As God is my witness, it was better than I had any right to imagine….
Mill Creek Entertainment—the only company bold enough to risk sending discs to the drunks at our Writers TV offices the writers at our Drunk TV offices—has released Scarlett, the massive 1994 CBS miniseries that dared to continue the epic, turbulent saga of Gone With the Wind’s famed lovers, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Based on the laughably incompetent 1991 best-seller of the same name, and featuring a heavyweight cast that includes Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Timothy Dalton, Stephen Collins, Sean Bean, Esther Rolle, Colm Meaney, John Gielgud, Annabeth Gish, Julie Harris, Jean Smart, Melissa Leo, Ray McKinnon, Ann-Margret, Barbara Barrie, Brian Bedford, Paul Winfield, and George Grizzard, Scarlett was supposed to be CBS’s sledgehammer for the November, 1994 television “sweeps.”
By Paul Mavis
It didn’t work out that way, with only so-so ratings and generally lousy reviews. Seen today, Scarlett’s a reasonably entertaining big-scale historical mini…as long as you forget its connection to one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
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1865. The South has lost The War Between the States, and fiery, willful, beautiful temptress Scarlett O’Hara (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) has lost her husband: that devilishly handsome scoundrel, Rhett Butler (Timothy Dalton), who skipped out on her when she blamed him for the death of their daughter, Bonnie (who died in the previous movie…do I really need to tell you the plot of GWTW?). When Scarlett returns to ramshackle Tara, her beloved ancestral plantation, she discovers her cherished former slave, Mammy (Esther Rolle), is dying. Scarlett, that little minx, sends a telegram to Rhett—in her brother-in-law Will Benteen’s (Ray McKinnon) name—to get him to come to Tara.
The former lovers’ reunion is cordial at first, but soon old tensions arise, and Rhett’s off again to madam Belle Watling’s (Ann-Margret) whorehouse…with Scarlett intent on winning him back. But first, she’s going to go torment her former crush, weakling Ashley Wilkes (Stephen Collins), who’s drunk and despondent over the death of his simp-of-a-wife, Melanie (who died in a previous…oh you get it). Once Scarlett gets Ashley back on his feet, thanks to some secretive land development with the aid of new builder (and former slave), “Big” Sam (Paul Winfield), she’s off to Charleston to stay with Rhett’s mother, Eleanor Butler (Julie Harris).
Rhett’s not exactly happy to see Scarlett on home turf, but he does enjoy re-connecting with childhood friend, sassy tomboy Sally Brewton (Jean Smart), who also befriends Scarlett. He also likes beating time with excruciatingly boring “good girl” Anne Hampton (Annabeth Gish). Scarlett agrees to Rhett’s proposal of genteel divorce-for-cash…but not before she manages to get shipwrecked with him (I kid you not), with a night of fevered passion thrown in as a bonus. Sated, Rhett splits again, and Scarlett heads for Savannah, to see old kin—maternal and paternal.
In Savannah, Scarlett’s French maternal grandfather, nasty, snooty grump Pierre Robillard (John Gielgud), takes a shine to the feisty Scarlett (despite her Irish half), and offers her his fortune if she’ll bend to his will, and watch over him until he dies (do you think I could possibly make this up?). The paternal O’Hara side of the family—Irish to the bone; like…hardcore John Ford movie-type Irish—offer her unconditional love, and a conduit to the motherland through her cousin, Father Colum (Colm Meaney), who just happens to be running American guns for the Finian Brotherhood. When Scarlett gets her divorce decree—right when she discovers Rhett put her up the duff—she’s hightailing it to Emerald Isle.
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Um…that’s only the first half of Scarlett, and frankly I simply don’t have the strength to condense the rest of it (plus: spoilers). Let’s just say, things get hairy in Ireland, with Scarlett meeting Rhett 8 or 9 more times; she takes up with Lord Fenton (Sean Bean), a perverted English nobleman/rapist/sadist (my favorite kind), who’s also impregnated a poor Irish lass; Scarlett becomes a powerful land baron admired by all; Rhett gets married again (right); Scarlett goes back to Tara and comes back to Ireland again (jesus). Oh—and she’s done up for murder, too (it’s a fair cop).
So…have the jack-booted fascist thugs that recently assassinated Kate Smith’s and John Wayne’s iconic legacies dug up Clark Gable’s corpse yet and defiled it? I mean, he starred in that evil movie, Gone With the Wind, didn’t he (he even used the word “darkie” in it…)? Doesn’t that demand that not only his memory and his career, but also the very bones of his body, are due for a good old-fashioned self-righteous P.C. desecration?
Growing up when I did, when NBC’s first broadcast of GWTW in 1976 broke all network television records (65 percent of all viewers that night tuned in—still the record for the highest rated movie to ever air on TV), there was no question that GWTW was considered, by the American public, the greatest American motion picture ever made—a belief held by many other critics and viewers around the world, as well (it’s still the highest-grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation).
