Moonlight and Magnolias

Goodman Theatre

“All lives are metaphors,” writes Neal Gabler in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. “What the Hollywood Jews left behind is something powerful and mysterious . . . a history and a mythology that is part of our culture and our consciousness. . . . Out of their desperation and their dreams, they gave us this America.”

As demonstrated by Ron Hutchin-son’s ribald, eloquent new comedy, Moonlight and Magnolias, no life provides a richer metaphor than that of producer David O. Selznick. And no movie more powerfully affirms how Hollywood Jews shaped our culture yet remained outside it than Selznick’s masterpiece, Gone With the Wind. At once a eulogy for the old south and a hardheaded portrait of its passing, cradled in the passionate love story of bitchy belle Scarlett O’Hara and rascally blockade runner Rhett Butler, this American Iliad began as the work of novelist Margaret Mitchell, who drew on stories she’d heard growing up among Civil War survivors. But in the tale’s definitive incarnation, Mitchell’s southern female sensibility is filtered through the vision of a northern Jewish man.

Selznick’s great accomplishment was to transcend the novel while staying true to it. Sometimes dismissed as pro-Dixie melodrama, the novel and film are knowing critiques of the regional, racial, sexual, and class conflicts that continue to divide us.

Selznick had the vision to buy the movie rights before the book was published, believing that Depression-era audiences would love Scarlett’s ruthless moral compromises and defiance of convention. But the story also spoke to him personally. Haunted by his father’s business failures, Selznick empathized with Scarlett’s struggle to survive after her family had lost everything. Scarlett’s obsessive, often reckless nature reflected his own. And consigned by his Jewishness to outsider status, he knew what it was to move, like Scarlett, through a society that both rewarded and scorned him.

Selznick and director George Cukor started filming GWTW in 1939, after three years of preproduction. Two weeks into shooting, Selznick put production on hiatus, fired the homosexual Cukor, and replaced him with he-man action director Victor Fleming, who promptly informed him: “David, you haven’t got a fucking script”–or “David, your fucking script is no fucking good,” depending on which account you read. So Selznick brought in high-priced script doctor Ben Hecht–also a Jew–to whip Mitchell’s convoluted story into cinematic shape.

That’s the backstory to Moonlight and Magnolias, Hutchinson’s homage to Selznick and his achievement. The famously obsessive Selznick ultimately cobbled together the screenplay himself, combining Mitchell’s original dialogue with contributions by Hecht, Sidney Howard, Charles MacArthur, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and numerous others. Similarly, Hutchinson’s script incorporates quotes, anecdotes, and apocrypha from a variety of film histories, biographies, and memoirs. Hecht’s autobiography, A Child of the Century, is a central source for the play, a Goodman Theatre world premiere. (Hecht got his start as a playwright in collaboration with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, whose family established the theater.) A Chicago newspaperman during World War I, Hecht knew not to let facts get in the way of a good story; his account is amusing and pungent but not entirely reliable.

Hutchinson makes Hecht’s tall tale taller. In the play, Selznick lures Hecht and Fleming to his office and won’t let them leave until they come up with a new screenplay–not even for meals. Instead the producer provides an ample supply of peanuts and bananas–one can almost hear Scarlett gnawing on turnips and pronouncing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” It turns out Hecht has never actually read Gone With the Wind, so for the next week Selznick and Fleming act out the story and Hecht turns their improvisations into a script. There are occasional interruptions: Fleming bursts a blood vessel in one eye; Selznick juggles phone calls from leading lady Vivien Leigh, nosy columnists Hedda Hopper and Ed Sullivan, and his father-in-law, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Meanwhile Hecht sits at his typewriter and types. And types. And types. When he’s not going to the bathroom, that is (those bananas and peanuts).

Hutchinson and director Steven Robman enliven this basically static situation with hefty doses of physical humor, deliciously executed by a crack cast. In one vignette Fleming and Selznick pantomime the scene in which Scarlett helps her hated rival, Melanie, deliver a baby with scant help from her slave Prissy; in Selznick’s office, the famous, shocking moment when Scarlett slaps the hysterical Prissy turns into a Three Stooges-style sequence in which the trio take turns socking one another. But the episode serves a serious purpose too: it fuels the play’s ongoing debate between Hecht and Selznick about the importance of maintaining a Jewish identity and Jews’ responsibility to respond to social injustice. At one point Hecht makes a wager with Selznick he knows the compulsive gambler won’t refuse: he’ll call three of their showbiz pals and ask them whether Selznick is “an American” or “a Jew.” Hecht wins the bet: all three label Selznick a Jew. The episode is lifted from Hecht’s autobiography–which doesn’t ensure its veracity. But its poetic truth is potent.

Selznick may lose the bet, but we know something that Hecht and Fleming don’t: GWTW will be a monster hit, not only a box-office triumph but a lasting work of populist art. Hecht can’t imagine that audiences will embrace a war movie when global conflict is imminent; we know he’s wrong, which leads us to ponder why today we flock to films about war, terrorism, and natural disasters: Do we seek escape from the crises that threaten us, or a better understanding of them?

Director Robman knows how to give actors free rein while still shaping a strong dramatic arc. Ron Orbach plays Selznick to the hilt–manic, overbearing, manipulative, neurotically insecure, whether he’s extolling the magic of “specks of light” that bring a community together, ranting about his dependence on a fickle public, or morbidly comparing the movie business to the crumbling empire of ancient Egypt, doomed to be captured by soulless “bean counters.” William Dick as Hecht is wry, world-weary, but capable of passionate outrage at racial injustice and religious prejudice. Rob Riley is lovably irascible as macho director Fleming, far more likable in Hutchinson’s account than the crude, anti-Semitic bigot described by Selznick’s longtime assistant, Marcella Rabwin. Substituting for Rabwin is fictional secretary Miss Poppenghul. Mary Seibel does what she can with the stereotyped role, but the character should be either expanded or eliminated. Designer Michael Philippi delivers a sumptuous office for Selznick, then lights it to evoke GWTW”s painterly look.

Hutchinson and Robman are the writer-director team responsible for one of the most harrowing productions in Chicago theater history: Rat in the Skull, presented in 1985 by the old Wisdom Bridge Theatre before the company’s artistic director, Robert Falls, left for the Goodman. Rat in the Skull was a grueling drama about a beefy Irish Protestant cop and a Catholic IRA bomber holed up together in an interrogation room. Hutchinson gives Moonlight and Magnolias a similar setup–a burly authority browbeats a wily rebel in claustrophobic circumstances–but turns it into a hilarious entertainment with some serious things to say. It’s more mythology than history to be sure–but that’s appropriate for this salute to Hollywood’s golden age.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.