Mt. Lofty Botanic Gardens
Looking through a window, any window, is to gaze on a number of possibilities – some good, some bad. Stepping through that window, by choice or by force, means engagement – some good, some bad. Either way, it is a journey – from the scourging of a past life to a re-birth, a re-awakening, and a re-discovery of self-worth. This was my journey over the past several years, represented and exemplified by the following photographs.
Through a Window: Inneston, Innes National Park, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia
Everyone faces, at least at one point in their life, an experience that wipes away a past life. This can be quite painful and devastating, combined with feeling like one is going through a ritualistic cleansing – a scourging of fire and water.
Prologue: The Scourging of Flaming Waters – Fountain, Brisbane, Queensland
After the scourging comes the re-birth and re-awakening. We greet the new day with a smile in the hope of better life.
Re-Awakening: Sunrise – Maslin Beach, South Australia
We look around our immediate environment and notice the ruination. Feelings of being confined and trapped complement a sense of isolation.
Re-Awakening: Isolation – Port Willunga, South Australia
We rise to face the day. Gazing into what seems vast as well as beautiful there is the juxtaposition of various figures and positions that reflect our current sense of self.
Re-Awakening: Moon, Sky, Sea, Sand, Rock – Maslin Beach, South Australia
We need to accept what was and move forward to what may be. In order to do that we must seek solace; to calm, to nurture and re-nourish, to be inspired and to re-invent. This place of solace can be nature, a place of religious worship, and in art galleries. In all cases, it is a source of spiritual solace as well as slowly but steadily re-connecting with a living world.
Solace: Nature – Dancing Trees – Murdoch Walk, Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Spiritual – St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Art – National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
In these places of solace, there is always the possibility of being inspired by something – such as a work of art. Emerging from these places, hopefully re-nourished, you are more open to the wonders and beauty that surrounds you on the street.
In Adelaide, there is wonderful ‘Street Art’, which is often breathtaking in beauty as well as scale. This includes the first work of ‘Public (Street) Art’ in Adelaide, which is a statue, a copy of Canova’s ‘Venus’. It was first unveiled in 1892, and caused a minor scandal due to its nudity and conservative tastes and morals of the time. It shows the goddess Venus stepping from a bath and being surprised; by what or by whom is up to the imagination of the gazer.
In the contemporary ‘Street Art’ of Adelaide there are numerous other re-imagings of a modern ‘Venus’, which can be found down laneways, and even in car parks, such as this one by Adelaide Street Artist Jimmy.C.
Inspiration: Canova’s ‘Venus’ – North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia; Jimmy.C’s ‘Venus’ – Rundle Street, Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia
From the nurturing honeyed waters of solace and inspiration, the re-invention of self begins.
Re-Inventing: Honeyed Waters – Fountain, Martin Place, Sydney, New South Wales
Re-invention means re-engaging, and the realization that there really is, as Shakespeare’s says, ‘a world elsewhere’. There are multiple worlds, none of them perfect, in which one can find inspiration, hope, and adventure. Looking out, not in, moving forward by accepting the past and the present for what it is…and the next journey begins.
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temples, Indien, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Cow & Temples, Bagan, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Fisherman, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temple Entrance, Bagan, Myanmar
EPILOGUE: The New Self
Photography was a major source of re-invention for me. After the devastation and sense of isolation and abandonment, I discovered a means to release a dormant creativity. I thank the various people involved in helping me to re-invent my fractured self in a way that I never knew could be possible.
The New Self: Portrait – Sie and I
‘Never Stop Believing’ and continue ‘Making the Ordinary “Extraordinary”
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Performing Space’ and the influence of ‘One-Room’ Theatre.
The anniversary of his majesty’s birthday was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of the Recruiting Officer was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenance of the sixty persons, of various description, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales. London, 1793. 25.
Watkin Tench’s eye-witness account of this first theatre performance in the new colony is one of the very few that exists. What can be gleaned from Tench’s account, however, is of considerable significance. Previous posts in this series have highlighted the choice of the play, George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy, The Recruiting Officer, and its immediate ‘modern’ relevance to the contemporary audience, and that it complemented an ‘event’. Both these issues are still relevant and influence the formulation of the Australian actor. Of even greater significance and influence, however, is that the play was performed in a convict hut, with mud walls, and ‘three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles. This is, in modern theatre parlance, intimate theatre – ‘One-Room’ theatre in which the demarcation between audience and actor is relatively minimal.
