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).
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!