A Conversation with Robert De Niro’s Film Archivist | New Dish on Gone With The Wind

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsI was joined today by my good friend ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong who I first met (where else?) in this very dining room seven years ago. Joe has introduced me to countless interesting folks over the years including Carl Bernstein, Elton John and the late Elizabeth Edwards. He’s had a long and storied career in journalism having been at the top of the masthead of Rolling Stone and New York Magazine as publisher and has served as a trusted advisor to ABC News. These days when he’s not holding court here at Michael’s or dispensing invaluable advice to his faithful friends in the media biz, he’s a tireless champion of many worthwhile causes and institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin where he sits of the board of directors. Back in the day, Joe was editor in chief of the Texas Law Forum at the University of Texas School of Law. (Harry Ransom was his beloved mother’s English teacher — “Everything comes full circle!”) Today, he invited me to join the Center’s film curator Steve Wilson,  Alicia Dietrich, public affairs representative and  Jennifer Tisdale director of public affairs who dazzled me with fascinating stories about the Center’s extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia among many other types of cultural and literary artifacts — just in time for the upcoming Oscars.

At Table One: Front (from left) Steve Wilson, Diane Clehane, Jennifer Tisdale; Back: Alicia Dietrich and Joe Armstrong
At Table 1: Front (from left) Steve Wilson, Diane Clehane and Jennifer Tisdale; Back: Alicia Dietrich and Joe Armstrong

The gang was in town to meet with various news outlets to discuss the Center’s upcoming ‘The Making of Gone With the Wind” exhibition, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of one of the most iconic movies of all time. The exhibition will run from Sept. 9 through Jan. 4, 2015 and is a must-see for film buffs. Gone With the Wind was the most nominated film of 1939, scoring 13 Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to be nominated and win for Best Supporting Actress. No small feat since that year was truly one of Hollywood’s best with Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz also competing for little gold men that year. Among the 300 items drawn from the Center’s collection from David O. Selznick‘s archives that will be on view: rare audition footage, storyboards from the film and three original gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, including the famous “green curtain” dress, marking the first time these costumes were on view together in 25 years. A gloriously illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title was published by the Center and University of Texas Press last fall with a foreword written by Turner Classic Movie host and film historian Robert Osborne.

The film, which took three and a half years to make, has been a subject of fascination since its debut and remains (with its receipts adjusted for inflation) the highest-grossing film of all time. It continues to fascinate today with a back story as epic as the one that made it to the big screen. Once Steve dove into the 5,000 document boxes, millions of frames of film and hundreds of photographs that came to the Center from Selznick’s sons via a storage facility in Los Angeles (which took two years to catalog), he learned that both Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead (who promised to give up drinking for the role) desperately wanted the role of Scarlett. “When Selznick called Bankhead on Christmas Eve in 1936 to tell her they needed someone who could convincingly play Scarlett as a much younger woman, she bowed out because she was a working actress and needed to know then if she had the role,” Steve told me. He also discovered that Selznick was such a prolific letter writer (“He was taking ‘pep pills’ at the time of the making of the movie, which obviously fueled very long letters”) that he employed an army of secretaries who did nothing but type his 10-page, single-spaced dictated missives related to the making of the film. Fans were so excited about the movie having read Margaret Mitchell‘s book that over 3,000 of them responded to a nationwide talent search initiated by Selznick, who was searching for the perfect Scarlett. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was so inundated with letters about it that she resorted to throwing bags of mail away unopened. Luckily, 300 of those letters remain and are part of the exhibition. “It’s an amazing window into Hollywood history,” said Steve. If you’re interested in a sneak peak, ten storyboards from the exhibition will be on view from April 10 through April 13 at The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.