A correction was made to this review on Nov. 8, 2004.
Shannen Doherty, late of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” plays novelist Margaret Mitchell in a fictionalized video bio written by Robert Hamilton and directed without much subtlety by Larry Peerce. Hints at where Mitchell got her ideas for characters and action in “Gone With the Wind” litter the landscape, but it’s a clumsy sortie into how a major book is cooked up. Fiddle-dee-dee.
The production tries to recapture the style and attitudes of Mitchell’s Atlanta society during the first third of the century, and Doherty digs at being madcap Peggy Mitchell.
Petite, vivacious, full of the devil, Peggy scoffs at convention and attracts the boys. She’s semi-engaged in her teens, but he dies; Peggy’s woe is not that believable. She hires on at the Atlanta Journal as a Sunday supplement reporter who interviews, among others, a bawdy house madam, presumably a harbinger of “GWTW’s” Belle Watling. Peggy marries handsome-but-no-good bootlegger Red Upshaw (Dale Midkiff), and he beats her up. Banishing Red, she marries John Marsh (Matt Mulhern), a vessel of purities and patience.
And now she’s jotting down The Novel. Her physical suffering during the period she spent penning “GWTW” isn’t much noted, but soon the remarkable book is done and she’s famous.
Doherty’s exuberant flashes as Peggy wear thin fast (she naughtily smokes and she dances in her slip in a fountain a la Zelda and Scott cavorting at New York’s Plaza Hotel waterworks), and her ventures into playing the girl all the boys are after don’t ring true. The actress, got up to resemble a combo of Mitchell and Vivien Leigh, otherwise is surprisingly colorless.
Handsome Midkiff, lustily convincing, plays a character apparently suggesting Rhett Butler, but it’s a thin charade. Mulhern plays Marsh with sympathy and probably is meant to foreshadow Ashley Wilkes (as if the creative process works that way).
Rue McClanahan steps in gamely as Peggy’s strong-willed Grandma Stephens, and John Clark Gable, son of the actor who played Rhett, appears in a minimal role as one of Peggy’s soldier suitors. Beatrice Bush limns Peg’s longtime maid, Bessie.
Don E. Fauntleroy’s diffused lensing casts a sympathetic glow over the handsome production, and production designer John Leimanis turns the Wilmington, N.C., locations into a colorful stand-in for Atlanta (and, at one point, for Smith College).
The telefilm’s on-the-sleeve emotions don’t show Mitchell to be a person with the dedication to write her huge bestseller. Scripter and co-exec producer Hamilton seems interested in the first half of the vidpic’s title, “A Burning Passion,” though it’s tough sorting out which passion he’s focusing on.
As for “The Margaret Mitchell Story,” people who think they’re going to learn anything beneath the surface about the writer will be disappointed; Margaret Mitchell remains her own woman, despite the vidpic.