Three weeks into shooting Gone With the Wind, control-freak producer David O. Selznick shut down production and fired queer film director George Cukor for "pansifying" his vision.
That his "vision" was a film version of Margaret Mitchell's best-selling Civil War romance novel about a spoiled bitch trying to save her plantation—an apologia for Southern war crimes—well, frankly my dear, who gives a damn when it's going to make millions?
The conflict between social conscience and commerce is brought up again and again in Ron Hutchinson's 1994 comedy Moonlight and Magnolias, but as a play, it's less about the act of creation than it is a thin joke-fest about three pricks stuck in a room as they battle for top-dog position.
Selznick drafts screenwriter Ben Hecht to do a polish of the script before shooting restarts. Hecht hasn't read the book and argues about the morality of producing a soap opera during a time when the Nazis were coming to power. New director Victor Fleming, fresh off the set of The Wizard of Oz, doesn't give a shit about politics or storyline: to him, GWTW is just another gig.
As director and producer act out the various roles, sashaying across the stage as Southern Belles or (more offensively) black women, Hecht bangs out revisions on a typewriter and harangues the men about race issues and Jewish identity. That's about it for story.
A Google search or two reveals that Hutchinson's soft-pedaling the three men: historically, Selznick rarely trusted the artist to get it right when what was more important was that artists do it his way. Played by Tony Cicchetti, Selznick seems desperate to make a classic, but in reality, it's questionable it was ever about "art" for him, especially when so much money's on the line. Cicchetti is too nice to convince us of Selznick's notorious bellicosity, even when he's nastily berating Fleming and Hecht as "hired hands."
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Hutchinson and actor Brian J. Page also soften Fleming's edge, treating him like a fearful man-child, overly concerned with what people think and resentful of the creative concessions he's had to make. Fleming's intolerance, violence toward actors (he slapped a nervous teenage Judy Garland in the face when she giggled one too many times) and homophobia are all treated as artistic givens. No apologies or critique necessary.
Jack Millis' Hecht is pretty much just furrowed brow and eye-rolling mixed with repetitive speechifying. While his every one-liner is played with a deadly seriousness, nowhere is the cowriter of the hysterically funny play The Front Pageon display.
Director Michael Ross moves things at a serviceable pace, but the production really needs an even more heightened energy. This is a comedy, after all, and not a terribly deep one. There's absolutely no need to give every moment its emotional weight or take time to let the important lines "land." As Fleming says at one point, "We have to ham it up to make people forget it's piffle." He's talking about GWTW, but it's also good advice for this production.
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS AT LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE, 5021 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 494-1014; WWW.LBPH.COM. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 14. $12-$22.