The above images are derived from a later period, nonetheless, they give the impression of what convict ‘slab-huts’ were like – they were not very big at all. It was in such a place, however, in which the convict production of The Recruiting Officer took place – intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre and performing space.
In the English theatre, it wasn’t until the mid-18th Century that the lights in the auditorium in a theatre were turned down, creating what is known as ‘Two-Room’ theatre, with a clear demarcation between auditorium and stage. This was a French theatre innovation that was taken by David Garrick and introduced to English theatre, partly in order to quieten the audience, to make them passive observers and focus on the action on-stage. By 1789, however, this innovation was still relatively new.
Watkin Tench’s account references the rather improvised design of the production. It is easy to overlook the fact that the particular items cited – three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles – were actually precious and relatively rare commodities in the new colony. There was no printing press to churn out paper, nor was there an ready and easy supply of wax for candles. In relative terms to the dreariness and dejection of their situation, this was an expensive production; a marvel that it even went on at all.
The play was performed under candle-light, which was also common practice in the English theatre. This is a much softer light on actor’s faces, and subsequently often demands heavier and more defined make-up. In an intimate performing space, candle-light can also influence gesture and physical expression; any overt and reckless gesture could knock over a candle and the whole theatre could have gone up in a blaze of fire.
‘One-Room’ theatre demands and exerts a considerable influence on the physical nature of performance. There is a physical, and subsequently emotional, intimacy between actor and audience. Over the years, and centuries, this steadily become a ‘cultural habit’ – and is very much a part of contemporary theatre practice. Whilst the larger proscenium arch ‘Two-Room’ theatres play a major part, particularly for commercial theatre (i.e. musicals), most Australian actors begin their careers and acting experience in intimate ‘One-Room’ theatres. The very immediacy and physical presence inform the acting style and approach – and this began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
Throughout Australia in major cities and in regional communities, there is a plethora of intimate ‘One-Room’ performing spaces. These can be school halls or old buildings that have been converted into theatres. Examples include The Stables Theatre in Sydney, which originally was an old stable for horses, as well as The Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, which originally was an old bakehouse, and the Powerhouse Theatre in Brisbane, which was an old electrical powerhouse. There are many others – including the La Mama Theatre in Melbourne, the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, the Blue Room in Perth, and Whilst all the major subsidized state theatre companies have proscenium arched ‘Two-Room’ theatres, they also have smaller intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre performing spaces.
Subsequently, the ‘cultural habit’ and influence of ‘One-Room’ theatre is firmly entrenched. Audiences and actors are accustomed too, and very often prefer the physical and emotional intimacy of ‘One-Room’ performing spaces – and this ‘cultural habit’ and legacy began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Play’ itself.
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was a popular ‘Restoration’ comedy that had been first produced in London in 1706 and had remained in regular performance throughout the 18th Century. It concerns the social and sexual exploits of two officers, Captain Blume and Captain Brazen, in the rural country town of Shrewsbury, and the recruitment of soldiers from the local farming community with the ‘trickster’ Sergeant Kite to assist them.
One of the central tenets of ‘Western’ theatre is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), that ‘the purpose of playing’ is ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’; that the theatre is a reflection of life and the human condition in all its myriad forms. More often than not this a reflection of immediate contemporary life – as was the case with this convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
What does the title – The Recruiting Officer – suggest? This is a play involving the military, and subsequently, it had an immediate contemporary relevance for its elite audience of Marine officers and their wives and the ‘free settlers’. Recruiting was something they would have all be very familiar with, particularly being often enforced by the notorious “press gangs’. Furthermore, as Humphrey Hall and Alfred J Cripps state in The Romance of the Sydney Stage (1996) it is more than likely that the convict actors were dressed in borrowed clothing from the officers and their wives. Somewhat ironically, the convict actors were dressed as their jailers.
In modern theatre parlance, this would have been a ‘modern dress’ production of a relatively old and ‘classic’ play. This issue, plus the immediate relevance and topicality of the play has remained a relatively common feature in Australian theatre, film, and television – we like our dramatic works to be ‘modern’. Whilst we certainly do ‘historical drama’, nonetheless, for the most part, Australian audiences like their plays/films to be of immediate contemporary relevance.
