Why Stanley Crouch Is Wrong About Bette Davis


With all due respect to the incomparable Stanley Crouch, his recent assessment of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster 1936 novel Gone With the Windis off base. The 1939 film, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last month, is a landmark achievement in 20th-century pop culture. For me, it is right up there with Works Progress Administration-era murals, Dorothea Lange photographs and the Depression-era novels of John Steinbeck. You do not have to love its politics to admit that it is a fantastic motion picture.

Not so for Crouch, apparently. That would be OK—if he had avoided encasing his argument in cultural-critique boots befouled with misogyny. By stomping GWTW’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, with old-timey gender math in which “child-woman,” “white bitch” and “heifer” are the defining variables, Crouch succeeds in getting my back up. And as the mother of a 10-year-old black girl, who, like me, finds much to admire in Scarlett O’Hara, I am compelled to protest Crouch’s sexist attack.

Equally perplexing is Crouch’s frame for lashing out against Margaret Mitchell’s heroine: Using it as a jumping-off point of comparison, Crouch argued that the 1942 Warner Bros. potboiler In This Our Life represents, “a blistering rejoinder to Gone With the Wind," one of the most deluded fantasies ever left on film …. It is much like a pie to the mask of the cinematic masquerade balls, in which white Southerners were depicted wearing the false faces of endless down-home charm and grace to the exclusion of deadly common characteristics.” Then, quite inexplicably, Crouch mounts a discussion of Davis’ legendary ability to portray “white bitches”—as if that is a significant benchmark in any performance art genre or era. For example, Davis’ best screen performance, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, was a “bitch” in a campily theatrical sense, a ball-breaker with a heart of gold.

Yet it is within this context that Crouch makes uninformed and sexist observations about a particularly Southern Gothic literary archetype, the willful, selfish, steamroller woman who benefits from the hypocrisies and absurdities of her white supremacist environment.

Those “deadly common characteristics” Crouch refers to are not, in fact, “excluded” from these female character’s repertoires, quite the contrary. They are usually primary tension points within these literary yarns, from Faulkner’s tortured female heroines, to those of Tennessee Williams and Allan Gurganus. For Scarlett, in GWTW especially, her constant, unwinnable battle is waged between her basest, “common” instincts--inherited from her Irish immigrant father--and the “genteel” dictates of her mother’s French-Creole upbringing. (“Southern charm,” by another name.) This tension is not hidden from readers or viewers, though it is from most of the characters around the heroines, who foolishly adhere to the hypocritical social order of their day. Like Blanche DuBois and Maggie The Cat in Tennessee Williams greatest plays, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” respectively, it is the female character’s death match with society’s expectations that provides the spine and core source of tension.

Further, the racism that flowed freely around and through these women characters did not give them pause because they were products of their peculiar regions and eras: Racism is not the point of these stories; it is part of the backdrop. (And, for the record, Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, gives arguably the best performance in GWTW; Crouch cites her work in In This Our Life, but really, outstripping her work in Mitchell’s epic? Uh, no. It is McDaniel’s sheer humanity, in an otherwise maudlin scene during the last reel of GWTW, that gives the film its truest emotional anchor.)

Crouch, at least, did not make the mistake that so many other contemporary critics do when looking back at these 20th-century cultural artifacts. Remember that crazy-assed 2002 book by Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone, which purported to “re-imagine” Mitchell’s book from the viewpoint of Mammy and the other slave characters? It was only due to the naïve protectionist efforts by the heirs of Mitchell’s estate—they sought to block publication of the book, which led to a quick, hot, First Amendment kerfluffle—that anyone took more than a quick glance at Randall’s folly. I certainly called Randall out, in several columns at Africana.com, for attempting to cash in on GWTW with a cheap brand of post-feminist, post-black nationalist, academic-deconstruction gobbledegook that gives legitimate women’s and black studies scholars a bad name.

But Crouch’s ill-fated decision to compare Bette Davis’ performance in the John Huston-directed In This Our Life and, (tangentially) William Wyler’s Jezebel, to Vivien Leigh’s performance in GWTW is the strangest aspect of his critique. Strange and porous, like cheesecloth, it does not hold water or withstand informed questioning.

For one thing, a careful viewing reveals that Leigh’s Scarlett is not a one-dimensional “bitch.” And, au contraire, if you read the novel with a literary eye—and not the eye of a race or gender cop—it is evident that Scarlett is a classic, tragic protagonist in the Shakespearean tradition, a character who starts out with seemingly everything in their favor, and who, through hubris, inexperience and lack of compassion, loses the thing that matters most to them by the final curtain.

Further, read the histories of the making of that four-hourlong epic—especially Molly Haskell’s recent addition to the GWTW canon, Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone With the Wind Revisited’—and you will see descriptions of a key behind-the-scenes battle that waged throughout the long, rocky making of the film: Leigh’s profanity-laced disagreements with GWTW’s final director, Victor Fleming, who kept telling Leigh to, essentially, just "bitch" up the character. (A total of three directors worked on the movie, including George Cukor, who was dismissed by the Benzedrine-popping producer; David O. Selznick, for being too much of a “woman’s director.”) Fleming, a buddy of Leigh’s co-star, Clark Gable, was a “man’s man,” who excelled at marching the unwieldy production toward closure, but stunk when it came to aiding his actors with character development.