Moonlight and Magnolias
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 26, 2005
FADE IN ON:
The Movie Producer’s office on the studio lot, early on a Monday morning. Having shut down production on his troubled, multi-million dollar blockbuster and fired his director, The Producer has called an emergency meeting with The New Director and The Script Doctor in the hopes of salvaging the film’s unwieldy script and writing a new one before the week is out—even if that means staying in his office until it’s done.
If this sounds like your average movie production meeting, think again. The circumstances here are quite different. The Producer is none other than legendary movie mogul David O. Selznick; The New Director is Wizard of Oz helmer Victor Fleming; and The Script Doctor is newspaperman-turned-screenwriter Ben Hecht, co-author of The Front Page and winner of the first screenwriting Oscar. The movie they are trying to salvage is Selznick’s years-in-the-making pet project, Gone With the Wind, and their meeting is the setting for Ron Hutchison’s boisterous and hilarious new comedy, Moonlight and Magnolias.
The play’s title comes from Hecht’s opinion of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. “It’s just moonlight and magnolias,” he tells Selznick. “Yuck!” But Hecht hasn’t actually read the book, only the first page—which is more than enough. To him, Gone With the Wind is just melodramatic tripe—an opinion shared by Fleming, who thinks that writers and actors get in the way of making good movies. But, he takes enough pride in his craft to do his job without letting personal taste get in the way. Besides, Fleming doesn’t ever want to go back to where he started: as a chauffeur. Only Selznick believes in the commercial and artistic potential of Gone With the Wind, and he sets out to convince both men that it is movie magic waiting to happen. Since Hecht hasn’t read the book, Selznick and Fleming act out every scene within its 1,000-plus pages—to give him an idea of the story.
Hecht has more on his mind than a hefty paycheck, though. As the story unfolds before his eyes, Hecht spots an unsettling corollary between Mitchell’s endorsement of the pro-slavery Confederacy and America’s then-current practice of turning a blind eye to Hitler’s activities in Europe (Moonlight and Magnolias takes place in February, 1939, a few years before the United States entered World War II). He begins to feel that if moviegoers can embrace a lying, slave-owning, morally reprehensible heroine like Scarlett O’Hara, they can just as easily ignore the growing persecution and genocide of the Jews—thereby endorsing it.
As serious as that may sound, let me assure you that Moonlight and Magnolias is clearly focused on the comedy. Every time Hecht voices a moral concern, Selznick meets it head-on with enough flowery love-of-the-movies rhetoric to make one think he’d stepped out of a best-selling potboiler himself. And the scenes with Selznick and Fleming acting out Gone With the Wind are priceless, with Selznick always playing Scarlett, and the macho Fleming playing everyone else. An Act II highlight in which both men play Melanie’s childbirth scene—with Fleming filling in as both Melanie and Prissy (“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies, Miss Scarlett!”)—is particularly uproarious.
Hutchison’s writing is sharp and clean. The jokes are funny, but more importantly the characters are too. Hutchison knows that comedy erupts best when characters are placed uncomfortably between the actual outcome of a given situation and their expectation of what that outcome will be. By locking the three men in Selznick’s office for five days under such a high-pressure circumstance, with nothing but peanuts and bananas (“brain food,” as Selznick calls it) to live on, he gives each of them ample opportunity to vent their comic spleen.
Hutchison also puts a lot at stake for everyone. For Fleming, it’s his career; for Hecht, his conscience; for Selznick, it is his dignity and his legacy. If Gone With the Wind fails the studio will go bankrupt, and he will have to go back to work for his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. But, if it succeeds, Selznick knows he will have produced the greatest movie ever made. “Movies are the only place I know where the dead can walk,” he tells Hecht and Fleming late in the play, then asks, “Who wants to live forever?”
Hutchison also does a terrific job with the weightier parts of the play, keeping Hecht’s moral outrage general and palatable without making it feel like we’re taking our medicine.
Director Lynne Meadow keeps Moonlight and Magnolias moving fast and furious, focusing the momentum so that it hits all the right comedic notes. She is ably assisted by an excellent cast: Douglas Sills marks Selznick with a charming leading-man brio and a convincing sensitivity. David Rasche is believably (and hilariously) no-nonsense as the tough-and-gruff Fleming. Matthew Arkin’s Hecht is a jaded (and equally funny) creation. And Margo Skinner shines in the smaller role of Selznick’s put-upon secretary. (Special mention must also go to Santo Loquasto’s gorgeously realized set, a part of old Hollywood brought brilliantly to life.)
Most impressive of all is the fact that Moonlight and Magnolias manages to breathe life into a tried-and-true theme: no matter what your political beliefs are, no matter what race you are, no matter what your economic status is—when it comes to filmmaking, love of the movies conquers all.