Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Scarlett's Strength

If someone were to ask me to name my favorite movie, I would quickly reply, unequivocally and unapologetically, Gone With the Wind. The 1939 epic classic is hardly a perfect film (the second half of the movie is not nearly as engaging as the first and let's not even start on the issues of race and the portrayal of most of the black characters), but I love the big bloated behemoth, faults and all. I've seen it countless times including 3 times on the big screen (and let me tell ya, it is the way the film was meant to be seen) including one screening with an introduction from actress Ann Rutherford who played youngest O'Hara daughter, Carreen. I never miss an opportunity to introduce it to new viewers and one summer I made the two little girls that I was babysitting watch it. When their parents came home with an hour left of the film, they joined us in the viewing and we all watched it together, mesmerized.

So I couldn't have been more excited when Nathaniel at The Film Experience chose the film, in honor of its 75th Anniversary year, as the subject for this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot (I was also the one who happened to suggest it, so...) and to better accommodate all the grandeur of the film, this week will focus on the first half and next week on the second. That's right, a double dose of GWTW. Why, I'm just as giddy as Scarlett surrounded by men at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.

With so many memorable and iconic images that have seeped their way into our brains over the many years it has entertained audiences (and those are audiences are as big as the film itself. Adjusted for inflation, the film ranks far and away as the biggest all-time box office champ), filled with countless shots guaranteed to be included in every movie montage ever made, it seems overwhelming to pick just one. But I knew whatever shot I picked would have to include the reason I love the movie so much. It's the reason why it has endured the way it has to become the legend that it is. It is all thanks to the performance of a then relatively unknown British actress taking on one of the most legendary roles in film history: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.

Fiddle-dee-dee, why I'm only the greatest female character in all of film...

When Margaret Mitchell started writing the novel that would eventually become the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone With the Wind (her working title was one of Scarlett's favorite phrases Tomorrow is Another Day), she was said to have based Scarlett on another popular heroine of literature, Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thakery's Vanity Fair. The subtitle of Thakery's book is A Novel Without a Hero, with its anti-heroine Sharp at the core of the story. She is manipulative and unscrupulous, never afraid to use her feminine wiles to charm her way into getting what she wants. Mitchell used these qualities when creating her fiery lead character (who, by the way, was originally given the very pathetic-sounding name of Pansy. Mitchell soon realized that the strong-willed heroine of her story needed a name as bold as her personality) giving Scarlett Becky Sharp's sway over men and a steadfast determination. 

It's that determination that's most admirable in Scarlett. Spoiled, selfish, and not the best judge of her own well-being - that Scarlett could actually believe she's in love with the prissy Ashley Wilkes is one of her biggest flaws. So clearly wrong for her on every level, she has convinced herself that his unattainable love is the ultimate prize to win. In the hands of a lesser actress, Scarlett could easily become a heartless, one-note bitch. Luckily, with Vivien Leigh at the helm, Scarlett became a multifaceted creation. Full of nuance and prickly motivations, she never feels the need to win us over as Scarlett would with one of her beaus, knowing that complexity is much more fascinating than easy likability.

It helps that Leigh, herself, was just as determined as the character she portrayed. Fighting off thousands of young hopefuls to play the coveted part in the film (she once remarked that the body heat of the previous actress was still warm when she filmed her screen test), Leigh was telling people years before they even started work on the film that she would win the role - all without having set a foot in Hollywood. But when she finally did arrive, once filming had already begun on the film - without its main character - she made her presence known, perfectly calculating her arrival for maximum effect. The flames of Atlanta as her backdrop, Leigh was the phoenix from the ashes that Selznick needed to bring his story to life.

And that singleminded dedication to succeed is what also inspired my choice for Best Shot. After Scarlett has escaped Atlanta, with Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) and Melanie's newborn child with Ashley in tow, she believes her troubles will be over once she reaches her beloved home of Tara. Unfortunately that's hardly the case as Tara has been stripped of all its resources and depleted of its food supply, her mother has recently died, and her father has gone mad from the stress of it all. Aching and starving, Scarlett goes out to the garden and chokes down a bite of mealy carrot, only to have the foul taste come right back up. But instead of becoming defeated by it all, it only provides fuel to the fire that rages inside her. With clenched jaw and raised fist, Leigh delivers Scarlett's most famous (often parodied) and impassioned speeches:
As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to beat me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!
Best Shot

Scarlett is not the same person she was in that first shot of her sitting on the porch, flirting with the Tarleton Twins, not a care in the world. That girl is gone, in her place is a woman of iron grit and strength. She has lived through hardship and knows that many more will follow. And with the swell of "Tara's Theme" playing as the camera pulls back to create its famous shot of Scarlett's silhouette against the blood-red sky, I always get chills. The power of that moment is what film is all about - inspiring us to muster the same resilience, shake our fist at the world, and stand as tall as Scarlett O'Hara.

Make sure to come back next Tuesday, August 26th, to see the second part of our GWTW celebration...

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