This February marks the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind’s 1940 all-out Oscars grab. That year, the film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography in Color, and Best Writing/Screenplay. Additionally, Victor Fleming took an Oscar home for Best Director. Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara, won Best Actress in a Leading Role. And, most importantly, given the film’s backdrop of America’s Civil War and Reconstruction eras, Hattie McDaniel took home an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, making her the first African American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award.
With the 2015 Oscars right around the corner, Gone with the Wind—a film often categorized as a “classic” that’s romanticized as a “love” story and dubbed “family-friendly,” is one that’s reshown at theatres across the nation around this time of year. In the afterglow of 12 Years a Slave’s blockbuster success and the critically acclaimed story that it brought to life on screen, filmmakers and viewers alike would today cringe at the white, wealthy Southern perspective that rules the set in Gone with the Wind. Its American “classic” status can be hard to swallow. Despite that label, we can’t ignore the rest of the film’s subject matter, a duplicity that raises some serious questions: How does a film that blatantly portrays slaves that seem content in their roles, and a wife who wakes up happy the morning after her husband rapes her, transition to a beloved American family movie? Does the passing of decades allow us to sweep aside the more disturbing aspects of the film? Not really.
This past fall, the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center featured a sprawling gallery exhibit celebrating Gone with the Wind. Despite the perplexing questions that nagged at me about the film, I walked through the GWTW exhibit in downtown Austin with fresh eyes—I’d seen the movie, but it had been years. I remembered the classic lines—“You think that by saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ all the past can be corrected,” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I also remembered that the film had been released in the thick of the nation’s Depression era and was renowned for its costumes, as well as for the characters of Rhett and Scarlett and Mammy.
The exhibit began at the beginning, with pages from Margaret Mitchell’s original manuscript displayed in glassed light boxes. The gallery tour walked viewers through the book’s publication and widespread fame, then through the film rights negotiations.
Next came casting. There was much debate about who would play the leading roles of Rhett and Scarlett. The casting staff wanted a new face as Scarlett and a reliable staple heartthrob as Rhett. Nowhere did I see any correspondence about how the public would respond to the film’s major issues that kept me reluctant to label it a classic— namely unsettling portrayals of racism and spousal rape. The exhibit did, however, include a handwritten note from the author to the casting director that read simply, “Clark Gable or 10,000,000 hearts broken.”
I looked over my shoulder at the portions of the exhibit that dominated the gallery space—the curtain dress, the wedding dress, the blue peignoir, and the green wrapper. Each costume signified an important development for Scarlett as she became more resilient, more steadfast in her determination to survive her own struggles.
But I remember one of Mammy’s lines more poignantly than Scarlett’s relative challenges. “You been brave so long, Miss Scarlett. You jes’ gotta go on bein’ brave.” It’s that line that, to me, speaks as subtext to the unspoken issue of human rights in that film. But it also foreshadows the cinematic history that was triggered after the rise of Gone with the Wind’s popularity— increasingly more accurate portrayals of slavery and of African-American voices. A truer depiction of American history, but with more ground still to cover.
Though we remember the romance of those earlier films, and the 10 million hearts that were buoyed during the Depression by casting Clark Gable as Rhett Butler (which has a certain sweetness and optimism), today’s films are braver. They deal more directly with heavy subject matter. And they keep on being brave. With each Oscar ceremony that passes, we get to witness an improvement on bravery through the writers, directors, and actors that bring stories to life on screen. Films that garnered nominations in various categories this year are Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, American Sniper, Wild, and many others that continue to raise the bar of bravery in film. Check out the nominees in each category here.
CLICK HERE to vote for your personal Best Picture choice.