Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Moonlight and Magnolias" was Ben Hecht's dismissive summation of Margaret Mitchell's epic potboiler "Gone With The Wind", which he hadn't read. That was something of a problem, given that he had just been hired by the legendary producer David O. Selznick to script-doctor a new screenplay for the massive production that Selznick had halted three weeks into shooting.
Bringing in the director Victor Fleming from another troubled cinema behemoth, "The Wizard of Oz", the three men are locked into Selznick's office for a marathon five day writing session, culminating in the screenplay for a movie that became a genuine Hollywood legend. Playwright Ron Hutchinson has devised a very funny, mostly accurate comedy locking us inside that office, and inside the minds of three movie pros creating a "chicken salad" that defined the great age of epic movie romance.
This co-production with San Jose Repertory Theatre is expertly played by a talented ensemble, and directed with a blend of chaos, slapstick and knowing wit by Timothy Near. Propelled by the inherent fascination of looking behind the scenes of movie-making and the movie business, it's also an intriguing examination of the ways in which broader social issues are melded into the industry product, and the manner in which individuals choose to define themselves publicly and artistically. The play spends a bit more time than necessary on making its political and sociological points, and briefly becomes too didactic, too obvious in telling us it's "important" issues. Still, the whole of their exhausting and exhilarating creative week and the conflicts of imaginative and highly commercial artists is funny, fast-paced and purely entertaining.
Tom Beckett is quite brilliant as the ambitious, talented, driven David O. Selznick. Dizzy with the thrill with movie-making (he calls it "the biggest bet in the world") he has all his chips riding on making a movie out of the biggest best-seller of its time. After half a dozen of the best screenwriters in Hollywood have already had a shot at adapting the screenplay, he knows that it isn't right, and until the script is right, the movie can't proceed. Beckett gives us all of the energy and enthusiasm, but also lets us see the genuine vision this man had for the film, for film-making, and the enormous need to prove himself to his many rivals, particularly Irving Thalberg. Beyond that, we see how a producer knows that only by gathering the right talent, and focusing them on a common objective and expressing that in a single voice can a successful movie be made. Selznick respects Hecht and Fleming, but he also knows that only he can get them to achieve the film he imagines. As an actor, Beckett has great physicality, and his kinetic energy is precise and comedically delightful, clearly the driving force behind all the action.
John Procaccino brings a different sort of physical comedy to Victor Fleming. This is a director who is up to his neck in the reality of the business, a bit cynical and thoroughly disenchanted with the troublesome pleasures of "Oz". He's also a movie-maker, an image guy, with the visual artist's common disrespect for the written word. He doesn't like Ben Hecht, a former newspaper-man who has made a reputation for fixing broken scripts the way a body and fender man might beat out a dented Ford. Although he derides Hecht for having not read the book, when asked if he's read it, he responds, "It is a very big book."
What we see from Procaccino, though, is that same underlying talent for catching on to an idea, for inspired imagining of how a scene can look, how an angle can change the impact of a gesture, how a great visual can carry great meaning. Nonetheless, he's a guy locked in a room with two other men he doesn't particularly like, subsisting on bananas and peanuts (Selznick's idea) and literally bursting blood vessels from the sustained pressure to create. John Procaccino is certainly one of the finest comic actors in Seattle, and all his gifts for facial expression, emotional extremity, exasperation and manic activity are prominently displayed in this delicious role.
Ben Hecht is rather more problematic. Peter Von Norden captures the writer's rather uncouth lack of societal sophistication, his "common-man" posture and his deep social conscience, as well as his blunt professional disregard for "Gone With the Wind" as a novel. He also creates a nice comic counterpoint to Selznick's elevated executive sheen and Fleming's professionalism. It seems to me, though, that director Timothy Near pushed the characterization a bit too far toward the Joe-Lunchbox and didn't give us enough indication of the first-rate professional writer, a man whose skill and craftsmanship made him the go-to guy when a screenplay needed help. Unlike Selznick and Fleming, I didn't really see the underlying expertise and technical precision that justified his being on this professional level. That's not a criticism of Von Norden's performance, which was funny and sympathetic and well-balanced with the others.
A delightful supporting role was played by the marvelous Marya Sea Kaminski, as Selznick's loyal secretary and assistant. In a role that required seemingly endless repetitions of "Yes, Mr. Selznick" she managed to create a surprisingly satisfying and interesting character primarily through subtle facial expressions and body gestures. The look on her face whenever the suggestion was made that Fleming may have struck Judy Garland ("Just once") implied volumes of character and personal opinion. Similarly, her delivery of bananas and peanuts, her frustration with keeping L.B. Mayer on the phone waiting, and her own fatigue at the end of the marathon all displayed a finished and highly competent actress.
"Moonlight and Magnolias" is a slight but very entertaining play, a diverting look into the less-familiar history of a landmark of movie history, and the personalities who shaped the production and the industry. It's fascinating, fun, and smartly performed.