Molly Haskell

From a review of the book Frankly, My Dear, but Molly Haskell:

Confronting the legendary headstrong heroine Scarlett O’Hara, Haskell explores the power she exerts on the romantic and political imagination — first as a creation in Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 novel, then as a screen personification by the British actress Vivien Leigh in a Hollywood adaptation produced by the independent mogul David O. Selznick. From these multiple sources Haskell anato­mizes the iconographic Scarlett as a product of proto-feminist literature, a performer’s neuroses and the outsize ambitions of Holly­wood’s first golden age.

Almost like an apology beforehand, Haskell’s biographical sketches and psychological speculations set up an unlikely framework for critical interpretation. Admitting obstacles to her appreciation, she goes back to the battle lines that the initial wave of feminist pop criticism drew between political correctness and Hollywood art: “The feminist angle, and the movie’s profoundly mixed message, came home to me in 1972, when I took part in a panel — one of the first — on the roles of women in film. Gloria Steinem, editor of the newly launched Ms. magazine, brought up ‘Gone With the Wind,’ deploring the spectacle of Scarlett being squeezed into her corset to a 17-inch waist, that perfect illustration of female bondage, Southern style. I sprang to defend her as a fierce, courageous heroine, going her own way, a survivor and so on.” Giving candid testimony to the friction between doctrinaire feminism and emotionally complex movie watching defines Haskell’s critical perception. Several ­lapses — facile connections to Madonna, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, even Judd Apa­tow — are just mild hazards of criticism as engaged, topical journalism. Mostly, her confessions and investigations revive the new journalism’s practice of personal revelation and private response.

Rejecting accusations of frivolous escapism, Haskell sees the intricate ways that “Gone With the Wind” (the book-and-film phenomenon) derived from the legacy of Southern aristocracy and changed it through the post-suffrage image of female independence. She says her own enthrallment began with teenage reading in Richmond, Va.: “Scarlett embodies the secret masculinization of the outwardly feminine, the uninhibited will to act of every tomboy adolescent, here justified by the rule-bending crisis of war.” Haskell inter­twines her own history with Mitchell’s Georgia background, Leigh’s British origins and Selznick’s Jewish American determination. This personalized approach moves from superficial appreciation of the book and movie’s romanticism to a richer scrutiny of the film as “the example par excellence of this studio-confected world . . . the portrait of a never-never land whose harmony and grace depended on the smoothing out of much that was ugly and uncomfortable.”

Armond White
New York Times