BOOK REVIEW / Son who made Wind and stars: 'Showman: The Life of David O Selznick' - David Thomson: Deutsch, 20 pounds

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HE SAID: 'I know when I die, the obituaries will begin, 'David O Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, died today,' and I'm trying like hell to rewrite them.' Of course he failed in the attempt. Perhaps only Selznick would have imagined that it was possible, even though, during the 25 years that remained to him after the night of the Academy Awards in 1940, he put his name on films that included Hitchcock's Rebecca and Spellbound, King Vidor's Duel in the Sun and Carol Reed's The Third Man.

Selznick was the favoured son of a maverick father, Lewis J, who had joined the film industry in 1912 and gone bankrupt in the early 1920s. Determined to make good where his father had failed, David O joined MGM, and in 1930 married Louis B Mayer's daughter Irene. He had the qualities and the defects of the archetypal Hollywood producer: ambition, arrogance, energy; a passion for writing memoranda; a weakness for drink, gambling, drugs and aspiring young actresses. David Thomson sees him, especially in the early years, as a 'romantic', and quotes his poetry ('an ingenue in an ermine robe/The worst giggling dame in all the globe' he wrote of Irene). Irene was more probably won by his naive self- satisfaction and a clumsiness that included shutting his balls in a dressing-table drawer while admiring himself in the mirror.

Michael Powell, a director with a fairly massive ego of his own, considered Selznick creatively 'a big fraud . . . a packager . . . a picker of other men's brains.' But Powell was biased: he disapproved of Selznick's treatment of Jennifer Jones, considering that he had bullied her into bed, then marriage (the affair led to divorce from Irene). Besides, Selznick's job was to package and pick, to bring together the money, stars, writers, directors and technicians for pictures that aspired to bigness and occasionally achieved greatness.

Thomson's 700 pages, agreeably written and thoroughly researched (from the Selznick archive and from conversations with his surviving children), make few claims for his subject, except in passing. But the personality and those he gathered around him are fascinating in themselves, and his place at the centre of so much activity is reason enough to justify our interest.