If you watched the Academy Awards presentation this spring, you learned, among other things, that Mikhail Gorbachev's favorite movie is Gone With the Wind. A perplexing choice at first: just why Gone With the Wind would be a communist honcho's favorite flick eluded me. He was not given a chance to elaborate, as this insight into his film aesthetics was only one hundredth of a part of the Erroll Morris film that opened the awards show. But then, if you read the previous week's issue of The New Yorker, in which Morris' interview of the former Soviet leader is reported in "The Talk of the Town," you get a bit more: for Gorbachev, Gone With the Wind is the People's Movie. At the time Gorbachev made this revelation, I had not seen Gone With the Wind in ten years. It was, in my mind, a movie about privileged slave owners regretting emancipation. Worse yet, it fosters a misguided nostalgia for a lost civilization, one that depended on human slavery both to uphold its economy and its class structure. Perhaps Gorbachev viewed it through a lens crafted by Georg Lukacs. I knew that it and the novel on which it was based perpetuated the New South's vision of itself and its beginnings in a way that Lukacs would appreciate. I know this because on my honeymoon in New Orleans I visited Oak Alley, the Mississippi River plantation, at which one could, if one desired, put on an ante-bellum-themed wedding. The couples in the brochures looked suspiciously like Scarlett and Rhett. I know this also because I bought a cookbook called "Gone With the Fat" in the outdoor market in the French Quarter. The South has adopted Scarlett O'Hara as its metaphor: it sees itself as a beautiful and charming but strong-willed lady who spits in the face of those who would victimize her, swearing, as Scarlett does, root vegetable in hand, that "they're not going to lick me." Obviously, the People will not be daunted by less than tasteful weddings and rich foods, either.
Gone With the Wind was my favorite movie when I was ten years old. I first saw it on a network television broadcast and fell in love with Scarlett's dresses. I still remembered my early childhood in Mobile, Alabama, where every spring high school girls would dress in antebellum costumes in their official capacity as Azalea Trail Maids. I saw them as we drove down Dauphin Street one day, planted in the median among the azaleas, waving in a serene, ladylike way to passers-by. The dresses suggested a hyper-real femininity that only storybook princesses like Cinderella (my personal heroine at the time) represented. Appointment as an Azalea Trail Maid brought being a princess (my personal goal when I was three) within easy reach. And what better occupation than to sit in the middle of Dauphin Street and be admired by all? (It was the mid-70s; needless to say all of the Maids were white, though I understand now that there are African American Maids). By the time I was three years old the South's story about itself had captured me, and I began to eagerly await the day that I, too, would be a teenager and an Azalea Trail Maid. Shortly thereafter, my family moved to Colorado, where azaleas wither in the cold and there is no such thing as Mardi Gras. Scarlett as she was until the lie-steal-cheat-or-kill scene replaced Cinderella in my list of Great Women.
A few weeks after the Oscars, I showed the part of Gone With the Wind up to the lie-steal-cheat-or-kill scene to my American Literature class as part of a unit on the Civil War. In Colorado, especially at Lincoln High School, "the south" means Ciudad Juarez, and I wanted my students to appreciate the fact that the South is really a whole other country historically as well as in spirit. They were enraptured. Senior boys who had long since grown out of their desks sat with their mouths agape during the Atlanta hospital scenes. Students with the seen-it-all approach to curiosity typical of adolescents gasped during the crane shot that backs slowly away from Scarlett as she picks her way through the endless file of dead and dying soldiers. They wanted to know why I wasn't going to show the rest of the film. "Because it's two more hours and we actually have to read something in here. You can rent it and watch it at home," I said. What I wanted to say is that it would drag for you. You'd find it boring, because I did when I was your age. To appreciate it, you have to grow a grown person's heart, as Rhett always wanted Scarlett to do.
My friend Jim first saw Gone with the Wind when he was seventeen. He watched it with the woman who would eventually become his wife, and he hated it for Scarlett's last lines, and especially for what he perceived as a critical lack of irony (a crucial component of anything when you're an adolescent). In the intervening twenty-five years, he has seen the movie more times than he can count. Because tomorrow is another day, the Denver Center Cinema, at which he worked for many years, used to show the movie each New Year's Day. Jim's opinion has changed. He now compares it with Mahler's Tragic Symphony: it is something you can barely stand to sit through, it moves you so. It resonates in every aspect of your life—every human fault you possess, every small challenge you have ever failed is reflected in this film. "It is a movie to measure your life by," he said to me when I told him I'd been watching it recently.
I know that Jim is entirely right. I watched Gone With the Wind for the first time as a grown woman last month and I was utterly devastated. What I had never realized is that the Civil War is simply set design for a film about a couple who are well suited for each other but who cannot make the necessary sacrifices of vanity required for a stable marriage. Indeed, you could read the whole film as being about marriage. It is about the dark side of marriage, actually. It is about the white lies, the tiny betrayals, the minor infidelities, the words you say that settle and burrow into your spouse's heart. It is also about the feeling you have when you have made those words burrow—that tiny, vain feeling of triumph when you succeed in hurting him. It is about loss—the things you lose unwittingly, and the things you wittingly give up.
