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The Olivia De Havilland Centenary Blogathon: Melanie Wilkes, Deconstructed

This post is part of the Olivia De Havilland Centenary Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Classic Days of Hollywood and Phyllis at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE, HERE, and HERE!

The amazing Olivia De Havilland turned 100 years old two days before the writing of this post. She released photos of herself and she looks MAH-VE-LOUS! What a treasure! What an actress!

I’ve always felt she’s bit underrated as an actress. True, she has two well-deserved Academy Awards (for To Each His Own, and The Heiress) but it seems she never received the fan worship Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis enjoyed.

I think that’s because she’s a subtler actress than Hepburn or Davis, and that’s exactly why she is my favorite. No matter what is happening on the surface of a character De Havilland plays, there seems to be something much deeper going on underneath.

That brings me to one of, if not her most famous role, Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind.

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Now, chickens, I’d advise you to get a hold of your smelling salts and keep them handy, because what I’m going to say is likely to cause a case of the vapors in many:

Melanie Wilkes is the true bitch of Gone with the Wind.

Someone grab a fan and help bring Aunt Pittypat around.

One thing that fascinates me is about GWTW is how viewers’ attitudes towards Scarlett O’Hara have changed over time. In my grandmother’s day, and even at my first viewing when it had a theatrical rerelease during the mid-70s, she was seen as a heroine. (My mother and I walked into the ladies room during intermission to find a group of girls weeping loudly over the “As God is my witness” scene.)

Now, she’s mainly characterized as a bitch.

She’s a bitch who saved her romantic rival from dying in childbirth at great peril to her own life, and saved her family from starvation, but sure, whatever. She’s the bitch.

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Speaking of Aunt Pittypat, how about the way she ran off to leave her niece going through a difficult childbirth, without even showing the tiniest bit of concern for her or her baby? Yeah, the Yankees were coming, but HER NIECE COULD HAVE BEEN DYING.

But, O.K., Scarlett, the one who stayed and took care of her while the Yankees were advancing on Atlanta, the one who helped get her and her baby out of Atlanta as it burned, is the bitch.

Let’s face it—most of the lead characters in GWTW are horrible excuses for human beings, even beyond the problematic aspects of the material. Want to start with Ashley? The weak-ass mope deliberately misleads Scarlett into thinking he loves her just to boost his own ego. He whines about the good ol’ days when he was a slave owner. (Something Scarlett, the bitch, calls him out on at one point. Not that she’s particularly less racist than he is, but she’s more honest when it comes to the crap he spreads about how well he treated his slaves.)

Rhett is a relentless mindf*cker (even more so in the book than in the movie) who can’t accept the fact that his wife doesn’t love him. He comes across as more realistic than the other characters about the war, but then joins it anyway, giving a blathering BS speech about honor. The man criticizes Scarlett for her hypocrisy and turns out to be a huge hypocrite himself.

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What about Melanie?

Dear, sweet, never opens her mouth except to say “yes” or “no” Melanie?

She’s the worst.

No, I’m not kidding.

First of all, do you REALLY think she’s unaware that Scarlett is in love with Ashley?

Oh, she knows. She keeps her close by to keep an eye on her.

Not only that, she’s a leech, knowing that the best chance she and her weak-ass husband have for survival after the war is to cling desperately to Scarlett’s coattails.

Why else do you think she defends Scarlett when she steals Sue Ellen’s suitor because he has money to pay the taxes for Tara? Why else do you think she cries, “Scarlett!” and throws her arms around her after Scarlett was caught vamping Ashley?

Because she’s a) dumb as a box of rocks or b) more forgiving than Jesus?

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No, it’s because it’s in her own self-interest to keep the relationship intact. Her family is financially doomed without Scarlett propping up Ashley.

There are two parts of the movie where the true Melanie comes out, and De Havilland played both with utter brilliance.

First is the one where Scarlett kills the Yankee soldier who shows up at Tara. About to be robbed and mauled by the Yankee, Scarlett shoots him dead.

Melanie, who was still weak from childbirth, comes out of her room with her brother’s sword. When she sees the dead Yankee:

“Scarlett. You killed him.”

Beat.

“I’m GLAD you killed him.”

It’s not that her sentiments are unbelievable or even inappropriate—she knows what that man would have done to them if given the chance. It’s the gosh darn sparkle De Havilland puts in Melanie’s eye when she says it, that subtle smile, that are so darn chilling—and so revealing.

