Oscar Flashback: 1939, Gone with the WindJanuary 21, 2014 • By Sasha Stone
There are just a few years that will always be remembered in Oscar history, either because one film so thoroughly dominated those awards, or because another film didn’t. Gone with the Wind was the kind of film that Oscar seemed to be made for. That film swept the Oscars 75 years ago.
In many ways, Gone with the Wind is such a great film. The central role of Scarlett is the kind we just don’t see anymore — such a richly drawn character with vibrancy, a complicated woman who is both good and bad, but mostly bad. Women are never at the heart of historical epics anymore. We have Sandra Bullock in Gravity now, and despite how nice and likable she is, her mere presence in the film at all seems controversial, can you imagine today’s audiences trying to make sense of Scarlett?
What we remember about Gone with the Wind was that it starred the unequivocal Vivien Leigh. Clark Gable as Rhett. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. We remember the famous story to find the perfect Scarlett — how many actresses auditioned for the role and failed, and how one English actress managed to nail it. Leigh would later revive the role, of sorts to play a fading southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Those two performances remain among the best ever.
What isn’t surprising about Gone with the Wind is how long it has retained its glory. The film firmly holds its place in early Oscar history, having won ten (8 competitive, 2 honorary) as one of the first films to really sweep. It set the bar high for what an Oscar Best Picture is supposed to attain and in many ways iemains the gold standard. Big box office, epic sweep, love story, beloved American treasure. It handily won despite the protestations of the black community against the film’s depiction of slavery — Carlton Moss wrote “An Open Letter to Mr Selznick” after the film’s release:
Whereas “The Birth of a Nation was a frontal attack on American history and the Negro people, “Gone with the Wind,” arriving twenty years later, is a rear attack on same. Sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story and under the guise of presenting the South as it is in the “eyes of Southerners,” the message of GWTW emerges in its final entity as a nostalgic plea for sympathy for a still living cause of Southern reaction. The Civil War is by no means ended in the South, Mr. Selznick. It lives on and will live on until the Negro people are completely free.”
What is surprising about that? This same debate was still being waged in 2011 when The Help was up for the Oscar. The same people paid the price — Hattie McDaniel in 1939 by the black community and Viola Davis in 2011 by both the white and the black community. Dissed for playing a maid all of these decades later. McDaniel, who was segregated by the Oscar producers to sit way in the back of the room, was quoted as saying she would rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one and make $7 a day.
Although Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar in 1939, becoming the first African American female to do so, it wouldn’t be until 1990, 51 years later, than another black female would win in that category. 51 years. To date, only once in 85 years of Oscar history has a black woman won in the lead category. That was Halle Berry in 2001 for Monster’s Ball.
What was remarkable about 1939 was the surge of protest by the black community against Gone with the Wind juxtaposed against its success at the Oscars, in popular culture, and in film history. Their voices of dissent were not only dismissed outright by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences but remains mostly hushed even now. 75 years later. Gone with the Wind is still considered one of the greatest Oscar winners of all time.
Only Ben Hur, Titanic and Return of the King have won more Oscars than Gone with the Wind if you factor in their honorary Oscars. 1939 mostly said the Oscars align themselves with the money, as Gone with the Wind shattered the box office at the time. They align themselves with their Hollywood products — their stars like Leigh and Gable. McDaniel couldn’t fully enjoy her success since she was being criticized for playing the part, criticized for being happy about having won an Oscar, and criticized for not complaining about the portrayal of blacks in Hollywood films.
And why should she have? All that would have meant to her was that she was out of a job. No, the responsibility ought not to have been on McDaniel to carry the burden of making Hollywood atone for our American past.
Not only would the controversy around Gone with the Wind fail to disturb the Oscar race or Hollywood in the least, it really wouldn’t be until 1962, when the exquisite To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for Best Picture — but of course did not win. Moreover, in typical Oscar fashion, only the white actors were nominated, none of the black cast. The following year would be the equally exquisite In The Heat of the Night, which would win Best Picture as the first, and maybe only film to win that dealt directly with racial issues.
But it wouldn’t be until last year’s Spielberg film, Lincoln, that the subject of slavery as an American tragedy, would reemerge in the Best Picture race. How many films about World War II, how many films about the Holocaust and yet slavery was only really tackled by the television miniseries Roots.
Poring over the nominees for Best Picture since 1939 is to see an industry and an organization that has, for decades, focused singularly on the white experience, with the odd exception here or there. The subject of race and racism was at the forefront in the 1960s in the Oscar race. It pops up here and there but the Academy’s choice for Best Picture in 1939 remains the only film to win the top prize that depicts slavery at all.
How does one even wrap their minds around such a thing? As far as black filmmakers go, the Academy mostly shut down Spike Lee for being an angry black man, even though he wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said in protest in 1939 against Gone with the Wind. Those protestations went ignored. Spike Lee’s own trajectory seemed to shut down opportunities for black filmmakers to get anywhere near the Oscar race until John Singleton finally got nominated for the Boyz in the Hood in 1991. The first black director in 64 years of Hollywood history.
It would be one thing if there hadn’t been black artists working in Hollywood going all the way back to 1939. But there were, there were many trying to break in. But how can you evolve past the color of your own skin in an industry that does nothing but hold you back for that very thing? Only a handful of directors have ever cast black actors to play characters white actors might have played — a black actor must play a inherently black character even if that means Hollywood becomes complicit in perpetuating the stereotype of black men as criminals, as they did in the 1970s with the Dirty Harry movies. It took a black filmmaker to lampoon Hollywood for this, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, before minds began to change.
