Olivia de Havilland’s Victories

On Film / The Daily — Jul 28, 2020
Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland, who died this past weekend at the age of 104, was a petite and gracious fighter. She fought for the role that would make her one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s golden age, Melanie Hamilton in MGM’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Returning to Warner Bros., she fought to be cast in movies worthy of her talent, and when Jack Warner tried to slap another half a year onto her seven-year contract, she spent nearly two years fighting him in the courts. Her ultimate win, known to this day as the De Havilland Law, loosened the studios’ grip on their stars. “Actors had suddenly been granted creative freedom,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “She had turned herself, and all of her kind, into artists.”

Born in Tokyo to well-to-do British parents and then raised in northern California, young de Havilland fully intended to become an English teacher. But roles in school plays led to more roles in community theater productions, and when an assistant to Austrian director Max Reinhardt saw her performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he offered her the position of second understudy for the role of Hermia in the production Reinhardt was preparing to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl.

Gloria Stuart, whose movie career would span from pre-Code films in the 1930s through Titanic in 1997, bowed out, and so did her understudy. So de Havilland, all of eighteen at the time, was Reinhardt’s Hermia—at the Hollywood Bowl, then on a four-week tour, and eventually, after de Havilland was persuaded to abandon her plans to teach and sign her first contract with Warner Bros., in the screen adaptation Reinhardt codirected with William Dieterle in 1935. “Eager to learn the trade,” writes the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, “she found out how to find cinematographer Hal Mohr’s silvery light to her advantage, how to modulate a theatrical performance for the camera, how to blend precise technique (and, in her case, a gorgeous, melodious speaking voice) with just enough spontaneity and a sexy sort of ardor.”

The studio then paired de Havilland with a little-known bit player, Errol Flynn, in the swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), a surprise hit that scored four Oscar nominations, including best picture. Warner Bros. decided to stick with what Scott Tobias, writing in the New York Times, calls “a winning formula: Flynn as the rakish, irreverent, truehearted hero of the common man, de Havilland as the well-mannered aristocrat worn down by his charms.” Michael Curtiz directed the winning pair—though both de Havilland and Flynn confessed to having crushes on each other, those crushes never led to a full-blown affair—in six more audience favorites, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Raoul Walsh took over on their eighth outing together, They Died with Their Boots On (1941).

Landing the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind was “all very cloak-and-dagger,” de Havilland told William Stadiem when he was putting together a long and juicy profile for Vanity Fair in 2016. She wasn’t even interested until she read Sidney Howard’s “wonderful” screenplay, she said. “In the book, we saw her through Scarlett’s eyes, which created a negative impression. In the film, the audience sees her through their own, unbiased eyes. Now, with the script, I liked her, I admired her, I loved her!” De Havilland had to have the part, and after secret readings were arranged, producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor had to have her. But Jack Warner wouldn’t let her go. So de Havilland invited his wife, Ann, to an afternoon tea, and as Stadiem puts it, “Ann seemed to understand what a huge project this was and that it could only enhance Olivia’s value to Warner Bros. in the long run. She promised to help and she did.”

In his tribute to de Havilland at RogerEbert.com, Dan Callahan zeroes in on what he considers to be “her best scene” in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) has been making moves on Melanie’s husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard), and shows up at his birthday party “in a defiantly sexy red dress.” De Havilland’s Melanie steps toward the camera, her face expressing “a half-dozen things at once, all fighting for primacy: anger, pride, apprehension, struggle for control, and frank wonder at the size of Scarlett’s treachery. De Havilland creates such an air of intolerable tension here that it really does feel like Melanie might slap Scarlett no matter how many times we have seen this movie, but she remains master of the situation. Remember de Havilland’s ultra-strained voice as she says the line, ‘Here’s our lovely Scarlett,’ and you will recall just how much de Havilland could do and suggest with her voice.”

De Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress and lost to Hattie McDaniel. De Havilland scored her first nomination for best actress for her portrayal of an American school teacher who falls for a Romanian gigolo (Charles Boyer) in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn (1941). She lost to her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, who won for her performance as a dowdy wife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion—the only Oscar-winning performance, by the way, in any Hitchcock film. In his Vanity Fair piece, Stadiem digs deep into the fierce rivalry between the sisters, which may have begun when the girls were as young as five and six. In the Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan quotes Fontaine from a 1978 interview: “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.” Which she, in fact, did in 2013.

