Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hattie McDaniel On The Stairs: One Of The True Benchmarks Of Screen Acting

By Lars Trodson

I was in Blockbuster the other day in Portsmouth, NH and, while scanning the shelves for something – anything – to watch, I came across a stack of “Gone With The Wind” DVDs. I took one and held it against my “Less Than Zero” disc, contemplating what was enticing me to see “GWTW” yet again.

And yet, as I walked down the aisle, it dawned on me that it may be – could it be? – that I had never actually seen the movie. Is that possible? Didn’t I know all about Rhett and Scarlett and Mammy? Wasn’t the famous crane shot of the dead and dying lying on the tracks of the Atlanta train depot seared into my memory? Sure it was, but I think my viewing of the movie was really the result of viewing a few famous scenes of the movie over and over and over – until it got to the point that it just felt as though I had seen it. That, and the fact that its mythology is so steeped in American movie-going culture you feel as though you know the story by heart.

But I hadn’t it seen it, and as soon as I put in the disc, and watched the opening scenes at Tara – the O’Hara plantation that is the geographic center of the film – I realized that this experience was going to be new.
I’m not going to revisit the film here, or try to revitalize its importance, but it was amazing to see a film that at turns could be beautiful, stupid, powerful, sublime and melodramatic. Clark Gable has presence, and Vivien Leigh’s beauty will not be denied, nor will the sheer scope of her performance. She holds onto her Southern accent about as well as Leslie Howard, as the milquetoast Ashley Wilkes, does not. Howard acts like he just walked out of a “Perils of Pauline” silent short – his acting is that out of date.

One of the great treasures of seeing this film, though, turned out to be the performance of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. Movie buffs and trivia fanatics can immediately respond when asked who the first African-American was to win an Oscar (of any kind) was, but is the performance itself that well-known? And did it really merit an Oscar?

I had always wondered, vaguely, if McDaniel’s award wasn’t just another example of the Academy patting itself on the back for being so progressive, even if the actual performance or movie didn’t earn the honor. I came to that conclusion because all I had seen were bits of her performance -– the tying of the corset, her bustling about the house mumbling to herself. These were the cartoonish moments, shown without the context of Clark Gable’s character actually seeking out Mammy’s respect, and without seeing the scene in which Mammy and Rhett share a drink together. That was a beautiful scene.

But the real moment came when Melanie (played by Olivia DeHavilland) comes to the Butler household in Atlanta after Rhett and Scarlett’s child has died in a horse-riding accident. Melanie and Mammy take a long walk up those famous red-carpeted stairs, and Mammy, her face contorted in pain and tears literally pouring out of her eyes, starts to tell Melanie of the pain that Rhett and Scarlett are going through, and of the violence that kind of pain sometimes begets. This walk up the stairs is unedited, it’s shot in one graceful movement – and punctuated by the agonizing repeated requests from Melanie to Mammy not to say any more. You suddenly realize you are seeing a performance of rare and raw power. It is absolutely astonishing, and very beautiful, and is – and should be – considered a high mark in screen acting.

This scene, for whatever reason, is never shown, but it has the redemptive power of making sense of all the histrionics and soap opera aspects of the story that have come before.

I now know why Mo’Nique credited Hattie McDaniel when she won her recent Oscar for “Precious.” McDaniel is incredible, inspiring.

This performance of Hattie McDaniel’s should be elevated to something far more important than a facile answer to a trivia question. And I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t familiar with it before now. Her Mammy is a human, living, passionate person, and if you take the time to watch the movie (if you haven’t seen it) and reach that moment, you’re eyes will be opened by Hattie McDaniel and you’ll see something you can truly say you’ve never seen before.