Today, however, thanks to the ceaseless efforts of fanatical liberal activist ideologues (who must demonize that which they do not approve of, or understand), saying you enjoy GWTW is morally akin to saying you approve of child pornography. It’s been a phenomenally successful campaign on their part, and a stunning fall from grace for this once-powerful pop culture unifier (well…that’s what they want, isn’t it? Disunity). The last time GWTW had any kind of wide American theatrical release was over twenty years ago, way back in 1998—a true scandal. Since then, it’s occasionally trotted out for those crappy 2-day special “screenings,” (this year was its 80th anniversary, and our local theater showed it to sparse attendance). However, the owners of the movie will never allow it to be promoted and celebrated again, the way it used to be. They’re ashamed of it.
The same will never be said for its sequel, Scarlett.
While I assume no one involved with CBS’s 1994 TV miniseries Scarlett ever expected it to best GWTW’s popularity, everyone was on record expecting it to be a mammoth hit with viewers, based (they believed) on curiosity alone. In 1994, GWTW still held an almost mythical place in American pop culture, with fans of Margaret Mitchell’s book and of the M-G-M movie eager to see where Rhett and Scarlett ended up (particularly after the novel’s infamous cliffhanger ending).
M-G-M hounded Mitchell unsuccessfully up to her death to pen a sequel (they owned the rights to one), before her estate finally inked a combo book/movie deal in the 70s, one that promptly wasted millions before it went belly up in “development hell.” Finally, in the late 80s, the Mitchell estate (having fully secured the sequel rights from M-G-M) authorized historical fiction writer Alexandra Ripley to pen Scarlett, a massive 800+ page doorstop of a romantic wheeze that debuted in 1991. The critics fell over themselves coming up with ways to destroy it, but readers didn’t care: it sold an astonishing 20 million copies within two short years.
Success like that guaranteed a movie adaptation, but TV producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (the 1989 TV miniseries blockbuster, Lonesome Dove) won the Scarlett bidding war for an unheard-of $9 million tab. Pre-selling licenses to European and American television (CBS went on the hook for an astounding $20 million…and that didn’t include millions and millions more for promotion), Halmi proceeded to make the most expensive miniseries up to that point (northwards of $45 million), shooting at 53 separate locations (including Ireland, England, and South Carolina), with over 200 speaking parts for actors, and 120 costume changes for his lead actress, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.
As a co-producing partner, CBS confidently mounted a year-long advertising blitz, promising the world that Scarlett would be the blockbuster mini to end all minis, guaranteeing advertisers that Scarlett would deliver a minimum 36 share of the TV audience when it premiered during the 1994 November “sweeps.” Unfortunately, viewers didn’t flock to their sets in droves to watch relative “unknowns” Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Timothy Dalton impersonate Leigh and Gable.
Scarlett averaged 17.6 million viewers over 4 nights (November 13-17), with a 28 share—respectable, certainly, but a big bust considering the money and time laid out by CBS (the network had to refund millions to advertisers, since audience share didn’t hit their promised 36%…something networks are loathe to do). Even the finale didn’t win its time slot: a new Seinfeld (George buys “John Voight’s” car) and a repeat (“Care for a Junior Mint?”) managed to beat out Scarlett’s highly-touted denouement.
You can come up with all kinds of reasons for Scarlett’s underwhelming performance; the heyday of network minis had already peaked by ’94; the source novel may have sold…but it wasn’t passionately loved like the Mitchell original; the lead actors weren’t “names” the public cared to embrace; and the reviews ran mediocre-to-bad. All those factors contributed, no doubt, to Scarlett flopping.
Networks were really starting to feel the drain of viewers to cable and VHS by the early 90s, so the notion of a blockbuster network mini wasn’t so special anymore, even if it was the “sequel” to GWTW. As for Scarlett’s pre-sold audience, curious readers bought Ripley’s novel in droves…but many of those readers found the book wanting compared to Mitchell’s important work (I read it—I know). As for the stars, Whalley-Kilmer may have been a critical darling with movie critics a few years earlier, but her name meant absolutely nothing to American TV viewers (if you’re producing a multi-million dollar miniseries, you either need a big name at the head—like Robert Mitchum anchoring the two Winds of War/War and Remembrance minis, or you need a big cast of familiar American TV names, like Roots). As for casting Rhett, the absolute best Dalton could probably summon up with viewers who recognized him was, “Didn’t he play James Bond a few years ago?” (his two Bonds are among the three lowest-grossing movies in the series).
Maybe Scarlett’s karmic fate was sealed at an important CBS press gathering a few months prior to the premiere. First, producer Halmi admitted the 6 hour, 4 minute mini (8 hours with commercials) was intentionally “padded out” from the novel (why would he use the negative term, “padded”?), before garnering ridicule for asserting Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh—in terms of their acting chops—wouldn’t be up to recreating their roles in the sequel (two of the most famous performances in cinema history…and you assert they couldn’t act).
