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Saturday, October 1, 2011

David O. Selznick

David O. Selznick (1940) 
with his Oscar and his
Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien
Leight, who got one of
her own the same year)
As painters, we often come to think of our craft as the most important of the arts, despite respectable competition from music, drama, literature, architecture, sculpture, and (most recently) motion pictures. It is this latter, relatively new, twentieth century art form that I want to talk about at the moment. Without a doubt, the cinema is the most viable, perhaps one would have to say even the "best" art medium in the world today because it takes the best that all the other arts have to offer (including painting) and melds them into one hybrid capable of providing the viewer a truly "moving" experience. Oh, I know, not everything that comes out of Hollywood is high art, but the same could be said of every other art capital in the world. What makes motion pictures so unique is that so much of it is so good.  I know a lot about painting having done my fair share, but if you were to ask me to name the one work of art in the whole of art history which I know the most about, it would not be a painting.  It would be a movie, specifically, the David O. Selznick, 1939 production of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

GWTW theatrical poster
Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities, 1935

As an art instructor, for the better part of my career I taught a segment in each course titled "Movies as an Art form." This was one of the movies I taught. Movies, by their very nature are "art by committee," and, unlike most creative enterprises based upon such a premise, it actually works most of the time.  However, a few film artists such as Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and Orson Wells built such personal reputations as artists they managed to break free from the "committee" and create on film much as a painter might work on canvas. One of these towering giants was David O. Selznick.  Sidney Howard for his screenplay and Victor Fleming as director, both won Academy Awards for their work on GWTW, and of course, Selznick could hardly have played Scarlett O'Hara himself, but more than any other producer at that time, he all too often wrote, directed, and edited this masterpiece himself despite the claims of the opening credits. He was a perfectionist, a disorganized, right-brained dynamo, brought up in the business by his father, living on Benzedrine, who thought no one could do their job better than he could. More often than not he was wrong, but often enough, he was right, and aside from Scarlett herself (Vivien Leigh), no one left a more indelible mark on the picture.

David Copperfield, 1935
Rebecca, 1940

David O. Selznick was born in 1902. He was working in the business under his father by the time he was fifteen, and production manager at RKO Pictures while still in his twenties. He married Irene Mayer, the daughter of MGM mogul, Louis B. Mayer, and was off and running with his own studio by the time he was 35. GWTW was not his first great film. He also made such classics as Tale of Two Cities, David CopperfieldWhat Price Hollywood?, Intermezzo and Rebecca (for which he won a second Academy Award). Unfortunately, GWTW was his last great film. His problem was, what do you do for an encore? He worried that everything he did thereafter would be compared to GWTW and found inferior. He worried that when he died, it would be the first and last paragraph of his obituary. He was right on both counts. By 1949 he had lost his studio due to a dismal string of critical disasters, sold his rights to GWTW to MGM to pay off his enormous debts, and when he died in 1965, no one remembered either his other successes or his numerous failures. Selznick was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg award for outstanding contributions to the film industry on the same night GWTW walked off with ten Oscars. His only misfortune seems to have been that he was not thirty years older at the time and therefore could have rested on his laurels.
What Price Hollywood? 1932
Intermezzo, 1939

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