This is particularly evident in the numerous ‘modern’ dramas and especially in satiric Australian ‘comedy of manners’, exemplified by the plays by David Williamson (amongst others), of which Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971) remains the most popular. Other examples include Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) and Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White (2017). Subsequently, Australian actors are not only distinctively ‘modern’, reflecting their times, but are also experienced and skilled in ironic and satiric comedy. The mischievous ‘trickster’ character of Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer is arguably the first in a long line of ‘larrikin’ characters.
The next installment in this series on The Genesis of the Australian Actor will look at The Event, and how similar events and festivals are those which are the most heightened times of theatrical activity in Australia.
This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943).
Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.
It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.
At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.
The play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear World, which starred Angela Lansbury.
Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka, Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.
Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.
The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.
It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.
Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.
With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.
Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.
It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.
The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.
One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.
Cooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.
Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.
I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy Cook a Pot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.
As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez, and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.
Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.
DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND was born 1 July, 1916, in Tokyo and at the grand age of 101 she is still alive and well and living in Paris. Whilst her parents were British, nonetheless she and her younger sister Joan (later known as Joan Fontaine) was raised in Saratoga, California by their mother. She made her acting debut in an amateur production of Alice in Wonderland. What follows in this rather lengthy article is essentially a tribute to Olivia de Havilland’s brilliant career. In my respective acting classes I am often citing past great actors and films, of which my young (and not so young) students are often completely unaware. Many have not even seen or even know about Gone With The Wind, which is perhaps the film that most would identify with Olivia de Havilland. However, there is so much more to this extraordinary actress and 20th and 21st Century woman.
In 1934 she played the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That summer the legendary director Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles to direct a production of The Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. One of Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia de Havilland in the Saratoga production. Due to this assistant’s praise Reinhardt offered de Havilland the second understudy for the role of Hermia. One week before the production opened Gloria Stuart (Titanic), who was playing Hermia, and the first understudy left the production and Olivia de Havilland went on. Reinhardt was so impressed with the then 18 years old Olivia de Havilland that he subsequently cast her as Hermia in his lavish 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She appeared with alongside other Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Dick Powell and a very young Mickey Rooney. Also in the cast was Australian actress Jean Muir who played Helena.
Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream she then appeared in Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn. This hugely popular film, Olivia de Havilland’s ‘break-out’ film, led to more films in which she starred with Errol Flynn – Four’s A Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
The 8 films that Olivia de Havilland did with Errol Flynn’s is a classic example of the successful on-screen romantic couple. Born from the Hollywood Studio system, as well as the classical theatre, many have tried to emulate this very specific but elusive kind of movie magic, but only a few have ever been as successful as the de Havilland-Flynn pairing. This includes, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In modern cinema the films of Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are the only on-screen pairing that comes close, although I would also argue that the pairing of Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series captures this special type of movie magic.
In the 1930s as well as the films she made with Errol Flynn she also appeared in a few films with Bette Davis, my favourite being It’s Love I’m After (1937). This marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, which is an aspect of de Havilland’s current plans to sue the producer’s of the TV series Feud that deals with the relationship between Davis and Joan Crawford, and in which Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as Olivia de Havilland. One delightful little story about Olivia de Havilland’s relationship with Bette Davis can be found in the This Is Your Life: Bette Davis episode in which Olivia de Havilland makes a surprise appearance. She talks about her relationship with Bette Davis, who is sitting right next to her, and they laugh about how prior to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex de Havilland was Flynn’s leading lady, but in Elizabeth and Essex she now was Bette Davis’ maid! Haha!
Olivia de Havilland also appeared in such ‘big budget’ epics such as Anthony Adverse (1936), but then came the biggest of them all – Gone With The Wind (1939). I love Gone With The Wind, in which Olivia de Havilland played ‘mealy-mouthed’ Melanie Wilkes. She, like the rest of the film, is simply wonderful. I am fully aware that it now attracts some severe criticism in regards to its depiction of slavery and African-American stereotypes. Whilst there may be some validity in these censures, nonetheless, it is still a great film – for many reasons. Olivia de Havilland was amongst the first to congratulate Academy Award co-Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel won the award – the first African-American actress to do so. I love Hattie McDaniel’s quip when she was criticized as subscribing to so-called ‘Uncle Tom’ black stereotypes for her fabulous and memorable performance of Mammy: “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one’.
