Thursday, November 5, 2015

Birthday Take: Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind" (1939)

Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Vivien Leigh
Born: November 5, 1913 
Died: July 8, 1967 (53 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress (won) as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind

The Take

At the end of the day, there hasn't been any film as popular as director Victor Fleming's epic Gone with the Wind. While many could argue its actual quality, there's no getting around the sheer numbers of people who saw it. Sure, films like Avatar and Titanic have out-grossed it by box office numbers, but considering how much lower ticket prices were in 1939, the numbers are more impressive. Gone with the Wind can be argued to have been seen by over a billion people and, when adjusted for inflation, still has the highest box office total of all time. True, many could argue its overall quality, but those numbers don't lie. It was and remains one of the most popular films of the 30's, and in Hollywood film history period.

At the center of the film is one of the biggest reasons it works: Vivien Leigh. Starring as Scarlett O'Hara, she strolls through Antebellum South in the final days before the Civil War. In lush outfits, she demands attention and will throw a fit if she doesn't. She doesn't seem like a compelling central figure, especially for a four hour movie. However, there's something to the performance that remains just as striking. There is no denying that she is in some ways crazy and too controlling. She definitely doesn't deserve sympathy. It's what's mistaken by contemporary audiences who cannot handle the idea of an anti-hero. The finale isn't meant to be the failures of  good woman, but someone who did all she could to maintain an outdated and bygone era - only to lose it when the one man she loved gives up on her. The film's ending is a tragedy, even if it's pinned by an optimistic sentence.

I know that film is a collaborative effort and that Clark Gable as Rhett Butler is just as important to the plot. However, I don't think that the film works without understanding the nuances that Leigh brought to the role. O'Hara is detestable in all of the ways that have since become the norm for cinematic characters. However, I think that a lot of what makes her so strong is that Leigh is able to convince you of something menacing to come by her deep and jealous stare. Fleming's direction is also really effective, as he paces these stares in between moments of absurdity that only heighten the melodrama around her. By the end, she seems crazy because the world has turned on her. A lot of that needs to be thanked to the director.

I personally find conflict with those that *hate* Gone with the Wind for its dated, racist views. It's fine if you don't personally believe them, but I think that people bring too much baggage to older films and are unable to appreciate their technique. The film is a masterclass in a lot of respects, from the Max Steiner score to the Technicolor to the performances. Even the underlying romanticism for the Antebellum South is somehow bittersweet. Still, what makes it work is that it's about people who are forced to move on from it, but get caught up in their own egotistical selves. It's a contrived film, sure. But it's not one that is necessarily endorsed wholeheartedly. After all, O'Hara is an anti-hero first and foremost, even if she's played with progressive views. 

I don't intend to get into an argument about Gone with the Wind and its dated views. To me, that's foolish, as if expecting everyone to have the same purified opinion as you do. Cinema needs to be conflicting. The best films can be inspiring while also having opposed beliefs. With that said, I get if you hate the film from a pacing or story angle. It does seem daunting to get into it, and period pieces are not for everyone. However, it's still an ambitious achievement the likes of which should not be forgotten. Not because of its racism, but because of its impact on film; and the power that having a detestable woman as a central figure can have. She may not be the best woman, but she's the one we all remember. And it's largely thanks to Leigh's great performance.

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