AS SCARLETT AND RHETT, JOANNE WHALLEY-KILMER AND TIMOTHY DALTON ARE TAKING ON A LEGEND
Author: CONNIE PASSALACQUA.
Source: Newsday, 11-10-1994, pp
ALTHOUGH IT has been 55 years since the release of "Gone With the
Wind," the film's characterizations remain so vivid that viewers of its
four-part TV sequel, "Scarlett," (which begins Sunday night on CBS)
will most likely have trouble swallowing the mini-series' casting. Can that
really be Esther Rolle playing Mammy? And Stephen Collins playing Ashley Wilkes?
Is that Ann-Margret as Belle Watling? Fiddle-dee-dee, as
Scarlett herself might say.
Even if no one gives a damn about the supporting cast, what's crucial to the
success of the mini-series is for the audience to buy Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as
Scarlett O'Hara and Timothy Dalton as Rhett Butler. And despite their respective
reputations as international film
stars, Brits Dalton and Whalley-Kilmer know they can't really compete with the
images of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in those roles. "For a
while into the shooting, we kept saying `Clark-Vivien, Clark-Vivien,
Clark-Vivien,' but we just had to learn to stop that," says Whalley-Kilmer
crisply, in New York last week to promote the eight-hour sweeps-month opus
Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday at 9 p.m.
"We're taking on a legend," says Dalton, "and the comparisons are
inevitable. You can't win, and you can't be as good. [Gable and Leigh]
are embedded in cinematic history. But then again, this is an entirely different
The mini-series begins in Reconstruction Atlanta, just after emotionally
battered husband Rhett Butler walks out on Scarlett saying
he doesn't, you know . . . give a damn. And she spends the rest of the
eight hours trying to win back her husband, visiting sympathetic
relatives in picturesque Charleston and Savannah, and later settling in
her ancestral homeland, the even more photogenic Ireland. Meanwhile,
back in Charleston, Rhett revs up the plot even more by divorcing
Scarlett, and remarrying.
Filled with soap opera-esque plot twists, the script for
"Scarlett" lacks both the complex emotions and historical themes of
"Gone With the Wind." Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the 1936 novel on
which the movie was based, was an authentic granddaughter of the
Confederacy. "Scarlett," on which the mini-series is based, was
in 1992 by veteran romance novelist Alexandra Ripley. "Scarlett" is
a bodice-ripper than a well-documented historical novel.
"It's not a bad book, but certainly not half as good as
Mitchell's," comments Dalton, who read both in preparation for the
mini-series. "When I first got the call to play Rhett," he recalls,
thought, are they crazy? You know these [TV bio] movies where they play
Princess Di or Prince Charles - and Clark Gable? Well, I thought,
that's murder! It can't be done, even if you're Laurence Olivier! But
then I realized it really wasn't."
Dalton's had practice taking over a film role made legendary by
another actor. In "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "License to
(1991), he played James Bond. But, he says, "that was a little easier,
because I was not the first actor to play Bond. I was originally asked
to play him when Sean Connery stopped, but I certainly didn't want to
the guy who took over from Sean Connery," he says, laughing. So he
up stepping into the shoes of Roger Moore.
In playing Rhett, Dalton of course was attempting to play Clark
Gable, but to do what Gable did - go back to the original novel and
play the character Margaret Mitchell wrote. "He was kind of this
laid-back, laconic kind of guy. So I tried that for a while. But then I
realized Gable was brilliant in the part because he played it full of
energy. So I tried that." Ultimately, Dalton says, he just had to find
his own way.
Which is exactly what the actor's early background in the British
repertory system taught him. Long before he made his international film
debut in "The Lion in Winter" (1968) and became a sophisticated-teen
heartthrob as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1970), Dalton was making
his way through theater classics, in roles routinely passed down from
one actor to another.
"What I really like about Rhett Butler," Dalton says, "is that
whatever he says or does, whatever he stands for, he doesn't make any
bones about it. He's always straight." And it's in that spirit that
Dalton confesses why he took the role: "It's certainly not a role that
one would deliberately seek out. But if you're an actor, you can only
deal with what's out there. Sometimes you have a lot of choices and
sometimes you don't."
In contrast, Whalley-Kilmer says she was thrilled to be chosen as
Scarlett, one of the 20,000 actresses executive producer Robert Halmi
Sr. says he considered. He reportedly chose the deep-voiced,
exotic-looking actress after he saw a tape of her performance as call
girl Christine Keeler in the film "Scandal" (1989). "At first I
happy," says Whalley-Kilmer, "because it's a great, great role. But
afterwards you have to think about the practicalities, and a few
do pop in."
First, there were those comparisons to fellow-Englishwoman Leigh.
Whalley-Kilmer, "At our first rehearsals of `Scarlett' in London, we
realized we were in essentially the same position. So we said, `Let's
talk about it, we'll deal with that, let's go on.' And that's exactly
what we did."
Looking back now, says Whalley-Kilmer, the most difficult part of
the project was the rigors of six long months of filming: She appears
in just about every scene. Although the actress had been on long,
complex international movie shoots before (in her 1988 debut film,
"Willow," and most, recently, this year's "A Good Man in
"Trial by Jury") she admits having been thrown by a much faster
TV taping schedule.
"The first month," she says, "it hit me like a ton of bricks. We
shot many more scenes a day, which I was not used to. I didn't have two
minutes to myself in any given day. I hardly had any time to get my
together before a scene. That, along with costume changes, wig
period accoutrements - fans, accessories." She adds, "It took me a
while to hit my stride, get my rhythm working."
Whalley-Kilmer notes that what first motivated her to become an
actress was watching 1930s American movies on TV from the same era as
the original "Gone With the Wind." "This is as close as I'll ever
to playing Bette Davis. I love the whole style of `Scarlett.' It's
romantic melodrama - which I think is just as much a style as a
While the actress, who is married to actor Val Kilmer, says she
would have rejected any offer to play Scarlett in a remake of "Gone
the Wind," doing a sequel offered her the chance to portray a character
who matures psychologically on-screen. In "Scarlett," the once
coquettish title character is in her 30s, with three marriages behind
her. "She's growing and changing as we hopefully all do. She's coming
terms with things. She's learned compassion. Certainly, we can't all
remain as we were when we were seventeen."
But will Whalley-Kilmer and Dalton pull it off?
"You worry about acceptance in any part," says Dalton. "But as I
used to say with Bond, if you fail, you fail miserably. Because the
audience around the world is just huge. But as we actors are gamblers,
admit there's also a certain perverse thrill to it."
Still, he says, "I think there are a lot of people waiting to
us. They are sharpening their pencils, as we speak, don't you think?"