Frankly, Scarlett, You're Still One To Reckon With
At least author Aljean Harmetz thinks so
NEW YORK — "I don't give a hoot."
"It has become of no concern to me."
"It makes my gorge rise."
"My indifference is boundless."
If none of these lines sound familiar, it's because none found a place in "Gone With the Wind," the 1939 classic that has become one of the most beloved films in Hollywood history.
But all were contenders for the picture's final cut, sent to producer David O. Selznick as possible replacements for the most famous line in Margaret Mitchell's popular novel. That sentence - "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" - was deemed offensive for moviegoers by the Production Code Administration, the film industry's guardian of on-screen morals from the mid-1930s until the early '60s.
In the end, Selznick won his fight. The movie was shown to censors with another substitute line - "Frankly, my dear, I don't care" - to obtain the seal needed for theatrical distribution. With this in hand, Selznick promptly reinserted the forbidden word and prepared for battle with code administrators.
Censorship then, now
The outcome: a slap-on-the-wrist fine for Selznick, agreement from officials that this portion of the code should be reconsidered, and release of Rhett Butler's naughty dialogue to countless theaters, where moviegoers proved quite capable of taking it in stride.
These events of the late 1930s are remarkably similar to today's tangles over censorship issues, according to Aljean Harmetz, author of "On the Road to Tara: The Making of Gone With the Wind," her lavishly illustrated new book (Harry N. Abrams, 224 pp., $39.95).
"Selznick did exactly what producers do today," Harmetz said in a recent interview, "when [they] need a particular rating, like a PG-13 or an R, depending on the movie. There were things in the script submitted to the Production Code that he knew would be taken out, just like producers now put in scenes or shots that go too far. They know these materials will be taken out, and this [bargaining] will allow other things - things they really want - to stay in."
Harmetz's desire to tell the whole story of "Gone With the Wind" censorship - including tussles over racist words, prostitution, and sexuality - was a key reason for her decision to write "On the Road to Tara" after previous books on "Casablanca" and "The Wizard of Oz," other legendary pictures from Hollywood's golden age. But as a woman, she was also fascinated by the movie's portrait of a strong, ornery heroine with a unique place in motion-picture mythology.
Forceful females were not unknown in Hollywood productions. "In the '30s you had any number of strong career women in movies," Harmetz says. But they had to be portrayed in accordance with unwritten rules.
"Gangster films centered on a criminal who was totally immoral," the historian notes. "In the end he was punished by being killed, but he had an awful lot of fun for 92 minutes before that. It's the same with women. There were wonderful movies with Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, in which they were the strong centers ... until the very end, when instead of being killed they'd succumb to the love of a good man and become good wives and mothers."
What makes Scarlett O'Hara different "is a matter of degree and tone," Harmetz continues. "She is the center of that movie, and in the end she is left manless.... What's also interesting is that Clark Gable, a virile symbol of total masculinity on the screen, is in the throes of love for a woman who does not love him back. She marries him without loving him and comes to realize that she loves him only when he's about to leave her.
"One of the things that makes the movie meaningful today is Scarlett's character. It's not only that she's dead center [in the movie] but that she's a schemer and at the same time a wonderful, realistic pragmatist."
Harmetz herself has a streak of the strong, realistic pragmatist. As film-industry correspondent for The New York Times from 1978 to 1990, she became Hollywood's most powerful female journalist, and her 1983 book, "Rolling Breaks and Other Movie Business," brought her views on topics as varied as sneak previews and behind-the-scenes drug abuse to a wide national audience. She has also written poetry, fiction, and a Disney Channel documentary on video games.
How did it all begin? "I started out - and I'm not ashamed of it - writing for the fan magazines," Harmetz reports. "It was an earn-as-you-learn occupa- tion.... I only wrote for the three top magazines: Photoplay, Motion Picture, and Modern Screen. A good two-thirds of the writers were women, and they were not looked down upon. People wanted to be covered by them in the late '50s. And then I started writing for [other] national magazines."
Public job, private life
As an influential Hollywood reporter, Harmetz found that being a woman in a man's business was less of a challenge than keeping her privacy.
"Rather than the fact that I was a woman," she recalls, "it was the fact that I kept my personal life totally separate from my professional life that had an effect. I deliberately kept myself an outsider, even though many [other] people - male and female - succumbed to the glamour of being friends with movie stars."
This independence carried a price, since "one of the most difficult things is not making friends.... You find that you're kindred spirits with some people, and some of them may be producers. They're people you like a lot, and then you have a hard time writing as firmly about them as you should. So I kept those relationships to a minimum."
Hollywood was no novelty to Harmetz, whose mother had been an assistant chief of the MGM wardrobe department. "I had grown up outside the studio walls," she recalls, "so to some extent I was immune from being seduced by the glamour.... It was a question of whether you were going to keep your perspective or not. It was when I moved to the Times that the seduction began in earnest.... I can count on the fingers of one hand when I ever went to a party at the house of anyone in Hollywood.... My life was with my husband and my three kids."
Hollywood noticed Harmetz's distinctive approach, and the results were ironic. "I think of myself as a milquetoast," she says smiling, "but I got the reputation of being formidable. I have always been candid, which is a result of being brought up by a manipulative mother, and this was a real problem for people. I've written funny articles about what you say, without lying, to a studio executive whose bad movie you've just seen. Things like, 'My, that was a movie!' or 'I've never seen such sunsets!' "
"I guess the combination of being straight-out honest ... and having some sort of presence is what gave me that 'formidable' reputation. Another reason is that I'm probably more hard-nosed in what I write - or was, when I was writing for the Times on a daily basis - than most of the guys."
Harmetz is taking a vacation from her Hollywood beat - her first novel, a thriller called "Off the Face of the Earth," is due from Scribners this summer - but she keeps a sharp eye on movies, and on the increasing visibility of women in the film industry.
"For the very first time," she observes, "women are getting up in the power structure of the studios. You have people like Sherry Lansing - who was the first - and Lucy Fisher.
"Once women get into the power structure in enough numbers, I doubt if they're going to make it a softer, kinder place. But the old boys' network is going to be paralleled by an old girls' network. And that's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned."