There may be no greater disparity between shining first act and shabby second than the life of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, and David Thomson has captured the moment the curtain fell with cruel precision in Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. Three hundred exhaustively researched pages have prepared us for the first sneak preview of Gone With the Wind, on Sept. 9, 1939. As the title rolls across the screen to cheers, Thomson beautifully conveys the sense of an immense pop moment in the making. Then he delivers the suckerpunch: ”The movies began to be altered. And David’s future was over.”
Selznick never saw it coming, either. Born in 1902, he was a second-generation mogul, like Darryl Zanuck and Irving Thalberg, one of the boy wonders of the late ’20s. His mission was the bringing of ”great literature” to the masses — a middlebrow revolution for a lowbrow medium. At best, that could result in his picture-perfect adaptation of David Copperfield, made for MGM in 1935. At worst — think of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) — Selznick made over-upholstered tosh.
But the failures were never his fault; in a lifetime of vast, gabby memos, Selznick perfected the Hollywood art of sincere blamelessness. His inability to admit error was one reason he kept stalking off from his early employers — Paramount in 1931, RKO in 1933, finally MGM in 1935 — to set up Selznick International Pictures. And at first, with A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, and — after an agonizing three-year wait — Gone With the Wind, his high-mindedness made brilliant commercial sense.
How could it not be downhill after the Greatest Movie Ever Made? All Selznick’s compulsions — his absurd gambling, his clumsy womanizing, his neurotic meddling — came home in the 1940s, and his obsession with repeating the success of Wind undermined his better instincts. He spent too much money on too few films. He made stupid mistakes, like selling off his share in Gone With the Wind. He discovered an actress named Phylis Isley, reinvented her as Jennifer Jones, and, Kane-like, fell in love with the invention. The memos grew longer and more defensive — one 60-page missive arrived on the set of Tender Is the Night (1962) and was never read by director Henry King. Selznick was only 63 when he died, but he was nearly broke and too old for a business built on fickleness.
Unlike previous biographers, Thomson (Suspects) had access to Selznick’s archives and the blessings of his heirs. Yet, as thorough as Showman is, something is missing. It may be that the author himself is not quite here. Thomson is a unique writer and critic whose strength lies in dreamy insights that can turn and bite. But to keep up with David O. Selznick, you have to run alongside, and Thomson is jogging with his arms full of research. Because of that, his Selznick never quite breathes.
To be fair, prose may not be able to capture the man. Even the infamous memos, Selznick’s gift to biography, damn him as a blowhard control freak. Thomson tries, referring often to a joie de vivre and boundless creativity not in generous supply among movie executives then or now, but we rarely see those qualities at work in Showman. For that, you’ll have to rent the movies. B