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Opus worth a damn

THE quintessential Hollywood movie "Gone With the Wind,?has long deserved to be rescued from critical disdain and given its correct place among American pop masterpieces, like "The Godfather,?"On the Waterfront?and "E.T.,?that enlighten as much as they entertain.

Molly Haskell provides that defense in "Frankly, My Dear: 'Gone With the Wind?Revisited,?an earnest work of moviegoer remembrance that's also affectionate scholarship. Haskell's argument is mounted on feminist principles that at first glance seem antithetical to a film widely regarded as pre-feminist fluff. She contends that "themes centering on women?are "always an inferior subject matter to socially conscious critics of literature and film.?After 70 years of "GWTW?bashing, a creditable critic finally says, "Not so fast!?

Since Haskell introduced one of the earliest versions of feminist-conscious film criticism in "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies?(1974), feminist criticism hasn't been very evident in the mainstream media. Haskell gave up regular reviewing in the early 1990s, leaving criticism that seriously examined the big-screen image of women and the popular representation of female social roles to go underground.

That makes "Frankly, My Dear?all the more remarkable. It's Haskell's feminist perspective that provides insight into a movie most academics won't touch and current critics dismiss. She disentangles the film's qualities from the confounding issues of misogyny, racism and intellectual snobbery.

Confronting the legendary headstrong heroine Scarlett O'Hara, Haskell explores the power she exerts on the romantic and political imagination ?first as a creation in Margaret Mitchell's best-selling 1936 novel, then as a screen personification by the British actress Vivien Leigh in a Hollywood adaptation produced by the independent mogul David O. Selznick. From these multiple sources Haskell anatomizes the iconographic Scarlett as a product of proto-feminist literature, a performer's neuroses and the outsize ambitions of Hollywood's first golden age.

She is most comfortable examining the male-female sexual dynamics. Leigh's Scarlett and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler (who provides a climax to their tumultuous saga by uttering the memorable exit line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn? have become archetypes of American heterosexual romance ?its allure and its collapse. Haskell dissects their images, provocatively hinting at the film's true basis in screwball comedy. She also contemplates hidden notions of gender identity, Southern mores, Civil War history and early-20th-century sexual fantasy.

"Frankly, My Dear?praises "Gone With the Wind?for illuminating still-conflicting romantic ideas. This comes at a time when film culture has fragmented into fan-boy/chick-flick dichotomies and populist-v-elitist criticism.

Haskell's endeavor, different from high-art appreciation yet not far from it, brings together audience taste and intellectual specification. Almost like an apology beforehand, Haskell's biographical sketches and psychological speculations set up an unlikely framework for critical interpretation.


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