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Vivien Leigh, with whom Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a great friendship and working relationship, nonetheless, de Havilland’s Melanie also displays a wonderful ‘cool charm’ and ability to successfully lie and deceive. This ‘cool charm’ is particularly apparent in the second half of the film, in the Atlanta section, involving the deception of the army in regards to her wounded husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard). Olivia de Havilland is also at her best in all her scenes with Vivien Leigh (and there are a lot) including the final ‘death of Melanie’ scene. She is also wonderful in her scenes with Clark Gable, comforting him after the death of Bonnie, and before that her one scene with the terrific Ona Mason as Belle Watling.
One terrific example of superb screen acting is the sequence in which Melanie recognizes from afar the returning battle scarred Ashley (Leslie Howard); in this short sequence there are no words spoken, and the range of emotions that go across Olivia de Havilland’s face is wonderful and extraordinary – from concern, intrigue, disbelieve, realization and finally rapturous joy. I love Gone With The Wind and have watched it many many times, and always find it delightful and discovering something new about it.
Olivia de Havilland made 16 films during the 1940s. The best of these in the e 40s are Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Died with their Boots On (1941). During WW2 Olivia de Havilland was an active member of the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and entertaining troops. This is somewhat reflected in the film Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), in which she appears in a comic song ‘The Dreamer’ with Ida Lupino and George Tobias. Olivia de Havilland also bravely visited front-line troops on islands and other places in the Pacific war zone.
From 1943 to 1945 Olivia de Havilland was engaged in a legal battle with Warner Brothers to whom she was contracted. This was a battle for artistic freedom. A number of others, including Bette Davis, had challenged the fixed and rigid control the respective studios had over their contract players and failed. Not Olivia de Havilland. Her landmark victory meant that in future contract players were able to negotiate their artistic freedom and work with other studios. It went into law as the ‘De Havilland Law’. Even her estranged sister, Joan Fontaine, acknowledged her victory, stating, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal”. Subsequently, however, due to Warner Brothers’ influence, and the respective studios ganging together, Olivia de Havilland was ‘blacklisted’ and did not work for two years.
In 1945 she signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures and subsequently made To Each His Own (1946), for which she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress.What To Each His Own exemplifies is Olivia de Havilland’s artistic need and desire to play characters that go through a considerable transformation, physically as well as psychologically. In To Each His Own Olivia de Havilland beautifully plays an unwed mother who has to give up her child. In this highly romantic drama the character she plays, Jody, ages from a young innocent American girl to an old woman in WW2 London. Whilst it is perhaps easy today to dismiss this sentimental drama, nonetheless, for its time it was covering controversial ground. Furthermore, To Each His Own marked the beginning of a new period in Olivia de Havilland’s career that saw her make films which what are possible her most impressive in regards to acting performances.
This includes the complex ‘film noir’ psychological thriller The Dark Mirror (1946), in which she plays the dual role of twins battling each other in a torturous love triangle. This fascinating film, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Robert Siodmak has been regarded as a precursor to Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Olivia de Havilland was experimenting with the so-called ‘method acting’ technique, and did an enormous amount of research into the psychology of twins. It is speculative as to whether or not she also drew on her own problematic relationship with her sister, Joan Fontaine.
What is definite is that her work in The Dark Mirror in a way prepares Olivia de Havilland for her next two films that are in many ways the highlights of her career – Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), and William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) for which Olivia de Havilland received her second Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland is simply marvelous in both The Snake Pit and The Heiress. There is an extraordinary and truly fascinating depth and complexity in the respective characters that she plays in these films.
