Monday, April 11, 2011

ASF: Moonlight and Magnolias

"Tara's Theme" -- the evocative signal music of Gone With the Wind -- fills the darkened Carolyn Blount Theatre at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, conjuring memories of the film classic. Lights come up to reveal film mogul David O. Selznick's MGM studio office in Hollywood in 1939, as he cries out in disbelief: "You didn't read the book?!?!?", starting the merriment of the next two hours on stage.

Selznick was in a jam: he had shut down production of the long-awaited filming of Margaret Mitchell's novel, fired director George Cukor and pulled director Victor Fleming off the lot of The Wizard of Oz as a substitute, discarded innumerable scripts, and brought in prolific script writer Ben Hecht to re-write the screenplay in five days. It made no difference that Hecht had not read the book. Cost was no matter. Selznick was on a mission. He needed a save his marriage to partner Louis B. Mayer's daughter, to put the studio and himself in top place in Hollywood, and to emerge from under the shadow of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg.

All this is true. -- What happens in Ron Hutchinson's witty script of Moonlight and Magnolias, directed by Geoffrey Sherman, is a fictionalized account of what might have ensued behind those locked doors, with only bananas and peanuts for sustenance, communication with the outside world prohibited except for occasional food deliveries and intercom messages from a secretary, and personalities and ideologies clashing.

For a full appreciation of Moonlight and Magnolias, it is important to know GWTW; but Hutchinson's script provides more than adequate details of its plot, characters, and dialogue for most any attentive audience to understand the basics and to enjoy the farce before them.

The five days it took to accomplish Selznick's charge are described in three scenes that delineate the physical and mental degeneration of the project's participants -- their dishevelment and frustrations building -- along with the growing detritus of paper, banana peels, and peanut shells that litter the stage.

There is a lot of ego in the room. Each man argues his own importance to the project. Hecht [Brik Berkes] the writer claims words are the soul of any film and that his words are the best, while Fleming [Thom Rivera] insists that the director's vision brings those words to life and that he knows how to shoot it. Pragmatist Selznick [Eric Hoffman] says that "the little people who go to the movies" have the power to make or break a film, and that he knows what they want -- melodrama [not real life] -- and he knows how to deliver it.

Much of the delight to audiences is to watch these egos collide...and collide they do. What starts off somewhat innoculously with Selznick and Fleming acting out scenes as the book's characters while Hecht labors at a typewriter to get it all down becomes increasingly frustrating when Selznick insists that all the dialogue must come directly from Mitchell's novel, and Hecht insists that no Civil War movie ever made money and that certain parts of the book [Scarlett O'Hara's questionable moral stance, a white person slapping a black person, for example] risk censorship from the fearsome Hayes Office, and should not therefore be filmed.

In 1939, the onset of World War II around the corner and Hollywood prejudices against both Blacks and Jews add some seriousness to the proceedings of Moonlight and Magnolias.

Hecht, a real life civil rights activist and avowed Zionist, provides a kind of moral center to the play, and Mr. Berkes has some settling moments amidst the mayhem as he faces-down Selznick's stubborn refusal to admit his own Jewishness. And his physical embodiment of writer's cramp -- stiff gnarled fingers from days at the typewriter -- is matched by a clever cramp in the leg as well.

Fleming, whose directorial vision is marred by a burst blood vessel in his eye, is another clever script point that Mr. Rivera capitalizes on, and when after Hecht & Fleming attempt to leave, but have second thoughts and stay because they had promised to do so, there is genuine sincerity in the decision.

Secretary Miss Poppenghul is played by Nandita Shenoy as a stereotypical wide-eyed, almost robotic bimbo, complete with a mincing tip-toed bounce of a walk and high-pitched voice. Portrayed with complete conviction by Ms Shenoy, it is an odd choice and out of the established naturalism of the men's roles. Though there are many opportunities for developing the character's frustrations at deflecting the persistent entreaties of Mayer, actress Vivien Leigh, and others to get a phone-call connected to Selznick [frustrations we can only imagine since most of her time is spent off-stage], there is hardly a sign of it throughout her several all-too-brief on-stage appearances, so her exhaustion at the end of the play is surprising.

The actors in Moonlight and Magnolias are a fine ensemble who demonstrate a lot of comfort and generosity for one another, and whose energy is admirable, but it is Selznick's vision that drives the script. He knows what sells, and the MGM motto --"Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art for Art's Sake") means little to a man determined to sell GWTW as a melodrama. In the person of Mr. Hoffman, the powerful character of Selznick fits like a proverbial glove...whether cajoling Hecht and Fleming, outrageously impersonating characters while acting out the plot of the novel, evading the unpleasant reality of impending war in Europe, or being defensive about his Jewishness...he never loses sight of his objective; and after five grueling days of merciless dictatorship, he knows he has accomplished what he set out to do, probably saved his marriage, believes he has a potential hit on his hands, is confident that his reputation will be secure, and resumes the cool and polished countenance of a successful businessman. -- Image, after all, is also what sells.