Rhett, Scarlett, Mammy, Ashley, Prissy...
The actors who played these iconic characters from “Gone With the Wind” have all long gone.
But the stories behind the making of the 1939 Civil War epic remain eternal: Hattie McDaniel’s surprise first Oscar victory for a black actress; Clark Gable’s fear of crying on camera; three directors chewed up by the film, and the beloved producer — David O. Selznick — who risked his health to hold things together by fueling his marathon workdays with the stimulant Benzedrine.
Sixty-five years later, the lone survivor from the main cast is Olivia de Havilland, who played the doomed Southern belle Melanie.
“Isn’t that strange?” de Havilland said, recalling the untimely deaths of her co-stars Vivien Leigh, Gable, Leslie Howard, McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. “And Melanie was the only principal character who died. Look at her now...”
Still elegant, healthy and sharp-witted, the 88-year-old de Havilland recently traveled from her home in Paris to Los Angeles to tour the studio lots of her youth, visit old friends and recall her experiences in Hollywood’s most famous version of the Old South.
Last week a new four-disc DVD collection was released to commemorate “Gone With the Wind,” which still comes out far ahead of “Star Wars” as the most popular film of all time when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation.
The Associated Press: Scarlett is so brash, and Melanie is so gentle. The movie shows a kind of feminism emerging in Scarlett. Were you comfortable playing the less aggressive character?
De Havilland: I loved her. I loved everything she stood for. In those days the particular qualities that made her so admirable, and she’s a deeply feminine person, were endangered and they are in a perpetual state of danger.
AP: Three directors worked on this movie — starting with George Cukor (who quit after clashing with Selznick) then Victor Fleming (“The Wizard of Oz” filmmaker who was ultimately given sole credit) and finally Sam Wood (who finished “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and joined up to help after Fleming fell ill.) Did this constant changing worry the cast?
AP: Selznick seems like the constant force. Did he keep morale high?
De Havilland: It was David’s unifying influence that made it possible for us to shoot. You would shoot a scene in the morning, say, with Victor Fleming and then you would change your costume and go to another stage and shoot another scene that afternoon with Sam Wood. For actors, that is agony. But we did it because David made us believe that we could...Of course he died rather young (of heart failure at 63 in 1965), and in order to work he had to take Benzedrine (an amphetamine used to counter depression or fatigue) and that was hard on him. But he drove himself.
AP: Gable’s famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” caused an uproar over decency at the time. How do you feel about the barriers it broke down?
De Havilland: Well, it was the thin edge of the wedge, let’s face it. What we’re hearing today which I think is really quite unnecessary and truly coarse, we’re hearing because of that line. He started something. But it had to be. It belonged in the film.
AP: The legend is you made Gable cry. He didn’t want to shed tears for the scene after Scarlett has a miscarriage, but you talked him into it. True?
De Havilland: That’s true. He didn’t want to. He thought it was unmanly, you see. That was the training of men in those days, and it’s such pity that they had to suppress those feelings. Oh, he would not do it. He would not! Victor tried everything with him. He tried to attack him on a professional level. We had done it without him weeping several times and then we had one last try. I said, “You can do it, I know you can do it and you will be wonderful...” Well, by heaven, just before the cameras rolled, you could see the tears come up at his eyes and he played the scene unforgettably well. He put his whole heart into it.
AP: Although you considered yourself one of the leads, you were nominated for best supporting actress. When McDaniel won that award, becoming the first black performer to claim an Oscar, was that a shock?
De Havilland: I was with Vivien, David (and others) and were just having a drink together before the limousines were going to take us from David’s house to the Academy Awards at the Ambassador Hotel. The phone rang and David said, “Yes, yes...Scarlett, yeah...Best picture, hmm...Fleming, yes...” and he went down the whole list of awards and then said, “Hattie...” And my name wasn’t mentioned. Of course, he got advance news of who had won. He had some kind of spy.
AP: Then came the ceremony ...
De Havilland: I decided of course there was no God. (Laughs) Well, I was only 22! At the table, I was able to keep my composure until it was all over and then one tear started down my cheek. (The producer’s wife) Irene Selznick saw that and said “Come with me!” and we went into the kitchen and then I really began to cry.
AP: Did McDaniel know in advance?
De Havilland: She didn’t know. She was already at the awards. She was seated with her black escort and David made sure she was properly seated and he wasn’t satisfied at first as to where she was seated. He rearranged things so it was more appropriate, from his point of view.
AP: She was in the back, and he moved her closer?
De Havilland: He arranged a table for two in a very good position for her and her escort and they were perfectly comfortable. In those days, it was still a delicate situation.
AP: Her win was historic. Did your feelings eventually change about losing to her?
De Havilland: Two weeks later, still brooding about the fact that there was no God, I woke up one morning and thought, “That’s absolutely wonderful that Hattie got the award!” Hattie deserved it and she got it...I thought I’d much rather live in a world where a black actress who gave a marvelous performance got the award instead of me. I’d rather live in that kind of world.