An arrogant, oblivious Dalton then further sunk CBS’s hopes by telling the room full of reporters—many of them women—that the original GWTW was a glorified soap opera, before he called the Scarlett character a “bitch” and, believe it or not, a “c*nt,” earning the lasting ire of the attending female critics and reporters who would review the mini a few months later. Dalton then tried to joke his way out of that self-inflicted disaster by wondering if he’d have a career after that comment (good guess, dimwit). The press conference was quickly shut down, and according to some reports, CBS execs were absolutely livid with Halmi and Dalton. Nice job selling your $45 million dollar project, dumb-asses.
So, with all those negative waves…Scarlett is garbage, then, right? Surprisingly…no. As historical minis go, it’s not bad. This is, after all, nothing more than a gussied-up Harlequin Romance novel, grafted onto the gestalt of a hugely influential book and movie in the collective American popular culture. It was always going to be artistically compromised. But in and of itself, it’s an okay time-waster if you like this sort of thing…and I do (screenwriter William Hanley—The Gypsy Moths, one of my favorites—keeps things, at least in the beginning, moving at a fast clip: essential for these long minis).
Had Scarlett’s characters just stayed in America, and the story focused exclusively on Rhett and Scarlett’s journey together and apart (and together and apart, and together and apart…), I would have given the mini much higher marks. Scarlett is clearly two separate minis—the story of Scarlett and Rhett in the Old/New South…and then the whole Irish awakening/Roots storyline. This is supposed to be a continuation of Gone With the Wind. That spells Tara and Reconstruction and Spanish moss and mint juleps and horse racing and carpetbaggers after the Civil War to me, not Scarlett’s “backwards immigrant” journey to Ireland (something just feels “off” and arbitrary about Scarlett doing the reverse of what most Irish immigrants were achieving at that time: coming here).
Part One of Scarlett, though, is just what we want…if we want to know what happens after Rhett famously says he doesn’t give a damn what Scarlett does (a valid question: many fans enjoy imagining their own end to Scarlett and Rhett’s journey—they didn’t need Scarlett to tell them what happened). We want to know if Rhett’s still a rascal (he is); we want to know if Scarlett is still a manipulative, charming vixen (she is); and we want to hear lines like, “The Yankees should have hung you when they had the chance!” as a spitting mad Scarlett throws a bauble at a receding, laughing Rhett. That’s what Scarlett needed to be, all the way through, and that’s why Part One is so satisfying.
Other plot elements and characters are introduced in this section, and for the most part they work…but one gets the feeling they’re ultimately given short-shrift because of the upcoming sections in Ireland. Badly abused is Esther Rolle as Mammy (arguably GWTW’s most beloved character), who has one short death scene and that’s it. Why in the world wasn’t this character (and actress) given more to do here? Everyone in the world knows Mammy…but who knows these anonymous Irish characters that later crop up and get far too much screen time? Same goes for Paul Winfield as Big Sam, former slave and now building contractor who helps Scarlett help Ashley Wilkes—a potentially fascinating story angle. Producer Halmi and writer Hanley and director John Erman didn’t think it might be compelling drama to see how Scarlett now deals with two human beings she used to own? Apparently not.
Scarlett’s retreat to Charleston is ripe with possibilities, with the social politics of what it means to be an acceptable “lady” of some standing, versus what it means to be “Scarlett O’Hara” (they seem incompatible…). Julie Harris is quite good as Rhett’s mother, and Jean Smart steals the mini as Sally Brewton, Rhett’s sexy tomboy friend since “when I was wondering what these two funny bumps were, coming up on my chest.” Cigar clenched in her teeth while whipping her horses, Smart is the kind of juice you need in a big, long drama like this—she kicks her scenes in the ass and lets you know it’s all in fun.
Unfortunately, Smart is relegated to increasingly fleeting scenes as more time is given over to Rhett’s new love, Annabeth Gish, who’s hampered by an atrocious hairdo (no bangs) and a simpering, bland approach to an admittedly unbelievable character (why in the world would rake Rhett fall for this mouse?). Ann-Margaret is wasted, as well, as madame Belle Watling; she has a nice, low, dirty laugh whenever she’s pawing at Dalton, but again—her scenes are brief, and mostly forgotten as we wade deep into Ireland (her cohort, prostitute Lulie, played with fine comedy by Sara Crowe, is a hoot, too: when Belle admires Rhett’s horsemanship with, “He sure can ride,” Lulie offers, “I’ll say….”).
