New 'Scarlett' is pale reminder of the original

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Those responsible for ingraining the phenomenon known as "Gone With the Wind" into our national consciousness -- author Margaret Mitchell, director Victor Fleming and stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable -- were always begging for a sequel, says Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, star of the miniseries "Scarlett."

"They kind of asked for it," she says, "with 'Tomorrow is another day.' I always wanted to know what happened."

Well, "tomorrow" is now, and "Scarlett," the eight-hour miniseries beginning tonight on CBS (WBAL-TV, Channel 11), will bring fans of the Oscar-winning drama up to speed with what became of America's favorite conniving, tormented lovers, Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Loosely based on the critically excoriated best-seller by Alexandra Ripley, which had been commissioned by Mitchell's estate, "Scarlett" follows the travails of Scarlett and Rhett after the Civil War.

Ms. Whalley-Kilmer, who stars as Scarlett, and Timothy Dalton, who plays Rhett, agree that "Scarlett" is a lavish soap opera, despite how pejorative the term may seem. "The convention of the romantic melodrama is these days described in a damning way, but that's what this is," says Ms. Whalley-Kilmer.

"This is not a cheap exploitation, but sometimes you never know how something is going to work out," adds Mr. Dalton, best known for his stint as James Bond. He adds that Ms. Ripley's book is "not as good" as the original, and that in taking on the role of Rhett Butler, "You carry the knowledge that some people will make comparisons, even if they are unfair.

"Once you've made the decision to do it, you do so whole-heartedly. Now is the time to worry [about comparisons], but not while shooting. Not only is Gable brilliant, but his brilliance is part of cinema's myth and legend. But you can't look to be competing, or to be winning."

Adds Ms. Whalley-Kilmer: "I deliberately tried not to think about [Leigh's Oscar-winning performance] in the beginning. That was that, and this is different. But she was so glorious in that role that in the beginning of the production, she would slip into my mind uninvited."

Mr. Dalton, for one, was won over by Ms. Whalley-Kilmer's performance. "She really, with great style and finesse, got the real Scarlett, yet her performance is nothing like Vivien's."

Caveats and kudos duly noted, then, how is the show?

First, it's safe to say that when executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. paid $10 million for Ms. Ripley's book, he was interested more in Mitchell's iconic characters than in Ms. Ripley's and screenwriter William Hanley's perfunctory plot line. Few would care about this tale if its characters were not named Rhett and Scarlett.

Though this may be an ambitious, $45 million production, enhanced by lavish locations and gorgeous sets, it's still, as Ms. Whalley-Kilmer and Mr. Dalton concede, a soap opera.

A fundamental difference between "Gone With the Wind" and "Scarlett" is how Scarlett herself is depicted. Herculean efforts are made to remind us that she is the quintessentially scheming heroine in American fiction. Rhett calls her "passionate, infuriatin' "; another character deems her an "incorrigible vixen"; yet another says, "She's got vigor and brains -- she's a survivor." But this miniseries has essentially defanged her.

Here, Scarlett is depicted as more or less a virtuous social worker. In the first episode, she wrests Ashley Wilkes from certain alcoholism and helps freed slave Big Sam become a respected businessman.

Soon, she's practically solving the virulent, centuries-long dispute between the Irish and British.

This make-over casts Scarlett as more sympathetic, yet less interesting -- her crass opportunism made her enthralling in Mitchell's original book and Fleming's film. Her globe-trotting travails here may be glamorously engaging but play as generic plot convolutions. That Scarlett and Rhett spend most of this epic tale apart hardly inspires much heat between Ms. Whalley-Kilmer and Mr. Dalton.

Nonetheless, Ms. Whalley-Kilmer's solidly grounded performance, immensely handsome visuals ("Scarlett" was shot in no fewer than 53 locations) and an array of big-name co-stars (even if many -- such as Paul Winfield, John Gielgud and Esther Rolle -- put in only glorified cameos) help keep the proceedings involving, if not always riveting.

Here are some highlights:

* Episode 1 (tonight at 9 p.m.): The initial proceedings are designed to recap "Gone With the Wind" -- we're reminded how Scarlett toyed with the lives of Ashley (Stephen Collins) and her sister Suellen (Melissa Leo, whom Baltimoreans can see around town because of her role in the series "Homicide"), and that Rhett, now a playboy and card sharp, wants nothing to do with her anymore. "You are such a child, Scarlett!" scolds Rhett; Scarlett retorts, "The Yankees shoulda hung you when they had the chance!" Which only means that they will fall into one another's arms.

* Episode 2 (Tuesday at 9 p.m.): This segment has a lot of nice individual scenes, though most are irrelevant to the main story. Scarlett visits her grandfather (John Gielgud), then decides to visit her homeland of Ireland, where she buys a nice piece of real estate. With ownership, she becomes "The O'Hara," which apparently entitles her to choice tables at Irish eateries.

* Episode 3 (Wednesday at 9 p.m.): More narrative wheel-spinning and some convenient plot convolutions. Rhett, married to a sweet yet insipid young woman named Anne (Annabeth Gish), apparently decides that there are no decent horses in all of America, so sets sail for a horse auction in Ireland. There, of course, he meets up with Scarlett.

* Episode 4 (Thursday at 9 p.m.): The finale is little more than a generic courtroom drama involving a defiled Scarlett, an accused Rhett and various examples of exorbitant misbehavior.

Though it revives historic characters, "Scarlett" is far less than landmark television. The big question, though, is not why Scarlett and Rhett were brought together for such a transparent tale, but rather, how they'll be split asunder for the next sequel.

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