FILM / The return of Scarlett fever: When Robert Selznick cast Gone with the Wind in 1939, he orchestrated a hurricane of hype. It's happened again, as Phil Reeves reports

The Hungarian-born impresario Robert Halmi, producer of the forthcoming television sequel to Gone with the Wind, always said that when the right actress walked into the room he would know 'instantly and instinctively that she is my Scarlett O'Hara'.

For two years, the story goes, he searched the world, receiving more than 20,000 applications, holding auditions not only in the United States, but in Dublin, Rome, London, Munich and Madrid, and fighting off hordes of young women who wanted to become the successor to Vivien Leigh in one of cinema's most coveted roles. He had to change his telephone number seven times. Hoop-skirted Scarletts kept pitching up at his front door. But the moment of revelation did not happen. No glittering-eyed, paprika-tempered, natural Southern belle materialised. Halmi even staged a television programme last year to announce his choice, only to inform viewers that he hadn't made up his mind.

Until this week. On Monday, Halmi invited Hollywood's press corps to the fashionable Bel Air hotel in Los Angeles, where, after dining on muffins to the accompaniment of a string quartet, they were introduced to the Scarlett O'Hara of the 1990s: Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. 'Scarlett is probably the most important female role so far in the history of television,' he proclaimed. 'I am very proud to have found a young lady after a long, long search who will fit the bill . . . really, it's her story.'

History, carefully orchestrated by Halmi, was repeating itself. Like the Oscar-winning Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939), Whalley-Kilmer is British, and is therefore something of a controversial choice in America. She has a more than respectable track record, with television credits in The Singing Detective and Edge of Darkness and the film role of Christine Keeler in Scandal behind her. But like Leigh, she is not a household name. Like Leigh, too, she has arrived at the 11th hour, only a few weeks before shooting of the dollars 40m mini-series begins.

As she soaked in the limelight, the 31-year-old actress coyly explained she had not sought out the part, but 'in my heart I have always been after this role. It is something I have always, always wanted to do'. She has read 'GWTW' five times, and is currently practising her Southern drawl.

Whalley-Kilmer is embarking on a project of enormous proportions which is far from a sure-fire hit. Halmi has spent a record dollars 9m buying the rights to make Scarlett: The Continuation of Gone with the Wind, his eight-hour TV mini-series out of Scarlett, the novel by Alexandra Ripley which was commissioned by the estate of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind. Despite the novel's poor reception ('Frankly, it's damnable,' the Washington Post said), Halmi is gung-ho about the project, which has been developed in partnership with CBS. 'Scarlett is probably the most important thing I will ever do in my life,' he says. 'Gone with the Wind was the most prestigious movie ever made, and we hope we can follow suit on television.'

He has certainly done everything he can to drum up international interest. His two-year search for Scarlett was a deliberate attempt to rekindle the mythology that surrounds the making of Gone with the Wind, 55 years ago. The search which led to the casting of Vivien Leigh was not as far-reaching as Halmi's, but it was also a drawn-out and heavily publicised business. Gone with the Wind was so popular that, by the late 1930s, it had an army of highly opinionated fans, each of whom had firm ideas over who should star in the leading roles. When David Selznick, then a fast-rising independent producer, purchased the rights for dollars 50,000, he found himself being bombarded with suggestions from housewives, women's clubs, movie buffs and journalists across the United States.

His studio, Selznick International, decided to conduct an opinion poll, but the question of Scarlett O'Hara produced mixed views, none of which particularly impressed Selznick. Bette Davis was the punters' first choice, followed by Norma Shearer and Miriam Hopkins. Among the leading ladies tested were Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford. Selznick decided to look further afield, and dispatched a team of casting directors on a nationwide search, who found themselves sitting in high school halls, college auditoriums, and small town theatres as one would-be starlet after another attempted to flounce and fiddle-dee-dee her way to fame and fortune.

It wasn't until some 1,400 young women had been rejected that Selznick decided he was getting nowhere and postponed the search. His eye did not alight upon Vivien Leigh until filming had started. She was introduced to him by his brother, Myron, a Hollywood agent who also represented Laurence Olivier, Leigh's husband-to-be. The meeting took place while the first scene, the burning of Atlanta, was under way. Selznick later maintained that he made up his mind instantly - the moment he saw the flames (partly created by burning old King Kong scenery on the studio back lot) playing on Leigh's face.

But casting Scarlett was by no means his only difficulty. The almost unanimous choice for Rhett Butler in the opinion poll had been Clark Gable: 98 per cent of respondents were convinced that 'the King', as he was known, was the only man for the job. Selznick agreed. But Clark Gable didn't. He argued that it would be difficult to satisfy a public with such strong preconceived notions of how the role should be performed. 'Rhett was too much for any actor to tackle in his right mind,' Gable later commented.

In the end, Gable's views were ignored, and he was, in effect, forced to take part in the film after Selznick came up with one of the sweetest deals ever struck in Hollywood. The producer persuaded MGM, to whom Gable was under contract, to 'loan' him the actor in return for distribution rights and 50 per cent of the box-office take. To sweeten the pill, MGM provided Gable with the funds he needed to divorce his estranged second wife, Rhea Langham, and marry the actress Carole Lombard.

Fifty-five years on, having settled on a Scarlett, Robert Halmi now faces the tricky business of finally deciding on a suitable Rhett. The hot tip in Hollywood is Timothy Dalton, the current James Bond, who is already rumoured to be involved in negotiations over the role - although CBS executives dismiss this as speculation.

If true, then Halmi appears to be living up to his earlier claim that, while he was looking for a relatively unknown Scarlett, 'all the men can be stars'. He already has one big name in the bag: Sir John Gielgud will play Scarlett's grandfather. But Halmi is a master of publicity who loves surprises, and anything could still happen. Whether the film itself lives up to its hype - 54 years of hype if you take the long view - remains to be seen . . .

DAMNED IF THEY DO. . .

If not the hotly tipped Timothy Dalton, then who should play Rhett? Burt Reynolds: Once mooted for Anne Edward's sequel Tara: Gone with the Wind 2. Pros: has own moustache. Cons: bad box office, bald, now too long in the tooth. Spike Lee: Pros: would pull the serious critics, the terminally hip, covers of Time and Ebony. Cons: the black thing. Tom Selleck: Big enough and hairy enough - and his career needs a boost. Pros: see Reynolds, Burt. Cons: already rejected by short-sighted producer.

(Photographs omitted)

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