Those were the characters and locales I wanted to stay with as Scarlett wore on, particularly after Scarlett’s realization that she’s pregnant (a condition Scarlett immediately seizes on as a chance to stick it to Rhett, the scheming little minx…). However, as Scarlett moves to Savannah, the storyline goes sideways, introducing John Gielgud as her crotchety high-born French grandfather (well-done but overly familiar shenanigans) and Scarlett’s Irish side of the family (generally dire), both sidetracks that dilute the Scarlett/Rhett/Tara/marriage/baby core of the story.
As soon as it looks like Scarlett is going to abandon America for Ireland (I never believed that Scarlett would leave her one true love: Tara), we also lose two of the mini’s most interesting characters—Melissa Leo as Scarlett’s harried, hard-scrabble sister, Suellen O’Hara Benteen, and her kind, smarter-than-he-looks husband, Will, played by Ray McKinnon—just when their story of trying to stay at Tara, gets good. It doesn’t make any sense to have Scarlet leave for Ireland at this point. When Scarlett discovers she’s pregnant—that’s just when the mini should kick into high gear with her schemes against Rhett. Instead, it’s off to the Emerald Isle for hours of some amusing—but beside-the-point—gothic melodrama.
Now don’t get me wrong: a lot of the Irish segments contain ripe fun. Those are the elements of historical pulp that kept the paperback romance book industry going for decades (until “Mommy porn” coarsened it). Full-throated melodrama such as Scarlett giving herself to perverted rapist Lord Fenton (oh the feminists hate those scenes…), and that frightening cesarean birth (complete with crashing lightning, Irish midwife witchery, blood-curdling screams, and a straight-razor), along with the murder trial of Scarlett, are the kind of titillating trash we want to see in one of these bodice-rippers. Nothing wrong with any of that in Scarlett.
Unfortunately, there’s a load of poor, honest, proud Irish blarney packed in and around those big scenes, and it becomes a slosh after three or four hours (hey…I’m poor and proud. It’s boring). While the creators specifically fashioned Scarlett to appeal to women (a mistake, media analysts at the time felt—that’s why male viewers didn’t tune in), ditching the Rhett character for long periods of time hollows out the storyline. Despite the mini-makers’ best efforts, we only really care about Scarlett and Rhett, but the storyline keeps bringing them together and tearing them apart with such frequency, that it ultimately becomes laughable. As for Scarlett’s “journey,” it was also a mistake to keep her rich. We never really feel that her life is in jeopardy, because she never has to raise her fist to the air and proclaim, “I’ll never be hungry again!” The survivor Scarlett has become a woman of considerable means, and she stays that way. She can buy her way out of any trouble. Dramatically, where’s the fun in that?
With director Erman fairly limited to boring, 4 x 3 square “talking heads” framing, attention is therefore focused as much on the performances as the production design (which is expensive and just right in terms of period detail). The English actors come off well. Brian Bedford doesn’t have to do much as Scarlett’s lawyer, but he’s spry and amusing, while female viewers will be suitably bothered by their unwanted attraction to smooth sadist Sean Bean (old favorite George Grizzard also pops up now and then—a delight, as always).
As for Dalton and Whalley-Kilmer? They have impossible challenges, living up to the iconography of Gable and Leigh, but they do their best with the daunting task. When the possibility of a GWTW sequel was first floated in the late 70s, there was only one actor people wanted in the Gable role: Burt Reynolds. By 1994, Reynolds was sadly past it, but producer Halmi made a critical mistake in not moving heaven and earth to secure Tom Selleck for the role—a casting stunt that would have guaranteed Scarlett’s 36 audience share (if the money had been right, believe me Selleck would have done it—his big screen movie career was more miss than hit by ’94). Still, Dalton does what he can, making Rhett more quiet and sly compared to Gable’s memorably macho adventurer (another indication that the producers were toning down the Rhett character in some inexplicable effort to make him more “accessible” to modern viewers—a miscalculation).
As for Whalley-Kilmer (you wanted ratings? Why not grab soap opera goddess Susan Lucci? At least viewers knew her name)…what can she possibly do against the memory of one of the greatest marriages between actress and iconic movie role? More sensual and erotic than pretty, Whalley-Kilmer’s Scarlett has a whole lot of fire (she never seems more “free” than when she’s rolling around in the buff)…but very little of the faux-genteel, put-on-ladylike machinations that Leigh exploited so effortlessly in portraying Scarlett’s selfishness and manipulations. It’s an aspect of Scarlett’s character that’s central to understanding the GWTW world, and Whalley-Kilmer, frankly, is missing it. Still…she at least understands that flashing eyes and heaving bosom are vital components to a historical mini like Scarlett, and at that relatively low bar, she does well with the character. She has the burden of anchoring the mini through six long hours. She’s not helped by the wayward script and the sometimes pedestrian direction…but she does keep you wondering what Scarlett will do next, and that’s enough to help make Scarlett watchable, and for the most part, entertaining.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.