As a long-time fan of Gone with the Wind, I've naturally grown interested in the man in whom all points of that beautiful film meet (to paraphrase Vivien Leigh). In this exhaustive, thoroughly researched biography from film historian and critic, David Thomson, I've learned much more than I ever thought I would about the bundle of nerves, energy and (sometimes) delusion that was David O. Selznick. Precocious as a child, Selznick was involved in his father's film work from the very beginning, showing an astute, if irritating eye for detail, and starting a lifelong habit of papering the world with correspondence. It is due to this correspondence, and the family's foresight in retaining it, that Thomson has been able to provide as full a picture of Selznick as he has. Thomson was given full access to the family files and other records, and received ample cooperation from Selznick's sons as well as his first wife, Irene. Jennifer Jones opted not to become involved, which is a shame, because she could have given an interesting perspective on Selznick's final years.
Nobody comes off terribly well here, and there are no stereotypical "heroes" or "villains." Selznick is generous, funny, loving and genuinely interested in film. He is also mercurial, paranoid, childish, deluded, unfaithful, self-pitying and self-destructive. The people with whom he comes in contact are shown in equally even-handed ways.
As other critics have noted, there are other, better books to read if you're interested only in the making of Gone with the Wind. Contrary to how history remembers him, Selznick did a great deal more than produce just that one film, and his entire life and career are covered here. Reading this full-length portrait of the man gives one an excellent idea of just what kind of energy and drive it took to helm these productions, and what a trial it must have been to keep up with such a person. Selznick was completely blind to the stress he caused his co-workers and staff. One illustrative story is that of Selznick dictating well into the wee hours of the morning and his guest suggesting that perhaps Selznick's secretary was tired. "I'm so sorry," Selznick said to the exhausted woman, "I should have offered you a benzedrine."
There were a couple of things that didn't sit well with me with regard to Thomson's telling of the story. The first is the standard auteur's conceit (subtle, but present, in this volume) that all European film is superior to all American film, which is a generalization that has always rankled. Films made in Europe aren't better simply because of where they are made, and there are American films that are superb. Also, Thomson seems to be fixated on Selznick's looks and how "ugly" he was. While not centerfold material, he was not repulsive by any stretch of the imagination, and it is thoroughly understandable that he would attract attention from women who like a great smile and an exuberant nature. On these two points, I realize that Thomson is entitled to his personal opinion - I was just hoping that he would retain the objectivity used so well in the rest of the book.