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The other scene is the one where Ashley, Frank Kennedy and other men go to “clear out” the shanty town after Scarlett is attacked. Witness how cool Melanie acts, knowing that her husband is involved in a vigilante raid. Let’s not sugar coat it: the group Ashley belongs to is clearly meant to be a prototype (or a fictionalized version of) the KKK.

Melanie knows this—and, at least tacitly, approves of it.  As they wait for news of the raid, she picks up David Copperfield and reads it aloud almost as if nothing is happening.

The woman is stone cold.

De Havilland plays it so perfectly, again, I get chills every time I watch it.

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We can’t forget, of course, Melanie’s exquisite final revenge on Scarlett: by practically bequeathing Ashley to her on her deathbed.

You think she didn’t know that would send Rhett over the edge and make him finally leave her?

Oh, she knew.

I can see and hear people weeping into their hands because I’m being so mean to poor, sweet, frail, unlucky, feminine Melanie. That’s the brilliance of both the character and the performance by De Havilland. Because Melanie is all that AND a bitch.

This is why in spite of the very problematic areas of GWTW, I still watch it when I can. Truly complex women were and still are a rare thing in both literature and film.

In my opinion, it’s time we acknowledge all of Melanie’s nuances, and how perfectly De Havilland brought them to life on screen.

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20 thoughts on “The Olivia De Havilland Centenary Blogathon: Melanie Wilkes, Deconstructed

  1. Debs, we’re psychic twins or something, lol. Most of this has been rolling around in my brain for years, but I’ve always shut up about how much of a dope Scarlett was. Fear of my own safety, you know.

    Mentioning that stuff in polite company (some of the folks who revere GWTW, like relatives and film friends) gets you glares and a mint julep splashed in your face (my eyes still sting and stick but say “Ooh, Tasty!” when I think of that horrid day!). Or worse, a white glove slap and duel challenge from an aunt or grandma.

    But “fiddle-de-dee!” – you’ve bought REASON to the light and for that, I thank you. Now get a good disguise ready (use the curtains to make a Sith cape) – I feel a chill comin’ on from some of those GWTW shrine dwellers. 😀

    1. Thank you!

      It’s funny you mention grandma. My grandmother LOVED GWTW and once while I was in film school she asked me if my professors believed it was one of the greatest films ever made.

      I was a coward and mumbled: “Yeah. Sure.”

      Yes, I had a bit of trepidation about posting this, and doubt I would have if my grandmother were still alive. 🙂

  2. What an interesting take! I don’t know if you read Molly Haskell’s book on GWTW, Frankly My Dear, but this goes with a general theme of the book; as much as Mitchell, Selznick etc are in love with the antebellum South, it is also portrayed as stiffing, self destructive and ultimately unsustainable. The proto-Klan scene that you mentioned about is in needed and a very clear example of them being mostly self destructive. (In another from a modern, outsider perspective Scarlet clearly has an eating disorder, but everyone in the film and book treat that as her just being vain.) Melanie is generally seen as the ideal woman from her time period, her relationship with Scarlet is symbiotic: Scarlet’s unconventionality allows her to make money while everyone around her (including the Wilkes) is floundering, and Melanie provides Scarlet the social approval that she would otherwise not get. It’s a complicated and this gets at just how.

  3. ‘Truly complex women were and still are a rare thing in both literature and film’ – how true! I think you’ve done an admirable (and daring) job in showing how Melanie is a much more complex character than the one viewers typically remember afterwards – and de Havilland is so well-suited for portraying the nuanced levels of disingenuous conduct. You’ve aimed to be provocative (wait for the backlash), but hopefully your post will encourage others to return to the film and rewatch it with this analysis in mind.

    1. I knew going in it could get brutal, but so far it has been all politeness! (Though some may be stabbing dolls that look like me with needles, you never know.)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  4. Wow. Wow. Wow. What a great post. I have no doubts that Melanie knew that Scarlett loved Ashley, but withb all the other nuances, I’ll have to pay extra attention the next time I watch the movie!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    1. Thank you so much!

      I see you already put up your post for the Sword and Sandal blogathon, too. You’re the second person today. So happy to see so much enthusiasm! Thanks again!

  5. Extremely interesting take on Melanie!! I will admit that I’m one of the ones who thinks Scarlett is the b*tch and that my love for Olivia made me automatically love Melanie, but you make some very valid points. I will keep them in mind the next time I watch GWTW.

    Thank you for this interesting post for the Blogathon!!

  6. You know, I think you might be on to something. I’ve always thought of Melanie as strong and somehow quietly powerful, but never quite to this extent. Now that you’ve pointed things out, though, I have to say… you’re spot on. Nice job!

    (I still think Scarlett is a selfish brat, though.)

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