, you know, Hattie McDaniels' Mammie turned out to be the best friend Scarlett ever really had even if Scarlett was too Scarletty to know it. As if Mammie had any choice in the matter of her association with Scarlet. Unfortunate, you betcha.
So one may well be bemused by the fact that cultural attitudes with respect to Gone With The Wind haven't caught up with those on Nation, but the answer to the question it brings up should be blindingly obvious: Post-Racial Society, my ass.
So no, I wasn't going to make Olivia De Havilland my poster child for that. Premiere wasn't The New Inquiry. As for the current Wind concern, I'm not really with what people think Lou said. I think it should be shown everywhere that people want to see it. I think the secretive, stubborn self-censorship that Disney executes on its objectionable content of past years is craven and shameful and I much prefer Warners' practice of putting an informative disclaimer at the front of the content in question. That said, there has to be a cast of mind in which one can admire Gone With The Wind's portrayals of suffering, and of goodness, and of petulance, and of perseverance, without denying that the engine on which its story runs is powered by a particular kind of hatred.