Gone With the Wind begins with Scarlett losing one man and ends with her losing another. This is all the more remarkable because Gone With the Wind is the überhollywood film, from its use of African-Americans as comic relief, to the explosions and destruction of the burning of Atlanta scene, it seems to single-handedly codify every Hollywood convention there is. So why wasn't the ending rewritten, like the endings of so many other novels made into films? Even more disturbing is the fact that, taken in context with the rest of the film, the ending is unbelievably dark and dreadful, like one of Bonnie Blue Butler's dreams—despite tomorrow dawning on the horizon of our heroine's life. In a few short scenes, she has lost her child, her lifelong friend, the illusion of love she harbored for Ashley, and her husband. Even the set and costume design mirror the destruction wrought in Scarlett's personal life. Dressed in mourning clothes, she could no longer pull off the virginal white flounces that she wore at the beginning of the film. The Butlers' home resembles a morgue in the final scenes, and the lighting does little to alleviate the darkness in which Scarlett and Rhett now live. From the beginning of the film there is a noirish tendency to film the actors against a background of shuttered windows. You see it when Ashley and Melanie allude to the times in which they will be starting their marriage, during Melanie's lying in, and when Rhett proposes marriage to Scarlett. These shots increase over the course of the picture and we see the same blinded windows in Rhett's room just before he leaves Scarlett for good. These are trapped, desperate, and fated people, and it is no coincidence that director Victor Fleming chose the conventions of film noir to suggest just how claustrophobic and desperate a failing marriage can feel.
Lest destiny be blamed for the death of marriages, Gone With the Wind finds cruelty hiding not far behind love in these noirish shadows. If one of Gone With the Wind's most famous shots is of Rhett carrying a struggling Scarlett up the stairs of their home to have his way with her, we fail to remember that the scene it ends is one of unimaginable psychological and physical cruelty. In it, Rhett threatens to tear Scarlett "to pieces," or crush her skull between his hands. This exchange between husband and wife is one of the most finely acted scenes in the movie. Vivian Leigh wears the look of a caged animal; Clark Gable wears the expression of hunter ready to destroy his prey. Scarlett's behavior of the next morning—singing, happy, certainly sexually fulfilled—is a confirmation that her marriage is a sado-masochistic game, one which neither party wants to play, but one which they cannot get out of—like bridge night with the church ladies. It is a game governed by rules that require its participants to play with and against each other and each partner to deflect the other's attempts at reconciliation or tenderness. The conversation between Rhett and Scarlett about her second pregnancy is proof of the willful miscommunication required to sustain such play. Scarlett, obviously happy to be pregnant and to have Rhett back, nevertheless snaps back—and perhaps rightly—when her husband baits her with the suggestion that she has been unfaithful. She immediately tells one of those lies that has sustained their relationship at least since their engagement, when both of them swear they have no love for each other; she tells him she does not want his child. Here the film gives us textbook narrative bracketing. Her pregnancy is a result of Rhett carrying her up the stairs, and now her miscarriage is a result of his pushing her down. There is no hope for this marriage.
No marriage in this movie is a model of grace and beauty. The O'Haras, who call each other "Mr. and Mrs.," have one of those marriages that you think your parents have if you really don't think about it too much. When Mr. O'Hara reveals the secret to a healthy marriage, you think the movie is going to go along with his wisdom. He tells Scarlett that it matters not whom she marries, "so long as he's a southerner and thinks like you." The film pairs its lovers off accordingly, but refuses to allow O'Hara's to be the last word. All of Scarlett's marriages are disasters, not least the marriage for which she and her partner are most suited. Even Ashley and Melanie, who marry because they are cousins and "understand each other" are only as strong as the cracks in Ashley's moral fortitude. Ashley Wilkes, paragon of manly virtue, southern gentlemanliness, and marital fidelity nevertheless leads Scarlett along for years. The film itself casts judgment on him during the scene set at his own birthday party. Atlanta society has come to the party to condemn Scarlett for her scandalous behavior but the camera finally settles on Ashley's culpability. When his wife, with complete knowledge that he has been caught embracing Scarlett two scenes before, asks him to get Scarlett a glass of punch, you realize that Melanie's celebrated manners are not just a reflection of her goodness, but a way of putting a good face on her marriage in public.
Scarlett the temptress is literally no longer in the picture. She has been obscured by a musician, who begins to play "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" as we watch Ashley squirm. Gone With the Wind is dead on when it comes to those moments in marriage when you realize that you have made one too many mistakes. In one scene Melanie tells Rhett that "children are life renewing itself," and in the very next, Bonnie's neck is broken. The marriage has taken on a life of its own, propelled by some force set into motion years before, only to reap tragic results later on. There are those shots of Scarlett and Rhett, helpless to make their daughter obey them and Scarlett remembering her own father's death as she realizes, too late, what fate will befall her little girl. It is like a marriage that has gone out of control. You stand there with your spouse, no longer participants in your own lives, and you are forced to watch the inevitable as it unfolds. Is there a scene in all of film that describes the death of a marriage so truthfully?
Perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev is right, regardless of Lukacs. This is a movie of the people. Moreover, it is a quintessentially American film, and—sorry, Mikhail—a capitalist film, despite its being about people who do not want to be American. This is why it resonates with my sixteen and seventeen-year-old students—immigrants most of them, who feel ambiguous about being in the United States to begin with, but who have had to leave their lives and civilization behind and cannot go home again. Any Russian who survived to the twenty-first century would understand it, too. The post WWII Germany loved Gone With the Wind, both novel and movie, and the Germans even have a word in their language inspired by it. Oharaerlebnis means "the O'Hara experience," or "to build oneself back from total ruin." Total ruin is of course what you feel at the end of your marriage, when you and your spouse have told each other that you no longer give a damn and you wonder, as Scarlett does, where you will end up and what you will end up doing. It is then, in a sense, a movie for all people who have to build themselves back from personal devastation in the tomorrows ahead of us, like Russia after the Soviet Union, Germany after its wars, immigrants in America, and the South during Reconstruction. For after a divorce, you have lost the tiny civilization that was the two of you.