I met Scarlett O’Hara when I was eleven, or twelve. My Dad and I sat together through the 4-hour movie (and the 30 minute intermission.) Life was never quite the same after that. Merci, papa. I fell in love with her, Atlanta and the American South, where I later spent a year as an international student, thanks to a full scholarship awarded by the Georgia Rotary Club. Once I was in college, she inspired several papers I wrote about the Civil War, antebellum plantations, and steel magnolias. Today, her picture is the first one you see when you step into my home office.
Scarlett O’Hara. Gone with the Wind. Classic. Timeless. A myth.
Oh, I know. Scarlett O’Hara was a spoiled brat. Vain, selfish, insecure. Look at her here, surrounded by all the county’s eligible bachelors. A little flirt, and so shallow!
|16-year old Scarlett and her beaux at Twelve Oaks plantation|
Can we blame her? After all, what else was expected of young girls in the antebellum South? Scarlett, like the others, had to know her place, look pretty, and stay sweet until she found a suitable husband and started raising a family. But Katie Scarlett O’Hara is not your average Southern debutante. She is the daughter of well-bred French American Ellen Robillard and feisty Irishman Gerald O’Hara. An irresistible combination. Is it the twinkle in her eye? The way she tips up her chin defiantly? The raised eyebrow I tried so hard to duplicate after watching the movie? As soon as we lay eyes on Scarlett, we know she is no wallflower material.
Coco Chanel once said, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” Something tells me Mademoiselle would have approved of Scarlett. Coco Chanel also had an eye for style. And Scarlett certainly has style. In the movie adaptation of Gone with the Wind, she dazzles in colorful outfits. When in society, she makes a mark by dressing the part.
|Scarlett in green…|
|Scarlett in the burgundy ball gown…|
|Scarlett in blue…|
When circumstances dictate, Scarlett makes do with the resources at hand.
|Scarlett’s fashion comeback in the green curtain dress made by her slave, Mammy|
But Scarlett O’Hara is so much more than a beauty with a glamorous wardrobe. I was only 12 when we met, and I remember being fascinated with her energy, spirit and determination. What Scarlett wants, Scarlett gets. What stands in her way, she dismisses with an impatient, “Fiddle-dee-dee!” She does not stop there. “Great balls of fire, don’t bother me anymore, and don’t call me sugar!” Yes, Scarlett has attitude. She can be scathing and cruel. But some in her entourage do not let her get away with it.
|Faithful Mammy keeps an eye on Scarlett|
|Scarlett: “Sir, you are no gentleman!”
Rhett: “And you, miss, are no lady!”
Scarlett is far from perfect. Even as a young teenager, I could tell my heroine had questionable interpersonal skills, and not an ounce of self-awareness. Doesn’t she spend the whole story chasing her cousin Melanie’s husband, the chivalrous Ashley Wilkes, ignoring all along that her true love is Rhett Butler? That part infuriated me. What did she see in soft-spoken Ashley?
|A young Scarlett, her cousin Melanie and Ashley Wilkes|
And yet, sweet Melanie Wilkes, her cousin, doggedly stands by her side, until her untimely death. “Why?,” one may wonder. What sensitive and forgiving Melanie sees is the shining side of Scarlett. Melanie ignores Scarlett’s tantrums and tempestuous outbursts, focusing instead on her actions during the war years, her intelligence and determination, her courage. Scarlett survives the war, and in what becomes a pattern in her life, overcomes today’s trauma, so she can reach tomorrow. While all the men are at war, Scarlett takes on the burden of her family, servants, and the Wilkes family, while running Tara, the family plantation. In short, Scarlett is indomitable. Through Melanie’s understanding and loving eyes, we come to admire Scarlett’s strength.
|The plantation mistress works in the cotton fields|
The magnificent scene at the end of Part 1 still gives me the goose bumps. A different Scarlett emerges out of the harrowing war years. Hunger and poverty have damaged her. She is harder, and determined to survive. She will re-invent herself into a ruthless and materialistic opportunist.
|“I’ll never be hungry again!”|
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness.
They are not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this
and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk.
If I have to lie, steal, cheat and kill; as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
And as we watch her grow into a powerful businesswoman and a leader, and follow her disastrous and often misguided personal life, we wish – the young teenager I was then, so many years ago, wished – that we could shake her up, tell her to open her pretty green eyes and really look at the people around her. Come on, Katie Scarlett, look at Melanie. Listen to her. A girl needs girlfriends. True friends. Not all women are enemies you need to compete with. And Rhett. What a guy, Scarlett. Don’t let Rhett run away from you. Forget Ashley. He is so “Old South!” Rhett is the future. He understands you. He will be by your side, no matter what happens.
There is no reasoning with Scarlett. Watching her towards the end of the movie is like seeing a runaway train headed for a precipice. It is mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. Then the ending comes. Rhett finally gives up on her, and leaves their beautiful house, with what remains one of the most famous lines in American cinema: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.“
Melanie, her only friend, is gone. Scarlett finally knows who her true love is, and she has lost him. Or has she? With tears in her eyes, she momentarily collapses on the stairs, sobbing, and then she remembers where she belongs, where she came from, Tara, the family plantation where she grew up.
“Tara. Home. I’ll go home! And I’ll think of some way to get him back.
After all… Tomorrow is another day!”
|Magnificent Vivien Leigh|
It works. We believe her. Katie Scarlett O’Hara will do it, once again. She will go home, to Tara. She will heal, and regroup. She will bring Rhett back. Or not. But even if she doesn’t, we know she will be all right.
|Scarlett is home again|
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