birthday tribute · blogathon · centennial · classic film · Old Hollywood · women in film

Happy 100th birthday to Olivia de Havilland!

On July 1st, 1916, Olivia Mary de Havilland was born. She marks 100 years on planet Earth, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I know she’s aware that people who’ve never even met her are celebrating the glorious occasion of her birth. She has been here for a century. How privileged are we for existing at the same time?! She isn’t just an actress or one of the last surviving icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She is indeed, mightily much more.

My Facebook profile picture for the past five months.
Livvie as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
I turned a quarter of a century old in January. A recent Vanity Fair article on Olivia’s storied life and career mentioned that she’s a writer, that she learned to fly, something I really want to do, and that she loves airplanes and has a gift for imitating animals. We have stuff in common! There’s so much we can talk about and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather hold a conversation with. I would only listen, enraptured by her stories, but it would be enough for me.

This is not a comprehensive tribute to an extraordinary woman and career. So many of those will be pouring in today and I can’t wait to read them all. This is just my own measly little tribute about the impact she’s had on me and how I came to adore her. Olivia has become much more meaningful to me in the past year and a half. I drafted her a letter that’s lost on the hard drive in a busted computer. I haven’t written another. What would I write in a letter to Olivia de Havilland? It would be a tear stained page of nonsense, probably. Who knows, maybe I will. If nothing else, she should know that somewhere in America, a kooky classic film lover owes her a lot. Maybe that kooky person is also you!

Years ago, I had vague respect and admiration for Olivia, but I didn’t love her or consider her a favorite actress. She and Errol Flynn were so popular with my friends, but I never understood their appeal.

How did I begin to love her and regard her with much greater appreciation? It was gradual.

I’ll begin at the beginning, with her most famous film, my introduction to her. (And literally everyone else’s).

I am ambivalent towards Gone With the Wind, but I can understand why it has such a firm hold on imaginations worldwide. What always surprised me was how much Olivia coveted the role of unglamorous and placid Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Scarlett O’Hara was the dream role for many. Vivien Leigh inhabited that role with so much authority that even if she never played another southern belle again, she would still be the definitive one. But Melanie. That’s the lesser role. No spark or grit to her. She’s just sweet, gentle, and simple. Or is she? Remember that Melanie remains Scarlett’s friend even as the latter despises her. Melanie is never petty, vindictive, judgmental, or cruel. She’s naturally Scarlett’s opposite, but she’s not just the archetypal good girl. Her goodness flows from her, belying a strength that others take for granted. Scarlett is the fiery one, but Melanie soothes. She’s the friend we want, maybe even the friend and person we want to be. (It’s much more difficult to be a Melanie than a Scarlett). No wonder Olivia coveted the role. No wonder she imbued Melanie with so much authority herself, and an indelible quality of loveliness.

It took a now historic legal battle with Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, to free Olivia from a contract that afforded her little freedom and variety in her film roles. It was also a landmark decision now known as the de Havilland law. Olivia didn’t want to be stuck playing demure ingenues forever, so she fought for independence and won it not only for herself, but for everyone in the entertainment profession.

With her newfound freedom she began to seek out more challenging roles. One of these was in Robert Siodmack’s superb noir, The Dark Mirror (1946). In it she plays twins – one evil, the other good. Olivia had to juggle two characters as opposed to one, and the result is a deeply unforgettable performance. It was this film, which I had watched three years ago on her 97th birthday, that made me love her.

How could Olivia resign herself to playing delicate and demure ladies when she had the potential to draw out more complicated and even sinister women from within her? Melanie is her most famous role and she’ll always be remembered for her steely sweetness. But she was more than capable at playing the complete opposite. You don’t have to look any further than The Dark Mirror, in which she’s absolutely convincing playing both in the same film, but I’m going to look further anyway.

Her Oscar winning performance in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) is striking. As insecure and plain Catherine Sloper (somehow Olivia manages to look less than gorgeous), she starts out as a typical de Havilland character; shy and sweet. Then, hardened by the treatment she’s suffered at the hands of her harsh father and an insincere suitor, she’s no longer that poor, pitied creature. It’s been years since I’ve watched the film, but the final image of Olivia is so arresting and is clearly imprinted in my mind’s eye.

Last summer, I watched My Cousin Rachel (1952), which paired her with Richard Burton in his first film. The day I watched it, I was also horribly sick. While my body went through physical torture, my mind at least was able to appreciate Olivia. When I discovered that the film was adapted from a Daphne du Maurier novel, I held off on watching it until after I had read the book. (Du Maurier’s Rebecca and the 1940 film starring Livvie’s younger sister Joan Fontaine are my bread and butter, y’all).

