Olivia de Havilland (b. 1916) has left us at the tender age of 104. Some of my colleagues have chosen to write about what a terrific actress she was. I’m afraid I don’t see her quite in that exact light. I see her more as a competent Hollywood professional who photographed extraordinarily well and had a rare personality type for a star. She was not a an actress who steamrolled, chewed scenery and barked out Howard Hawks dialogue. Much like her younger sister Joan Fontaine (who passed away in 2013), she came across as shy, weak, retiring and saintly, feelings reinforced by her lovely, quiet voice, perfectly shaped head and enormous dark brown eyes. I think it is the eyes above all which brought her stardom. They are so large that their effect is neotenous. We are hard-wired to want to protect her. And, naturally sometimes she played against that type for dramatic effect, and usually surprised by the end of the movie by locating unsuspected reservoirs of bravery and strength. But, like I say, I might not have been induced to observe this day if not for the fact that I have happened to have seen so many of her key movies. I didn’t set out to do it, it just happened, which is a good indicator of the quality of her career. She was cast in movies one wants to see.
She was a mere baby of 19 when she became a movie star, through a set of circumstances that would be anybody’s dream. The British born teenager had appeared in many school and community theatre productions when she was scouted for Max Reinhardt’s much ballyhooed 1934 live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. She’d initially been hired only as the second understudy for Hermia. But then the star Gloria Stuart dropped out, as did the first understudy, giving the role to de Havilland with only one week to go until opening. When the production was then filmed by Warner Brothers in 1935, de Havilland went with it. Fresh from high school, she now had a Warner Brothers contract.
The first film to be released in which she appeared was the Joe E. Brown baseball comedy Alibi Ike (1935). I find this one exceedingly interesting. It is against the type which the studio would soon establish for her, and is unlike Hermia as well. As the love interest for Brown (then a major star) we can see her trying to push out the sexy (and succeeding). Where we would later associate her with modest women in historical costume dramas, here she is modern and even “fast”. There are not many times we would ever see this quality from her on screen.
Also in 1935 she was paired with Errol Flynn for the first time in the pirate picture Captain Blood. The chemistry was such that the studio paired them many times thereafter, in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, one of her best known performances today), and the westerns Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). She also appeared with Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), although her role is smaller in that one; Flynn’s co-star is Bette Davis. (I’ll undoubtedly post about all or most of these movies at some point)
Her stardom also benefited from the monster success of the 18th century costume epic Anthony Adverse (1936), a huge hit in its day, though one that has rightly been swallowed up by time (it’s a crashing bore). In 1937 she starred in one of James Whale’s few comedies, The Great Garrick a sort of farcical fantasia about the famed 18th century actor.(This one is also surprisingly dull). And in 1939 she was loaned to MGM for the role she is best remembered for her today, that of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939).
I am especially fond of the 1942 melodrama In This Our Life, in which de Havilland and Bette Davis play a pair of well-to-do southern sisters: de Havilland, dutiful, good and wise, and Davis in one of her most irredeemable characters, grasping, scheming, selfish, and in the end murderous. It’s almost a parody of their well established screen characters, as though one had cast them in a sketch sending up their own careers. It is a most entertaining film for that, and other reasons.
She was nominated for Best Actress in 1948’s The Snake Pit, about conditions in an insane asylum, but it seems to me that the distinction was more an “A for effort”. She appears to exceed her grasp in most of what she attempts in this film, although it must be said that playing a mentally ill person is one of the hardest challenges an actor ever has to face. (Interestingly, the part here was originally to have gone to Gene Tierney, who DID later have real-life mental problems. That might have been more fortuitous casting). Although (if I may digress) in her hospital gown, with her hair unkempt, de Havilland does look uncannily like Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” in Modern Times. The following year, she was more suitably cast in The Heiress (based on a play based on Henry James’ novella Washington Square), one of her best performances.
We caught 1952’s My Cousin Rachel on TCM just a few weeks back, and though somewhat flawed I quite liked it. It’s a surprisingly late Gothic melodrama by Daphne du Maurier, very much in the mold of her now better known Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, with the same kind of moody art direction but lacking Hitchcock’s sure hand. de Havilland is against type as a mysterious, possibly murderous “Black Widow”, but I think she lacks the complexity to make us wonder about her as much as the script asks us to. Like her young co-star Richard Burton (!) we are left to project it all onto her. But this movie has too many rewards to dismiss out of hand. I’d gladly watch it again any time.
Like most of the stars of her generation (especially the female ones) getting cast began to be a problem as she hit middle age. Though she was the epitome of class, even she began to join so many of the others in resorting to “cheese” in order to keep the lights on. In 1964, she followed in the footsteps of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford by getting into the psycho-biddy genre. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte does a terrific job of teasing and subverting our expectations of the screen characters we normally we associate with de Havilland, Davis and their co-star Joseph Cotten. Furthermore, I find the mature de Havilland quite attractive, sexy and powerful in this film, making it a very interesting bookend of sorts with Alibi Ike. An interesting double feature: young sexy de Havilland vs. old sexy de Havilland. (Old? She’s two years younger than me in this movie! Go ahead and chop my head off, Charlotte!)
In the ’70s there was more opportunity for camp in the form of disaster movies. In Airport ’77 she essentially re-creates the popular star turns of Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy in Airport 1975, playing against type as a card sharp. Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978) achieves the impossible by being even more over the top. She plays a school principal who exposes all of her pupils to a superswarm of deadly African killer bees during the town’s flower festival!
In the 80s, she did several tv movies, notably the sequels to Roots and North and South, which built on her association with Gone with the Wind. She retired circa 1988, although I do see one narration credit for 2009. And just a few years back she gave this recent interview for People magazine!
Okay, now I have to finish this post before I turn 104! Godspeed, Madame!