Southern belle role goes to northern star: British actress beats 20,000 hopefuls to plum part of Scarlett O'Hara

BRUSHING aside more than 20,000 applications, the makers of the sequel to Gone With the Wind yesterday announced that the woman they wanted as Scarlett O'Hara was Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, a 29-year-old Mancunian.

The choice of Whalley-Kilmer, best known for her rendering of Christine Keeler in Scandal, marks the second time in 55 years that a Briton has landed the role despite competition from a horde of Americans.

Such was certainly the case in 1938 when the little-known Vivien Leigh (born in India to British parents) was chosen to play Scarlett in Gone With the Wind after producers searched high schools and colleges across the US. Leigh, who won an Oscar, triumphed over an impressive list of contenders (Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford) despite a widespread view that the part should go to a Southerner who knew something about the Civil War.

The CBS mini-series sequel, Scarlett, is being made by Robert Halmi, a Hungarian-born producer who bought the rights for dollars 9m (pounds 6.08m). There are plans for the eight-hour series to be broadcast in the US and 40 other countries next November.

Whalley-Kilmer's appointment ends months of speculation, orchestrated by Halmi. Film buffs have bickered over whether the part should go to Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek or Jane Seymour. 'I have always had a passion for Scarlett O'Hara,' said Ms Whalley-Kilmer said yesterday. 'I never imagined that one day I would have the chance to play her.'

Halmi claims to have received 10,000 applicants from Europe and the US respectively. Attention has switched to who will fill Clark Gable's shoes as Rhett Butler. The rumour in Hollywood is that Timothy Dalton will get it.

It is doubtful whether the mini-series achieved anything approaching the film's success. Alexandra Ripley's 823-page Scarlett, upon which it is based, was savaged by critics as a feeble follow-up to Margaret Mitchell's classic. It is 'a tour de faiblesse of ineptitude, incoherence and unimaginative droning,' said the National Review, condemning it as 'a non-event and a waste disposal problem'. The Washington Post was hardly kinder. Echoing Rhett, it concluded: 'Frankly, it's damnable.'

(Photographs omitted)

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