'Showman': Even the tale proved titanic

December 07, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He'd wanted it for years. He maneuvered and schmoozed an cadged and hustled, and now, at last, he was exactly where he wanted to be, about to start doing exactly what he wanted to be doing, and he and he alone had exclusive rights.

His response?

"Despair," says David Thomson, 51, the author of the just published and brilliantly received biography of legendary movie producer David O. Selznick, "Showman."

For what lay ahead of Mr. Thomson was 57,000 pounds of paper -- possibly the largest collection of Hollywood documents in the world, which painstakingly traced the life and times of the maker of "Gone With the Wind." The documents were stored in more than 6,000 boxes at the University of Texas.

"I had a moment of despair when I first saw the archives," confesses Mr. Thomson in a Washington hotel. "I was flabbergasted and terrified. There was a day-by-day account of Selznick's 40 years in Hollywood, his triumphs like 'GWTW' and his catastrophes, like 'A Farewell to Arms' with Rock Hudson."

But Mr. Thomson, who had negotiated rights to the material with Selznick's two sons, Daniel and Jeffrey, bucked up, stiffened his upper lip (he's British) and got to work.

Six years and nearly 800 pages later, "Showman" was born, and even now Mr. Thomson wonders if it can do justice to the titanic Selznick.

"His energy was astonishing! I'd find a 10,000-word memo dictated on a certain day in the '30s. Then two years later I'd find another 10,000-word memo, dictated on the same day!"

Why Selznick? he is asked, when Selznick had been covered before and even some of his memos had formed another volume, "Memo From David O. Selznick"

"I had always wanted to do a book on a producer," says the prolific writer, whose previous work has encompassed essays, biographies as well as novels and screenplays, "and knew that I'd have to do one whose success more or less summed up Hollywood. He'd been present at the creation, or very near it, had been the head of a studio, he'd been an independent producer, and made a wild success of all of them, and then finally failed.

"But what really made me want to do it was when I learned how much richer his personal story had been. The Selznicks were a first family in Hollywood, and David was driven to surpass his brother, a famous agent, and his father, a studio head. He was married to the daughter of another studio head (Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter of the legendary Louis B. Mayer of MGM) and yet he gave her up to marry another beautiful woman (Jennifer Jones), while at the same time being one of the great philanderers in history. So this was a chance to write a story about Hollywood that also had the elements of a great novel."

What astounded Mr. Thomson most, in his long time in the archives, was the discovery that the fabled showman had indeed been a very bad businessman.

"You assume that the great producers were fundamentally business people, could crunch numbers with the best of them. Selznick had no idea at all how to run a business. It was as if he had no idea where the money was coming from. Nor was he particularly decisive. When you read all the memos, it becomes clear that he backed into his decision-making."

His talent, says his biographer, was also his handicap.

"He wanted to be involved in everything. When he worked for the studio, he'd learned all the film crafts. He could have done a number of technical jobs, and he could get along well with people who did those jobs. He had great instincts for what would work, and he was a genius at casting. His production values were the highest. He was a great marketer. He had an incredible appetite for detail. In many ways he was the true auteur of all his movies; but these abilities also made him extremely difficult to work with. When Hitchcock directed 'Rebecca' for him in 1940, they fought like dogs."

In a curious way, Selznick was doomed by his greatest success; he spent most of his life after "Gone With the Wind" trying to top it.

"And he lost contact with the audience and what the audience wanted," Mr. Thomson says. "He remained an incurable romantic even after the war, when the nation's film taste turned darker. He just didn't get that. And while his postwar work wasn't bad ("Duel in the Sun," "The Parradine Case," "Portrait of Jennie"), it's all marked with a sense of gargantuanism. He would inflate small films into something huge.

"He also became infatuated with Jennifer Jones. He became obsessed to the point of losing perspective. He pushed her beyond her talents, divorced his wife, essentially gave up everything for her. But by the time his life was over, they were no longer together."

Of the surviving principals, Miss Jones is the only one who would not talk to Mr. Thomson; even Selznick's reclusive first wife, Irene, finally agreed to see him at the urging of her two sons.

Asked what question he would love to have asked the producer face to face, Mr. Thomson thinks for a second and then says, "It would go to the riddle of his life. Why Jennifer?"

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