In Friday’s 7 section we offer a preview story on the new Good Company Players production of “Moonlight and Magnolias” at the 2nd Space Theatre, which opens Saturday, Jan. 2. Here are extended interviews with director Denise Graziani and actor Henry Montelongo about the show.
Q: Briefly put, what is the plot of the play?
A: It revolves around how David O. Selznick had the screenplay of “Gone With The Wind” rewritten in 5 days in a locked room with the help of Ben Hecht, a famous screenwriter, and Victor Fleming, an equally famous director, with nothing but peanuts and bananas for sustenance and a secretary who kept watch on the locked door.
Q: Can you tell me anything about the performance history?
A: This is the first time Good Company Players has staged the play. I don’t think it’s been done in the Fresno area until now. The world premiere was produced in May 2004 by the Goodman Theater in Chicago. It was then originally produced in New York City in March 2005 by the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Q: What was “wrong” with the original script for “Gone with the Wind” and why does it need to be rewritten in the play?
A: Selznick says in the play that he was dissatisfied with how the filming was going. Sidney Howard’s screenplay was too long, too “pansified,” and George Cukor, the original director didn’t get the story and was taking too long to film it. He shut down production after 5 weeks of filming, fired Cukor, and called in Ben Hecht and Victor Fleming to rewrite and direct it the way he wanted it done.
Q: As far as you know, how much of the play is true?
A: From what I’ve read in some articles, Selznick did shut down production, and call in Hecht and Fleming to rewrite major portions of the screenplay. According to Hecht, because he was unfamiliar with the book, Selznick and Fleming acted out scenes for him and he typed up new scenes for the movie in that five day period with nothing but a diet of peanuts and bananas (Selznick’s idea of “brain food”).Whatever else may have happened behind that locked door is anyone’s guess, but Ron Hutchinson, the playwright, takes a pretty good stab at it with sly humor, hysterical slapstick, and a little human consciousness thrown in.
Q: Are you a “Gone With the Wind” fan, either book or movie (or both?) Before working on this play, did you know the history of how the movie was written?
A: I had not honestly seen or thought about the movie for many years. What drew me to the play was the story of these three men, all famous in their own right, locked up in a room for five days to create what was to be an epic Academy Award winning movie that grossed the most amount of money than any other movie of its time. It was hard to believe that something this insane and absurd actually happened. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall of that room and get the back story on such an epic film?
Q: Share one funny moment from the play that you can give away.
A: There are many funny moments, both physical and spoken. The wordplay tops the list for me. The scene where they are trying to write the ending of the movie and find the right final line for Rhett Butler before he disappears into the fog are favorites of mine. It’s funny how the right words for a situation can sometimes just fall out of the air in a conversation.
Q: Tell me about the production design.
A: David Pierce designed a gorgeous, opulent 1930’s art deco office for Selznick, which is where the entire play takes place. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes fit well into the 1939 time period of the play. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of lavish lifestyle that surrounded movie lots of that era.
Q: Talk about the relationship between Gordon and Henry’s characters.
Henry Montelongo plays David O. Selznick and Gordon Moore plays Ben Hecht. Both grew up in Jewish immigrant families, but their paths to their final positions were quite different. Throughout the play, Hecht never allows Selznick to forget where they came from and what, politically, was still going on outside the world of the movie lots. I guess you could say that Hecht is kind of Selznick’s moral conscience for humanity. That being said, they both seemed to have a mutual respect and admiration for each other personally and professionally. Selznick seemed to assimilate with the American Dream more and Hecht was the activist for the common man and civil rights.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: You don’t have to be familiar with “Gone With The Wind” to enjoy the production. For those who are familiar with the movie, there are many very recognizable memorable moments. For those not so familiar, the sheer wit and energy that these four actors (Bailey Johnson as Miss Poppengull, the secretary, Eric Estep as Victor Fleming, Gordon Moore as Ben Hecht, and Henry Montelongo as David O. Selznick) bring to the play, will give you a peek into the insanely funny world of behind the scenes at the movies.
Q: Tell me about your character.
A: I play David O. Selznick. Selznick is the producer of “Gone With the Wind.” He is portrayed in the play as at once driven, ambitious, charming, a bully, and desperate. He wants not just to make a successful film, but a great film, no matter what it takes. He also wants to be recognized as a brilliant producer and hates it when he is compared not so favorably to the great Irving Thalberg. He is almost in constant motion. I did see a clip of him receiving the Academy award for “Rebecca.” In his acceptance he is constantly turning the statue in his hands. Not frenetically, but it is constant.
Q: Are you a “Gone with the Wind” fan, either book or film?
A: I had never, and still haven’t, read the book. Other than a handful of clips I had never seen the movie either. As a matter of fact I was more familiar with the Carol Burnett spoof of the movie. ha! I did sit down and watch the entire film. For me, it was hard to take the romanticism of slavery and plantation society. On the other hand the production values are impressive. I also liked Vivien Leigh’s performance, and Gable of course is cool. I really liked the final sequences when Scarlett returns to tell Rhett she loves him. Those sequences when she follows him from the bedroom, down the stairs to the door, where he delivers the great line, ‘Frankly my dear…’ and out into the fog, I think are fantastic. As I said, I respect the filmmaking aspects of it, it’s just hard to get past the romantic south. It definitely was a landmark film. In regards to the history of the production, the only thing I was familiar with was the extensive search done for an actress to play Scarlett. One thing I did not know was that Victor Fleming was pulled from “Wizard of Oz” to take over the helm of “GWTW.” In the play Fleming gives an amusing anecdote of things the munchkins are doing off set.
Q: Talk about the relationship between your character and Gordon’s.
A: Gordon plays Ben Hecht. Selznick brings Hecht in to rewrite the script. They are good friends. Hecht is constantly haranguing Selznick to become more active socially, in particular for the plight of Jews in Germany prior to World war II. He can’t believe Selznick is filming “GWTW “with its romanticism of plantation society, including the slap of a young black girl by the lead. To this end he tries to serve as a type of moral compass for Selznick. They argue as only friends can argue. Having a good friend in Gordon Moore play the role of Hecht, which fits him like a glove, makes it all the easier.
Q: Are there any jokes regarding the length of the movie? Do you know if the studio executives were worried about the length?
Early on, Hecht makes a joke regarding the length of Sidney Howard’s early scenario. Trying to condense Mitchell’s thousand-plus-page book into a workable screenplay of course is commented on. Near the end of the play Selznick notes that we have kept the audience in their seats for three hours! I don’t know what the studio’s reaction was.
Q: Will you ever be able to watch “Gone with the Wind” the same way again?
Definitely not. I’ll always think about all that went in to bring it to the screen. I’ll appreciate the size and scope of it, also its place in movie history. But also I’ll think of the lens through which the book and movie looked at slavery.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I think the play does a great job in showing us not just the chaos, but also the issues and the perceptions, that Selznick, Hecht, and Fleming dealt with in putting “GWTW” together. All three are on stage nearly the entire play. Having worked before with both Gordon Moore and Eric Estep helped to make this a much easier piece to bring together. Bailey Johnson, who plays Selznick’s secretary, fit in seamlessly with the three of us. Then having a patient director in Denise Graziani has made this a most enjoyable experience. Hopefully the audience will enjoy the show as much as we had bringing it together.
Photos: Top, Eric Estep, left, as Victor Fleming, Henry Montelongo, as David O. Selznick, and Gordon Moore, as Ben Hecht. Above, Montelongo with a copy of the book. Bee photos by Silvia Flores.
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