He’s an Oscar winner, world-class filmmaker, heartthrob, humanitarian and, by a wide margin, the top pick to play Rhett Butler if Gone With the Wind were made in 2014. Actor-director George Clooney was nearly as popular a choice to play Scarlett O’Hara’s dashing suitor as Clark Gable had been eight decades earlier, according to Hollywood Castaway’s poll.
The Civil War epic, released 75 years ago today, featured the reigning “King of Hollywood” mainly because the public wouldn’t accept anyone else in the role.
Producer David Selznick had faced several obstacles in trying to cast the 38-year-old superstar. To begin with, Gable wanted no part of the film, fearing he couldn’t meet the expectations of the book’s ardent fans. Gable was also under contract to Metro Goldwyn-Mayer which was run by Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, and Selznick knew he wouldn’t loan out such a valuable property without driving a merciless bargain.
Mayer did just that, demanding half the profits in exchange for Gable and half the distribution costs. Selznick briefly considered casting Ronald Coleman or Errol Flynn, but moviegoers would have none of it and common sense ultimately prevailed. For the right amount of money, enough to expedite his divorce, Gable agreed to take the part; audiences were anything but disappointed.
The role of the Charleston aristocrat turned war profiteer calls for more than just good looks, swagger and sex appeal. Kentucky-born Clooney has all of those qualities plus a comic flair that’s essential since the Rhett persona is a master of wit and irony.
Those who voted for Clooney in the poll also cited his confidence and charisma as deciding factors. At 53, he’s much older than Gable was and would be playing a character who ages from mid-thirties to mid-forties. But the years look good on him, and he undeniably matches up well next to much younger women.
Like Selznick’s principal finalists for the part, the runners-up in the poll were non-American actors.
New Zealander Russell Crowe came in second. The 50-year-old Oscar winner drew praise for the roguish charm he exudes. After his wonderful Cinderella Man portrayal, I could see him not only in Rhett’s rough-and-tumble scenes but also in those tender moments with his young daughter.
Tied for third place were another bad boy, Irishman Colin Farrell, along with Australian Hugh Jackman and Canadian Nathan Fillion.
Farrell is the same age Gable was when he tackled the role, but 46-year-old Jackman, the perennial action hero, and the 43-year-old Castle star both have the more imposing frame we associate with the macho, adventurous Rhett. Of the three, Fillion is the best suited physically and has a suave, witty quality that would make him a good foil for the feisty Scarlett.
Other actors who received votes include rugged Scotsman Gerard Butler and sexy, irreverent Matthew McConaughey. Neither suggestion is too far off the mark–unlike the notion that Brad Pitt or Benecio del Toro would be convincing in the role.
Yet it’s Clooney who truly seems made for the role. He would probably be just as inevitable as Gable if the book had just been written and the reading public had begun the delightful pastime of casting it.
It’s unlikely that Gone With the Wind will ever be remade since it was a landmark achievement and one of the most beloved movies of all time. There is, however, a sequel that has not yet been filmed: Rhett Butler’s People, a better book than Scarlett and one that focuses on Rhett’s life before and after he meets his Georgian soul mate.
And on the chance that somebody decides to bring it to the screen in the near future, it’s nice to know we have a near-perfect Rhett Butler on deck.