Yesterday’s announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the The Wizard of Oz will be celebrated at this year’s Oscars was met with widespread enthusiasm. After all, it’s one of Hollywood’s most beloved films, multiple generations have grown up singing its tunes, and it’s celebrating its 75th anniversary.
But The Wizard of Oz wasn’t the only classic movie to come out in 1939. That prolific Hollywood year also boasted Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, John Ford’s Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), Gunga Din, William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (with Laurence Olivier), Dark Victory (with Bette Davis), Destry Rides Again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Of Mice and Men, and Young Mr. Lincoln (with Henry Fonda). There was also a little movie that was based on an obscure novel called… wait, let me check to make sure I have this right… yes, it’s called Gone With the Wind. Only the biggest, most popular movie of its time. Scarlett O’Hara must be seething at the Oscar slight.
David O. Selznick’s lavish Southern epic remains the biggest Hollywood blockbuster of all time (adjusted for inflation). It was a huge spectacle, with the casting search for the perfect Scarlett dominating the entertainment news before Vivien Leigh nabbed the role, and its premiere was an unprecedented event. The film dominated the Oscars, winning eight statues, including Best Picture, and it remains that year’s top-ranked film on the most recent AFI Top 100 movie list (No. 6 to Oz’s No. 10).
So why no love for Gone With the Wind at this year’s Oscars? Well, there’s the matter of the publicity machine behind Oz’s 75th anniversary theatrical re-release and collector’s-edition Blu-ray. Being a musical with iconic costumed characters, Oz also presents creative opportunities that would enhance a live show. Who wouldn’t love to see Anne Hathaway sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?
But perhaps the main reason that Oz is in Oscar’s favor this year while Gone With the Wind is left sitting out the dance is one of this year’s major nominees: 12 Years a Slave. Despite its undeniable place in the history of Hollywood cinema, Gone With the Wind depicts the South’s slave system as a mostly benign institution and celebrates the Southern plantation way of life as a harmonious ideal that was disrupted by the invading Yankees. It was a revisionist soap opera, masterfully done, that entranced moviegoers and perpetuated certain racial stereotypes and a very sympathetic view of the South for decades.
Steve McQueen’s harrowing fact-based epic about a kidnapped free man smuggled into Southern slavery, on the other hand, features scenes of such terror and brutality that to project Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy or Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy on the same Dolby Theatre silver screen that will subsequently show the trials of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup and Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey would create a galling dissonance sure to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Gone With the Wind doesn’t need to be hidden in the Hollywood attic. It rightfully remains a classic, and its political sensibility is notable for the time and place it was made (as well as the sympathies of its Southern-bred author, Margaret Mitchell). But this year’s Oscars might not be the best time and place to celebrate the South’s Lost Cause and poor Scarlett’s broken hearts. Better for Hollywood to just tap its heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”