It’s been said that the sisters patched things up just before Fontaine’s death, but in 2016, talking to the AP’s Thomas Adamson, de Havilland was still referring to Fontaine as “Dragon Lady.” For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, while de Havilland “brought something rational and controlled to her performances, Fontaine was the fragile, emotional star of movies such as Rebecca and Letter from an Unknown Woman. Fontaine was more quiveringly vulnerable, a real Hitchcockian leading lady; she was more mercurial, more haunted, sexier.” Even de Havilland herself told Stadiem that she was “a simple person. I don’t have the flair, dash, and style of Joan.”

It was only after de Havilland had won her case against Warner Bros. and returned to acting that she delivered the performance that won her her first Oscar, Jody Norris in Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946). “A story of thwarted maternal love, co-starring John Lund as both ill-fated lover and illegitimate son, this was a showcase indeed,” wrote Farran Smith Nehme in a 2016 piece for Sight & Sound in which she quoted Leisen: “Nobody else could have played it as well as she did, to be so beautiful and innocent in the beginning, then grow to be a bitch and finally the lonely Miss Norris.”

That same year, in Robert Siodmak’s noirish The Dark Mirror, “de Havilland gave a thrillingly wily and ambiguous dual performance as twins, one good, the other very much not,” writes Robbie Collin. “Intentional or not, the real-life resonance has often been noted.” Anatole Litvak directed de Havilland in one of her personal favorites, The Snake Pit (1948), the story of a psychiatric patient descending from one circle of hell to the next in a mental ward.

When de Havilland saw The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s adaptation of the 1880 Henry James novel Washington Square, on Broadway, she immediately called on William Wyler, who had directed her in Raffles (1939), to help set up a screen version at Paramount. De Havilland was eager to take on the role of Catherine Sloper, a plain and shy woman disdained by her father and jilted by the one man she’s fallen for. “The story’s theme of an oppressed figure who chafes at being underestimated, unappreciated, and controlled likely resonated for both director and star,” writes Pamela Hutchinson in the essay that accompanies our release. As Justin Chang points out in the Los Angeles Times, The Heiress is also “the story of a woman coming slowly but thrillingly into her own, and whom others learn to underestimate at their peril.” De Havilland chalked up a fifth Oscar nomination—and her second win.

In 1953, de Havilland was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where she met the man who would become her second husband, Pierre Galante, an editor for Paris Match. By 1955, she’d permanently relocated to a grand mansion in Paris, and in 1965, she became the first woman to preside over the jury in Cannes. Her post-Heiress filmography is sprinkled with a few notable performances but perhaps none as memorable as her Miriam Deering in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Robert Aldrich’s followup to his surprise hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Aldrich intended to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as women of a certain age going at each other’s throats. Crawford claimed she was fired, while others say she dropped out of Charlotte. Regardless, de Havilland was glad for the opportunity to turn the mutual admiration she’d shared with Davis for years into a genuine friendship.

Oddly enough, just two years ago, de Havilland was back in the news when she sued the FX network and Ryan Murphy Productions after she saw Catherine Zeta-Jones playing her in Feud: Bette and Joan, a mini-series that freely riffed on the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. De Havilland argued that Zeta-Jones’s portrayal “constituted unauthorized use of her name and likeness and showed her in ‘a false light’ as a hypocrite ‘with a public image of being a lady and a private one as a vulgarity-using gossip,’ ” explains Robert Berkvist in the New York Times. “A California appellate court dismissed the suit, ruling that the portrayal was ‘not highly offensive to a reasonable person as a matter of law.’ ”

Even if she’d won, the victory would have been minor compared to the momentous De Havilland Law. “Every actor in the business owes Olivia de Havilland a debt of gratitude for taking us out of bondage,” Bette Davis once said. Variety’s Peter Debruge notes that Davis also once wrote of her friend that she “overcame her beauty to triumph as an actress.” As Farran Smith Nehme wrote on the occasion of de Havilland’s 100th birthday, “When we think of actresses who fought for their careers, we think of Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck; we should think, too, of de Havilland, who fought as hard, or harder, than any of them.”

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