Quentin Tarantino has single-handedly appropriated black culture for many of his films, like Jackie Brown, Pulp fiction and Django Unchained, copying and sampling blaxploitation films and rejiggering them to appeal to the honkey faction. Jackie Brown was only nominated for one Oscar — Robert Forster. Django Unchained won two Oscars for Tarantino and Christoph Waltz, but didn’t even nominate its star, Jamie Foxx.
Tarantino’s appropriation of black culture has been deemed hip and funky by the Academy, but they only barely tolerate Steven Spielberg’s more subtle integration. Spielberg is one of the few who really seems to have given a damn over the years, having made The Color Purple which is, to date, among the few films with an all black cast to get nominated for Best Picture. (Spielberg himself was conspicuously absent in the Best Director lineup). The controversy surrounding the film, as usual, did nothing but hurt black actors, as they became loaded guns in and of themselves. No one would ever want to have happen to them what happened to Spielberg that year. Eleven nominations, zero wins. This is somehow regarded as a failure because it wasn’t politically correct enough, despite it being leagues beyond what Gone with the Wind was.
Spielberg’s Amistad, also rejected. His Lincoln would be criticized for only telling the story of the 13th amendment from the white character’s point of view. But Lincoln was still, to date, the only film about slavery to get anywhere near Best Picture since Gone with the Wind.
That brings us to this year. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the long awaited rebuttal to Gone with the Wind. Because of the near universal support of critics (who themselves have often been as bad as the industry in not recognizing work by African American filmmakers), because of McQueen’s established reputation as a daring new filmmaking voice, the Academy has swept up in the acclaim and given the film 9 nominations, trailing the two leaders — Gravity and American Hustle. Well, some things will never change about Hollywood — not even 75 years later. They still love to huddle up against their pretty white movie stars.
12 Years a Slave is being heralded as potentially the Best Picture winner but its director, Steve McQueen, is supposedly not winning because they’ll want to split the vote. While Alfonso Cuaron’s own win would be historic in that he would be the first Mexican to win the directing prize, there is simply no comparison to the impact McQueen’s win would have on the cultural landscape. Cuaron and his Mexican new wave cohorts do not need doors kicked down for them. They have the industry in the palm of their hands. Black filmmakers, on the other hand, have been systematically shut down and shut out for decades.
The truth is, in the end, few people expect the DGA and the Academy to take this opportunity to make history. They won’t do it because they stubbornly refuse to vote for anything but what they “like.” I’ve been writing about the Academy, the industry and the critics, and I’ve listened to fans and read comments for going on 15 years now. The one thing I know about people: they bristle at the notion of art as correcting politics. Ah, but the Oscars aren’t really about art. They ARE about politics. The stories the critics, the industry and the Academy focus on year after year is a reflection of who they are. The five films they chose for decades define the mindset of the artistic community running Hollywood. Their taste identifies who they are at a given moment in time. Those daring voters of the 1970s? They’re all very old men now. Their tastes, their priorities, what moves them has changed to reflect that. This has to be why in the past few years the only films that can win Best Picture — with the exception of The Hurt Locker, No Country For Old Men and The Departed — whipped up an idealized vision of humanity, one with a tidily happy ending. It’s only gotten worse since 2009. Since then, voters have all but put their head in the sand to avoid having to think about anything to do with the modern world and have instead focused exclusively on the past white American mostly understands, the past that white America can feel proud about.
2010 – The King’s Speech
2011 – The Artist
2012 – Argo
A great white man at the center of the story, one whose failure is overcome by a series of actions that eventually leads to his success, his peers cheering him on and giving him the rewards he richly deserves. Good boy, they seem to say, well done. This narrative reflects the people voting for it, both male and female. We women, you see, need our heroes. We seem to be content with the idea that women exist on the periphery to support the male characters, to give them a much needed boost, to help them towards their goal. Even in The Artist, at the end of the day what was at stake was the career of the central male figure. But we women should be happy for being allowed to participate at all in the male narrative.
In 2013 we have two groundbreaking films that seem to be vying for Best Picture, and a third, American Hustle, that reflects the Academy’s retro sensibilities. We have 12 Years a Slave that reaches back to our past but doesn’t go anywhere near glorifying it. Rather, McQueen’s perspective on slavery in Hollywood is to rip off the flesh down to the bone. It is the first and perhaps the only film about slavery to illustrate the perversity of it being part of our early American economy — slaves help build and run early America. We have museums and White Houses built by them. We honor those structures with little acknowledgment of whose hands built them. African American history in the US is our history yet Hollywood has kept up a high wall that few have managed to climb over.
That Steve McQueen made it to this point, the one of three prominent emerging black directors this year, is practically a miracle in and of itself. There were murmurings throughout the season that “voters didn’t like” the film and “wouldn’t vote” for it. The Butler and Fruitvale Station were shut out completely, as if they didn’t really matter at all. Worse, Harvey Weinstein is being talked about in some circles as having had a failed year because he didn’t get those movies into the Oscar race. They compare him to Megan Ellison who got two of her projects through the gauntlet. Another measure of success should be Weinstein’s for having the balls to back those movies in the first place. Anyone who calls that a failure has their priorities way out of whack.
Change doesn’t come easy. It isn’t the thing we’re inclined to do, especially as we get older. We want things to remain as they are, the old status quo. For that reason I never thought I would be blogging long enough, or living long enough, to see a black director get this close to the Oscar yet here we are.
The story of this year has to be told. This weekend, at the DGA awards, we will find out which director the industry has chosen, which film they identified with and “loved.” And we’ll wait for the next miracle to drop in our laps. Then we will wait and we will wait.