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The Arts
October 11-17, 2006

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'Moonlight and Magnolias'

Script Docs: Peter Van Norden (left) as Ben Hecht, Tom Beckett as David O. Selznick and John Procaccino at Victor Fleming fight over Margaret Mitchell's golden prose in 'Moonlight and Magnolias.'

To Hecht and Back

By Richard von Busack

IT IS one thing to suspend disbelief during a movie. It's much harder to watch a classic film, to slide along its fine surface and feel its absolute confidence—and realize that it was the product of people who were pulling out their hair trying to figure out how to finish the picture. San Jose Rep's newest production, Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias, is a comedy about the anxieties behind the making of Gone With the Wind. One has to dip through all the memoirs to get a picture of what an epic muddle it all was. Producer David O. Selznick, in over his head, threw out ideas in all directions: Retrieve D.W. Griffith from drunken obscurity to shoot the battle scenes. Screen it in two parts in two separate theaters. Induce Clark Gable to drawl. (Selznick noted, "I am informed by MGM that Clark Gable refuses under any circumstances to have any kind of southern accent.") Writing GWTW's script led to the real debacle. The producer had new director Victor Fleming aboard, replacing the fired George Cukor. According to Ronald Haver's David O. Selznick's Hollywood, Fleming had to break the news to his boss that "your script is no fucking good." Thus, to the house of Ben Hecht, Selznick's friend and an all-purpose script doctor, with a $10,000 bribe in hand. Hecht remembered later, "I never read the book—I never read those kind of books." He referred to Margaret Mitchell's novel as a work that was as long as a whore's dream and just as pointless. Holed up for a week, Fleming, Hecht and Selznick put the mess together in time for shooting.

According to actor Tom Beckett, who plays Selznick in Moonlight and Magnolias, the producer was the only one certain the movie could be made. "The play is really a wild comedy," says Beckett, who characterizes his Selznick as "a giddy kid. Fleming and Hecht have no confidence Gone With the Wind will work." Beckett is an accomplished actor who spent a few years growing up in Los Gatos. Indiana Jones fans, note that Beckett once played George Gershwin in an episode of Young Indiana Jones. "It was a hoot," Beckett remembers. Anne Heche was in it. She was a doll. George Lucas came in and directed about half of the two-hour episode." Beckett had choir experience and got a chance to sing and play the piano. "I had the chance to go over some tapes the month before we shot. Nothing looks worse than someone trying to do the fingering on a piano in front of the camera, when they don't know how."

To study for Selznick, Beckett read up on Rudy Behlmer's Memo From David O. Selznick as well as the lesser-known memoir by the producer's secretary Marcella Rabwin, Yes, Mr. Selnick: Recollections of Hollywood's Golden Era. After reading the memos, Beckett says, "I've always wondered how some of these people replied ..." As David Thomson's bio Showman argues, Selznick was less of a dedicated micromanager than a deadly prevaricator, who agonized over making up his mind. Hecht, the ex-Chicago newspaperman, is far more blunt. "Hecht is a very cynical character in the show," Beckett says. "He has too many funny lines for my comfort. He's the conscience of the play, the one who brings up the racial issues." Selznick fretted in his memos that "We have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger." Unfortunately, what resulted was a film that gave the myth of the happy plantation decades of new life. "Selznick was politically active," says Beckett. "He was a Zionist, for instance, but he was not about to let political issues in the making of the movie."

Still, summing up the appeal of Gone With the Wind, Beckett doesn't think it's Tara. "It's easy. It's Scarlett O'Hara. Remember, the movie is not much about the Civil War. Margaret Mitchell said the book was about survivors and those who don't survive. "Remember that the South was still hard hit by the Civil War in 1930s, still hurting. And here is the heroine who survives, no matter what, even if she has to do immoral or amoral things. Ashley is the weak one, who can't survive, who just pines for what he lost. Melanie also realizes she's not a survivor, and that's why she hands over everything she loves—her husband and her child—to Scarlett. She's certainly is the reason why that movie lasts—it appeals to people who have to survive."

Moonlight and Magnolias, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, previews Oct. 15, 18-19 and opens Oct. 20 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $14-$56. (408.367.7255)

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