Spotlighters' "Moonlight and Magnolias" delves into messy Hollywood history
By MAURA CALLAHAN
Jan 12, 2016 | 11:14 AM
Ron Hutchinson's 2004 play "Moonlight and Magnolias," which opened last week at Spotlighters Theatre under the direction of Michael Zemarel, does little to romanticize the creation of "Gone With the Wind," one of the most successful and adored (and racist) films of all time. With a difficult director, an unusable and excessively lengthy script (adapted from the 1,000-plus-page novel that took Margaret Mitchell 10 years to write), and several attempts at revisions by multiple scribes (among them F. Scott Fitzgerald), producer David O. Selznick (played by Thom Eric Sinn) is forced to throw away the script, replace the original director, George Cukor, and shut down production.
He gives himself and his new creative team five days to come up with a new approach. But, as it turns out, new screenwriter Hecht (David Shoemaker) is "the only person on the face of the planet" who hasn't read Margaret Mitchell's novel. Speed-reading apparently not an option, Selznick and newly recruited director Fleming (Tony Colavito) must act out scenes from the book while Hecht observes and crafts a screenplay at his typewriter—all of them locked together in an office, working on no sleep and a strict diet of bananas and peanuts, provided by Selznick's attentive secretary (Rachel Roth).
This creative process seems like a twisted game of telephone, in which, through inadequate representation and interpretation, the original concept might come out some kind of bizarre mutant. It's hard to imagine this is how the final screenplay actually came into being, but two amateur actors (played by two very skilled actors) pretending to be Southern belles to the melodramatic tune of the film's original score makes for more entertaining comedy.
The three men appear less like artistic geniuses or Hollywood legends than deliriously exhausted narcissists—a more or less on-point picture of filmmakers and artists. They beef over whose role in filmmaking is more important or more artful, and in doing so only appear more insane. Over the course of the play, the three men become increasingly unhinged and zombielike, while Selznick's ornate office (which feels suitably claustrophobic, thanks to Spotlighters' intimate space) degenerates into a peanut-and-paper-ridden battleground.
Hutchinson took creative liberties with Hollywood history here—significantly cut down, the final script was close to the original written by Sidney Howard, who received the bulk of the screenwriting credit and was posthumously awarded an Oscar for Best Screenplay after dying in a tractor accident—and his portrayal of Hecht as morally advanced for a rich white man writing about the Confederacy in 1939 is probably one of them. When Selznick and Fleming get to Scarlett O'Hara striking her young slave Prissy across the face, Hecht declares that it is their responsibility to "make America look its ugly mug in the mirror" rather than glorify the Southern Confederate way of life and brush off the beating of a black, enslaved child as nothing more than a casualty of a rich white slave owner's distress. In his argument, Hecht attempts but fails to appeal to Selznick's experience of prejudice as a fellow Jew in Hollywood. The three men spend a significant amount of time debating the issue, with Selznick complaining that he "can't deal with the race issue now." It depends on how it's done, he says, and ensures that the black characters in his film "will have as much dignity" as the others. He refuses to change Mitchell's original story, and asserts that an ethically conscious film is not what the people want. The audience holds the real power in the film industry, Selznick says; not Fleming, Hecht, or himself, not even his father-in-law, MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer. As his contribution to the debate, Fleming carefully considers the camera angle to use in filming the slap.
Even if this debate happening at all might be giving the filmmakers too much credit, Hutchinson's exploration of the film's racism and historical revisionism is necessary. Hecht's role as the voice of reason—and how easily his position is overcome—points to the carelessness and self-absorption of Golden Age Hollywood's powerhouses.
Fleming is the worst. Between casually mentioning that he slapped Judy Garland around on the set of "The Wizard of Oz," from which Selznick pulled him to direct this new project, and portraying his best Prissy as an airheaded caricature with a scarf tied around his head, he fully deserves the onslaught of slaps he receives from his colleagues. The most satisfying point in the play, in fact, comes during a face-slapping three-way between Selznick, Hecht, and Fleming, masterly choreographed by Larry Malkus—until you remember that they're really trying to figure out the "right way" to hit the slave girl.
It's a relief, really, that Hutchinson holds off from icon worship. But while effective in humanizing them through their ignorance, egotism, and derangement, the play falls flat in its attempt to garner sympathy for Selznick. His late father, Lewis J. Selznick, was a successful silent film producer until he lost his fortune. And, naturally, Mayer is a constant shadow over the younger Selznick's career. "My father-in-law is waiting for me to fall on my ass," he cries as he finally buckles under the stress of his task. Everyone, he feels, is waiting for it. So, you know, he has something to prove. His reluctance to recognize the extreme anti-Semitism of the industry—and the world—and the ominous approach of the next world war begins to crack at an interesting layer in his character, but comes short of shattering through to it.
Adjusting for inflation, "Gone With The Wind" is still the highest-grossing film of all time (and yes, that includes "The Force Awakens"). Selznick and Fleming both won Academy Awards, on top of the eight others awarded to the film, and secured their legacies as movie giants. In the end, the film's creators kept the slap, and anyone who has seen it knows that "dignified" does not describe the film's portrayal of African-Americans. It sympathizes with rich white Southerners who lost their precious way of life to the abolition of slavery. As we know, "Gone With The Wind" gave America what it wanted, and not—as Hecht was initially determined to write—what it needed. It's nearly four remarkable hours of timeless and morally nauseating entertainment.
"Moonlight and Magnolias" also charms through strong chemistry between the actors and appropriately old-Hollywood slapstick style, while just grazing seriously dark issues surrounding Hollywood and American history. At least here we can laugh at the vain and ignorant, however uncomfortably, instead of reducing our awareness to idolization.