Well, I read the book, fell in love, and from the first, Olivia was how I pictured Rachel. With that image, it was easy to see how Philip (Burton) could fall in love with this intriguing, mysterious, refined lady of manners. And this was even before I watched the film. She made Rachel come alive onscreen. Stately, witty, the picture of unruffled charm and elegance. But she was still down to earth. And it’s all the more disturbing to imagine that this lady, this kind, wonderful, lady could be a murderer. This is the question we and Philip agonize over. We never get a straightforward answer. Rachel just bears the hint of suspicion – and only Olivia could keep us guessing. If I’m ever going to get taken in by a cultured, possible murderess, I hope she has even a tenth of Olivia de Havilland’s allure.

Now onto a more lighthearted film, with no murder, but plenty of magic and fairies! I absolutely love the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love it so much in fact, that it made me reread the play. Olivia reprised the role of Hermia in her Hollywood debut. All I could hear was Olivia’s voice as I read Hermia’s lines. I could see her lovely face, the many expressive faces she makes throughout when she goes apoplectic with rage. What a film debut – and as a Shakespearean heroine at that.

One of my new favorite discoveries this year was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), just one legendary teaming with her frequent costar Errol Flynn. I don’t pride myself on unpopular opinions, but I’m pretty sure not being a fan of Errol Flynn is one of them. But! Olivia has the same effect on him that Maureen O’Hara had on John Wayne – I like these men by virtue of their leading ladies. And really, as Robin Hood, Flynn has an ardent fan in me. As Maid Marian, Olivia is a vision. From Shakespeare to period dramas to fantasy, her beauty belongs in these far flung realms. But even more than her beauty is her tough resolve. Marian is never content to be seen and not heard, to accept the same old answers. She fights for what is right, not unlike Miss de Havilland herself. Then…the glory of her romance with Robin Hood! The word swoon was invented for love scenes like theirs.

Because I’ve only seen a handful of Olivia’s films (11 to be exact), I’m most excited that she’s TCM’s Star of the Month in July. It’s a chance to see even more of her great range and some of her most popular, acclaimed films. Maybe once I do, I can rewrite that letter.

Olivia de Havilland is many things. You don’t live to be a century old, nearly adored by people of all ages, just because you’re a Hollywood star. No; there’s light, warmth, and magic in Olivia de Havilland. How lucky are we to have caught glimpses of her radiance from her films.

Happy birthday, Livvie, and here’s to many more!

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I wrote this post for the Olivia de Havilland Centenary blogathon, hosted by Crystal and Phyllis. (Thank you, ladies!) Please read more of the entries and celebrate the queen of Classic Hollywood! And if you haven’t, check out this brilliant piece at Sight & Sound.
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19 thoughts on “Happy 100th birthday to Olivia de Havilland!

  1. I always enjoy reading your heartfelt tributes, and this one is no different! Love all the pictures you featured too, like the series of screenshots from A Midsummer Night's Dream…can't believe that was her film debut and she already looks like a star.

    I really need to write her letter too…perhaps I'll wait until I watch more of her films this month like you. Also I can't wait to read your thoughts on the Olivia films you'll be discovering on TCM (I really loved your Robert Ryan post). It's gonna be a great month!

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  2. What a glorious tribute! I must admit, I'm at the same place you used to be — I'm not totally in love with Olivia, if only because I've seen few of her films and I've always gravitated towards her sister Joan. This blogathon has really opened my eyes, though. I'm making it my mission to appreciate Olivia while she's still around; I'm actually watching The Dark Mirror on YouTube as we speak!

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  3. THANK YOU <3 That really means a lot, as I know she's so special to you.

    If you ever write that letter, let me know, haha! And I'm glad you loved the Robert Ryan one! I really am looking forward to all the new films I'll be discovering.

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  4. Thanks, Michaela! I didn't include them in my post, but I really love The Strawberry Blonde, My Love Came Back and The Male Animal. I don't know if TCM is airing them, but do check them out if you haven't.

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  5. So beautifully put! You've seen more of Ms. de Havilland's movies than I have (I think I've only seen six of her roles), though I'm adding so many titles to my TBW list through this blogathon. You've got me wanting to see her Midsummer Night's Dream πŸ™‚

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  6. It's been AGES since I've seen A Midsummer's Night Dream – I'm another one who forgot she was in that. (Time to see it again!)

    I hope Olivia comes across your essay. It is a wonderful and fitting tribute to an extraordinary and talented woman.

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  7. What a lovely tribute!! You could just send her this post as your letter:) I really want to see Midsummer. I'm so glad she is TCM's star of the month!!!

    Thanks for being a part of this Blogathon!!!

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