The Snake Pit is a harrowing and profoundly moving story about madness and the insane. One is completely seduced by Olivia de Havilland’s character, Virginia – is she insane or isn’t she? Just as effective as Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) one is drawn into the world of Olivia de Havilland’s Virginia – a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum, but doesn’t know how she got there. The Heiress is based on Henry James classic novella Washington Square, and the play adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. It is a story about deliberate cruelty. A young woman, a wealthy heiress called Catherine Sloper who is cruelly treated by her father, brilliantly played by Ralph Richardson. She falls in love with a young man, Morris Townsend, played by the irresistible Montgomery Cliff, who deserts her after being offered financial remuneration by her father. Years later, after her father has died and Catherine has inherited her fortune, Morris returns in the hope that Catherine will forgive him and that now they can be married. Catherine goes along with Morris’ plans until the devastating ending. When challenged by her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) as to how Catherine can be so cruel, Catherine replies, “I was taught by experts”. This is a great story, complex and intriguing and Olivia de Havilland is simply brilliant, especially in the final scenes. Once again – as with The Snake Pit, and her other films in this period, one is seduced by her seeming innocence, unaware of the serpent that lies beneath until the end. Well worth watching.
Due to family commitments and various theatre engagements in New York, which included playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Candida in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Olivia de Havilland did not make another film until 1952. When she did it was the mystery romance, My Cousin Rachel (1952), which was Richard Burton’s first US film. This was followed by Not as a Stranger (1955), which was Stanley Kramer’s debut film, and also featured Frank Sinatra. Her marriage to French journalist Marcus Goodrich meant that she relocated to live in Paris. She returned to Hollywood to make Michael Curtiz’s western The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd, and 1959 she was in the British courtroom drama Libel (1959), directed by Anthony Asquith with Dirk Bogarde.
Her marriage to Marcus Goodrich ended in 1962, but they continued to cohabitate in the same house in Paris. In that same year Olivia de Havilland scored her greatest stage success, appearing with Henry Fonda on Broadway in Garson Kanin’s A Gift of Time. She also appeared in Guy Green’s film Light in the Piazza (1962) that many years later became the basis for Craig Lucas’ and Adam Guettel’s magnificent musical The Light in the Piazza (2005). In 1962 Olivia de Havilland published her semi-autobiographical book, Every Frenchman Has One, about her life in Paris, which subsequently became a bestseller.
In 1964 Olivia de Havilland made two rather extraordinary psychological horror films. The first was Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), which featured a young James Cann. This is really odd 1960s film – and it is stylishly very 1960s, almost psychedelic at times, with the addition of a doco-drama element. The other film was Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis, as well as other ‘old Hollywood’ actors, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Mary Astor, and Australian actor Cecil Kellaway. Olivia de Havilland took over the role that Joan Crawford was playing when Crawford became too ill and had to withdraw. This film also features the young Bruce Dern. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). As Bette Davis told me (yes – me) Baby Jane was the better of the two films due its script superiority. Still – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a highly entertaining film, with the seemingly innocent Olivia de Havilland being actually as ruthless and cold-blooded as she was at the end of The Heiress.
The 1970s was the decade that saw the final major film works of Olivia de Havilland. None of them are particularly good or memorable, although Airport ’77 (1977) is the best of the series that followed the success of Airport (1970); and the disaster film The Swarm (1978) is rated as one of the ‘worst films ever made’, and one of the ‘100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’. Her final film was forgettable The Fifth Musketeer (1979).
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Olivia de Havilland was in a number of TV movies and mini-series. This included playing the Queen Mother in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). Her best TV performance was as the Dowager Empress Maria in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series.
As the above indicates it is a phenomenal and highly diverse career.
She has been honoured many times, most recently being made a Dame of the British Empire the day before her 101th birthday on 31 June, 2017.
As previously mentioned, she is now back in the limelight due to her objections and legal battle with the makers of Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), in which Catherine Zetta-Jones plays Olivia de Havilland. Time will see how this all plays out. However, Time is not on Olivia de Havilland’s side. It is hoped that due to this incredible woman’s deserved status, as well as longevity and age, that no matter what she request that the respective producers will yield to her demands, and apologize for any offense. What does it really matter if Feud is shelved and unavailable for a few years. It has already been screened, and will soon fade into obscurity. We now are all fully aware that being a ‘celluloid hero’ doesn’t mean immortality; the ‘stars’ and films of yesteryear are now largely forgotten and unwatched. However, Olivia de Havilland is still with us. Olivia de Havilland now is really the only person left from the so called ‘Golden Years of Hollywood’. A wonderful actress, and a trailblazer, not only in terms of career but also in enabling other Hollywood artists to work freely. A LEGEND. Thank you Olivia de Havilland.