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.