December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

by David Thomson

On June 22. 1965. David O. Selznick, 63, died of a heart attack, his fame secured forever by the spectacular triumph, 26 years earlier, of Gone with the Wind. Showman, however, will startle readers who know Selznick only by his films.

The celebrated producer of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, writes Thomson, was “at times a fool, a coward, a liar, a scoundrel and a bore.” Also an unfaithful husband, a poor father, a compulsive gambler, an obsessive, chain-smoking, Benzedrine-driven workaholic so physically awkward that once, examining himself “in a mirror at the Waldorf, he shut his privates in a drawer.”

Thomson, whose books include two novels and A Biographical Dictionary of Film, had access to the Selznick Archive at the University of Texas—”3 million items, 57,000 pounds of paper”—and though Jennifer Jones. Selznick’s second wife, refused to cooperate, Thomson seems to have interviewed everyone else who knew DOS. The result is a 790-page book, much of it enormously readable, but it may overwhelm those not avid for the minutiae of film financing, production and distribution, let alone household and gambling expenses.

Born in 1902, the third son of film producer-distributor L.J. Selznick. David made his first movie at age 21. By 1956 he had launched Selznick International Pictures; from SIP, within five years, came not only GWTW but also A Star Is Horn. The Prisoner of Zenda, Nothing Sacred, Intermezzo and Rebecca. But in 1949, after divorcing his first wife, Irene, the daughter of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, he married Phyllis Walker, a young actress he had put under contract and renamed Jennifer Jones. He then devoted himself to masterminding her career, fussing obsessively over The Song Bernadette (for which she won a 1944 Best Actress Oscar). In his last years, burdened with huge debts incurred by unfortunate business decisions and reckless high living, he struggled to find projects for Jones and again and again alienated those who sought to help him.

Showman’s great handicap. beyond its hulk, is the off-putting persona of its subject. What we get is a chilling portrait of a man whose vanity and prodigious energy fueled both his rise and his near suicidal fall. (Knopf, $35)

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