The critic Dwight Macdonald once described the 1939 movie of Gone With the Wind as ”a masterpiece of kitsch corny and blowsy and phony, the slide trombone of the cinematic orchestra, and yet it is not boring.” Macdonald intended this as a rave review — he liked the way Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable turned Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler into lively, vivid figures who combined ”romanticism and realism.” The same mixture has been attempted in the new eight-hour TV sequel to Gone With the Wind, Scarlett (CBS, Nov. 13, 15-17, 9-11 p.m. each night), but its proportions are off: Scarlett’s romanticism is absurdly exaggerated, while its realism is the grim stuff of contemporary problem-of-the-week telefilms. If Gone With the Wind is the slide trombone of the cinematic orchestra, Scarlett is the tuba of TV movies — ungainly and unsubtle.
Scarlett is based on Alexandra Ripley’s 1992 best-selling novel, which sold like hotcakes despite the fact that many readers and reviewers thought Ripley had simply poured the sticky syrup of the romance novel all over the characters created by Margaret Mitchell. At the start of Scarlett, Rhett, here played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton, has abandoned Scarlett (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, of Scandal) because he frankly doesn’t, you know, give a damn about her anymore. Ashley Wilkes is still around looking hollow-eyed and lonely, barely able to disguise his thwarted love for Scarlett — although because he is now played by square-jawed Stephen Collins rather than weak-chinned Leslie Howard, much of Ashley’s poignant sensitivity has vanished. You can’t muster up much sympathy for a guy played by the dashing Collins, who’s not only handsome but clever, having recently written a bestselling potboiler himself.
Scarlett begins promisingly enough, with an enjoyably melodramatic scene in which Mammy (Esther Rolle, taking Hattie McDaniel’s GWTW role) lies on her deathbed being comforted by Dalton’s Rhett. And what does this literally worked-to-death African-American say as her parting words? ”Always needed carin’ so badly, Scarlett did.” Mammy is urging Rhett to reconcile with Scarlett, so at least the racial politics of this TV movie are true to those of the book and the movie: Blacks exist solely to make whites feel alternately good or guilty.
But hours and hours and hours later, Scarlett concludes, after an exhausting series of soap-operatic subplots in which, among other things, our heroine is raped, is accused of murder, vacations entirely too long in Ireland, and is forced to listen to Sir John Gielgud try out a Southern accent while playing Scarlett’s ailing grandfather.
Along the way, Ann-Margret pops up as a madam eager to massage Rhett Butler’s feet; Designing Women’s Jean Smart smokes little cigars and says of Scarlett, ”She’s a survivor!”; and Rhett tries to downplay a mad, passionate one-night stand with Scarlett as ”a celebration of survival, nothing more.” All you cads out there, remember that line.
If you plan to survive Scarlett, even with all its wincingly modern psychobabble about surviving, you deserve not to be told the ending of the tale, I suppose. But it can be said that the best acting is done by Melissa Leo of Homicide: Life on the Street, in the small role of Scarlett’s bitter sister Suellen, and by Whalley-Kilmer, who does not shy away from the invigoratingly unpleasant aspects of Scarlett’s personality — her greediness, her manipulativeness, her fiddle-dee-dee sauciness.
Dalton sports a Gable-style mustache that for some reason only serves to draw attention to his chin, which has a cleft wide and deep enough to hide a supply of subway tokens. The actor turns himself into a cartoon of a matinee idol, all heavy-lidded and smarmy-smiled.
Scarlett is not nearly as much fun as last week’s TV bio of Margaret Mitchell, A Burning Passion, which tried to convince us that someone played by former 90210 goody-goody, real-life naughty-girl Shannen Doherty could have written Gone With the Wind. (Shannen’s best line reading: ”I am not frivolous!”) Maybe what CBS should have done was a TV movie about Alexandra Ripley writing Scarlett, and had Ripley played by — oh, I don’t know, Pamela Anderson, maybe? Pamela on the beach, nibbling thoughtfully on the end of a fountain pen, chasing wind-blown manuscript pages across the sand … now there’s an eight-hour miniseries. C+