Thank God Gone With the Wind is such a fetching title. Otherwise it’d have been replaced at this point by worthier names like Bravo’s The Real Housewife of the Confederacy or Sex and the Scalawags or Wow, That Woman Really Knows How To Ignore A War.
Gone With the Wind is obviously a sincere candidate — like, AFI-style — for Best Movie Ever. The humor (when it’s not sexually violent) holds up almost 75 years later, the grandeur is staggering, and the performances are both as prim and pungent as ever. It remains an unnerving movie thanks to its depiction of the Civil War South as an orange-skied idyll where slaves make lovely and droll sidekicks, and it goes without saying that the politics of the movie, whether historical or sexual, are pretty grim. But that’s just what you get with cinema of that era. Ever seen Woman of the Year? That classic comedy from ’42? It’s actually about a progressive and brilliant female writer who learns to thwart her own ambitions and make breakfast for her husband. Tah-dah! Nice elocution though, Kate.
As your magnolias wither in the November cold, it’s time to warm up inside with fiery cinema. For gays, I recommend giving this towering telenovela and its Hellraiser-like death toll another whirl. Here are the five gayest reasons why.
1. Do you remember Scarlett O’Hara as a charming and effective firebrand? Close! She’s just evil.
I can only assume Margaret Mitchell’s official description of Scarlett O’Hara is “an 1860s Lucy Van Pelt-type sociopath who dresses in Marchesa gowns, is rightfully hated by all women, and thinks the ’Civil War’ is her personal struggle between narcissism and more money.” Because that’s what she is. You might remember Scarlett as a winsome, stalwart belle — and you’re close! She’s actually an amoral hag jackass who is determined to make her mansion pretty again after a war happened without her permission and knocked over a boudoir. She also can’t understand why the plainest man of all time (Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes) won’t divorce his plain-but-honorable wife for her. As his wife is dying in the next room, Scarlett practically asks him, “So, your wife with the widow’s peak is croaking. Pity. Remember how beautiful I am? Shall we make children with horrible hair like yours, the color of Redenbacher butter? Swell! Fiddle-dee-dee, I’m randy and soulless.” She is the worst.
Fortunately, she doesn’t flinch for a second while being the worst, and that makes Scarlett O’Hara the perfect companion for our 238-minute journey. It’s because of Scarlett alone that GWTW is the most re-watchable four-hour movie ever, and Vivien Leigh’s turn as the monstrous paper doll is full of bitchy bluster (The way she snaps that Melanie is a “pale-faced, mealy-mouthed goody-goody” is heaven.), Lake Victoria-sized crying jags, and thoughtful posing. She marries for money twice and pouts when those husbands die as if she misplaced some yogurt coupons. Facts are facts: You can’t be the most ravishing female lead of all time without being evil too. Evil is just pettiness with ambition, and therefore Scarlett O’Hara is the most evil noun in Dixie. Unless you count that snickering alcoholic sexual predator Rhett, of course.
Look at this oily badger and his sawdust mustache. Who could be worse? Well, no one. Rhett Butler is notable for perceiving that Scarlett is vile (“You’re a heartless creature, but that’s a part of your charm!”), but he makes the mistake of expecting us to cheer for his condescension as the movie goes on. And it’s like: Dude, you want to marry this cackling divorcee because you think you’re… smarter than she is? Oh, edgy! Belle Watling, the prostitute you frequent with the Barbara Eden veils, is smarter than both you and Scarlett. Marry her and you have a real match, and you can also play with costume jewelry. But because you see yourself in Scarlett’s stubbornness and immaturity, you’re picking her? What, will you both dress up in hats and wigs and perform Harpo-and-Lucy mime routines with each other? I don’t understand the appeal.
Worse, later in the movie when he purrs, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” to the weeping, apologetic wraith, it’s like we’re supposed to find his self-absorption fabulous and hers pathetic. What? No. At least Scarlett’s selfishness comes with form-fitting mourning gowns. He just drinks too much and gets sexually violent. He is horrible and easy to root against, and therefore we’re almost happily Team Scarlett since she resists his monied stupidity (most of the time) and frustrates him with genital-teasing ease. Though don’t forget! Scarlett is a despicable cyborg princess with bolts for eyes and a Jefferson Davis collectible hubcap for a heart.
But I do giggle when Rhett says, “You shall have the biggest and most vulgar ring in Atlanta.” Haha. Badgers can’t buy rings.
3. Phew! Scarlett is also tacky as hell.
See, Scarlett, this is why you need friends. Because Mammy’s not going to tell you when you look like Marie Antoinette joined a dinner theater production of Show Boat. Scarlett’s wardrobe in Gone With the Wind is freakish and Kabuki-extreme, but she really owns it like a drag queen just milling about Versailles. Or like an evil sorceress milling about an actual sawmill, which she is some of the time. As I indicated here, my favorite looks of hers are the mourning gowns, so fab and powerful in their jet-black austerity.
This is how a woman should look when she’s been liberated from her ugliest husband. Bravo this time, cotillion queen.
4. Sorry to The Honorable Ms. de Havilland: Hattie McDaniel deserved her Oscar.
Now, obviously Hattie McDaniel isn’t given the most complex role of all time as Scarlett’s slave-turned-servant and conscience Mammy, even if she’s also the audience’s ambassador for necessary eyerolls. But she is so, so effective when reprimanding that gross barracuda in the curtain dress. Rhett Butler even acknowledges that he cares about Mammy’s opinion, and while that’s not a thundering compliment, it feels earned given that McDaniel has established a character with gravitas from the pack of cliches she’s been given to serve up. “It makes my blood run cold, the things they say to one another,” she says of Rhett and Scarlett, and that perspective is a grounding force for the entire film.
Olivia de Havilland, who is polite and darling as the shockingly forgiving Melanie, famously stormed out of the Oscars when McDaniel was announced as the Best Supporting Actress winner. She came to her senses, but anyone can see that McDaniel’s firm grasp of her character’s intuition is present in every frame. Melanie’s character shifts may be subtler and harder to act out, but Mammy’s are more compelling, even if we want her to scream, “More like A Strumpet Named Desire!” at Scarlett every five seconds.
And come on: Some days we all wear a red petticoat under our work clothes, don’t we?
5. Some un-ironic pleasures: This entire movie is completely beautiful.
Even when Gone With the Wind breaks off into a smaller scene — say, when Scarlett and her father are staring off into the tangerine-colored distance or Scarlett finds herself tugging at her horse in some tough terrain — every moment is exquisitely realized. Sure, it often looks like a set, but every set is the most spectacular play you’ve ever seen. Then of course you have the truly gigantic scenes, like the unending street of dying men (where Scarlett is inching through them like the whole situation amounts to “icky”) or the shocking and towering visual of a mansion burning down as Scarlett’s carriage wheels away. You will simply not find that attention to detail or grandiosity in any other film. Nothing there is computer-generated, and nothing in those exceptional spectacles seems overdone. It’s so rare that we can be awed by a movie anymore. Gone With the Wind will always awe you, sometimes with its characters’ punchy humor and awful intentions, but most of the time with its operatic scope and presentation.
Well, great balls of fire, what are your favorite parts of Gone With the Wind? Could you crush on Leslie Howard through three straight marriages?