Gone With the Wind has blown back onto video in a new edition. But its influence whirls all around us, from Ally McBeal to the Star Wars theme, Review by Troy Patterson, Michael Sragow, Ty Burr, Stephen Whitty
The biggest movie ever, Gone With the Wind occupies a larger space in the cultural consciousness than, say, The Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane, although those two classics are more often cited for their lasting influence. Now, with a restored edition of David O. Selznick's epic melodrama out on tape, laserdisc, and DVD, four writers try to place what was blowing in The Wind--and how we're still feeling it today.
SCARLETT O'HARA'S FEMININE MYSTIQUE
"Is feminism dead?" asked the cover of TIME, signaling with a photo of TV's Ally McBeal that the question was rhetorical. No matter what the culture critics say, Ally less resembles the "quintessential postfeminist" that Newsweek describes than a throwback to a pre-feminist character type exemplified by Scarlett O'Hara.
Each is a daughter of her society's ruling class (Scarlett, the Southern gentry; Ally, the Northeastern meritocracy). Each pines hopelessly after an unavailable dreamboat (Ashley Wilkes and Billy, respectively). Where Scarlett has a mammy to comfort her in heartache, Ally has the '90s pop-cult equivalent, the sassy black roommate. And each expresses her romantic torment with big eyes that brattishly bug out at a perceived affront and a fat bottom lip alternately trembled in heartbreak, nibbled comically in fluster, and protruded in coquettish pouts.
Scarlett and Ally are fairy-tale princesses who bear about as much resemblance to real women as Barbie and Skipper. The fact that there's no longer a place in the fairy tale for Rhett Butler seems one small step for Girl Power.
BUTLER AND BOND
Clark Gable's Rhett Butler is the rakehell hero of the movies. He's a bon vivant who's also a virile romancer; though wise to the ways of love and war, he can still defend young Scarlett and Old Dixie. To gauge how vast his influence is, compare this cosmopolitan macho with modern film's trademark man of action, James Bond--especially as embodied by Sean Connery (who took the role planned for Gable in The Man Who Would Be King) and Timothy Dalton (who played Rhett Butler, too, in the TV miniseries Scarlett). 007's erotic quips follow straight from Rhett's verbal jousts with Scarlett. Bond rattles off tactical analyses to Goldfinger as persuasively as Butler ticks off the reasons to appalled plantation owners why the Confederacy will lose the war. Both are masters of maneuvering behind enemy lines and overwhelming ambivalent females. Indeed, only bad timing prevented Connery's Bond from facing his Scarlett. Bond composer John Barry noted that getting Connery and Diana Rigg together "would have really created a bombshell."
THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME
One aspect of Gone With the Wind blows stronger than ever: Max Steiner's music. The full-bodied orchestral score was pretty much invented by Steiner, the Viennese composer who arrived in Hollywood in 1929 and revolutionized the field with his score for 1933's King Kong. Gone With the Wind remains both his greatest achievement and a Baedeker of his style. All the hallmarks are there: the swelling "Tara's Theme" that opens and closes the film, the character motifs, the use of period tunes, the mickeymousing in which the orchestra illustrates the action.
They're all still around, too, in the work of John Williams, the Star Wars composer who brought orchestral scores back into favor. But if Williams' music for, say, 1997's Amistad is a neo-Steineristic treat on CD, bursting with folk melodies and stirring themes, on the screen it underlines the action like a smudgy crayon. Ironically, Gone With the Wind's longest-lived legacy may be the one that still needs to grow up a bit.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS ILL
Interior, plantation, day.
Rhett Butler pauses in the doorway. Looks down at Scarlett.
Rhett: Frankly, my dear...I do give a damn.
They embrace. The music swells. Fade out. Roll credits.
Now imagine Alvy and Annie, walking down the aisle at the end of Annie Hall. Imagine Katie winning Hubbell in The Way We Were. Imagine Holly Hunter going off with William Hurt in Broadcast News or Julia Roberts finally snagging Dermot Mulroney in My Best Friend's Wedding.
You can't imagine that?
You can't, because Gone With the Wind made boy-and-girl-give-up a possibility for Hollywood romances; you can't, because your cynicism makes that bittersweet blueprint so popular. Today, kiss-and-make-up fade-outs draw smirks, not smiles; smart love stories know a three-hanky epic snags a fourth when flaws, not fate, write its unhappy ending. Gone With the Wind's conventional attributes--its stars, its scale, its schmaltz--make it work. But its unconventional ending makes it last.