Olivia de Havilland is one of the greatest artists of our time. Acting is a profession that very rarely gets any credit. I think most people just don’t appreciate that it requires so much skill, patience, and training. A lot depends on the camera; how a person photographs on film, memorizing pages of scripts, taking direction well, long hours, sometimes hazardous location shooting. Some people have been gravely injured and even died on movie sets.
Olivia de Havilland is an actress who spent time on her craft. She was serious about it, and that is evident in all her films. She once said she wanted to be respected for doing hard work and making it look easy. She succeeded. I’m so glad that my admiration for her has grown, all thanks to TCM airing her films throughout the month of July in celebration of her centenary.
Writers deserve a lot of credit for their work on films too. In her films, the writers provided a character sketch, and Olivia added color. Like all great draftsmen, she defined those sketches even further. She’s always so interesting to watch on film because she imbues these characters with much more than what’s on the page. That’s what has drawn me to her, the ability to take characters that are well written and not and elevate them. She began by playing ingenues and then matured into women of greater depth. And this was after she stuck it to the man (Jack Warner). She refused the mediocre roles and her art evolved because of it.
She said her lines with such conviction. Her gaze was always direct. From action to comedy to drama to western, she did it all. Even when her characters are supposed to be pitied, she keeps their dignity intact. Also, Olivia is gorgeous. At 100 her face hasn’t changed one bit. She sparkles in technicolor too.
I can’t say that I love every film I’ve seen, but I can say that Olivia made them all worthwhile.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) directed by Michael Curtiz
I was bored and only waiting for Olivia to show up. The film preserves the Good Colonizer mindset. I don’t know why the battles were being fought. The love triangle was all I could focus on. Elsa (Olivia) is engaged to Major Geoffrey (Errol Flynn) but she’s fallen in love with his brother, Captain Perry (a very stiff Patric Knowles). I felt sorry for Geoffrey because, to quote Judy Garland in “Dear Mr. Gable”, he loved her so much, and he couldn’t have her. Elsa is so innocent and she doesn’t mean to hurt Geoffrey, but her love for Perry is too strong. Elsa could easily be a forgettable role but Olivia makes her ten times more interesting than she should be.
The Great Garrick (1937) directed by James Whale
A perfect screwball comedy, also featuring sixteen year old Lana Turner when she was Mervyn LeRoy’s protege at Warner Brothers. Olivia plays a runaway countess who meets the great stage actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) at a hotel in the remote French countryside. Garrick has insulted the French actors and they decide to play a trick on him. They dress up as servants in the hotel, hoping to make his time there miserable, but he’s already figured out their plan. When Olivia shows up, he wrongly assumes she’s in on it too. Olivia’s beauty was so young and vibrant, she looks like a fairy tale heroine. She doesn’t have much to do, but she does make the film an overall pleasant experience, and she just shimmers with sincerity.
It’s Love I’m After (1937) directed by Archie Mayo
In this screwball comedy, Olivia has plenty more to do. And she’s hilarious as Marcia West, a starstruck girl smitten with Leslie Howard’s stage star, Basil Underwood. He’s constantly quarreling with his girlfriend and fellow performer, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis). Howard and Davis are both pitch perfect as haughty stars that love to loathe each other, but Olivia really steals the show as a giddy fangirl. I was surprised by how well she pulled it off, considering that she was mostly pegged as a prim and elegant type. So many of us with celebrity crushes (both living and dead) can relate to Marcia. I think a similar story to this one should be written about Simone Biles and Zac Efron.
Gold is Where You Find It (1938) directed by Michael Curtiz
Olivia’s first technicolor film. And what a first. Though the story is a bit tepid, it’s visually gorgeous, and she’s wonderful as the sweet and fiery teenager Serena. She was actually 22 at this point but you wouldn’t know it.
Dodge City (1939) directed by Michael Curtiz
Another technicolor masterpiece, but with a sterling story to accompany it. She was paired once again with Errol Flynn. This has become one of my favorite films despite my aversion to westerns. But it’s just so good. The year is 1872, the place is Dodge City, Kansas. Law and order are ineffectual until Wade Hatton (Flynn) assumes the post of sheriff. He begins to clean up the town and proves to be a stern but affable presence. Abbie Irving (Olivia) treats him coldly because she holds him responsible for the accidental death of her brother, but as usually happens, love is assured by the end. I love Abbie because she’s so forthright and speaks her mind. This film also endeared Errol Flynn to me. It’s right behind The Adventures of Robin Hood for my favorite Flynn-de Havilland teaming.
My Love Came Back (1940) directed by Curtis Bernhardt
This was one of my favorite discoveries of 2015. It’s such a simple, sweet movie that automatically puts me in a good mood. What’s more, I love the supporting cast. Jane Wyman, Eddie Albert, Charles Winninger, S.Z. Sakall, not to mention Olivia’s leading man, Jeffrey Lynn.
Millionaire Julius Malette (Winninger) becomes benefactor to violinist Amelia Cornell (Olivia), charmed by both her prodigious skill and beauty. Amelia attends the Bressiac Academy on a scholarship which she desperately needs. The school’s faculty isn’t all that sympathetic to her financial situation, which includes caring for her family. But Malette’s generosity is welcome, until his manager Tony (Jeffrey Lynn) believes the two are having an affair. Tony and Amelia have both fallen in love but there’s too much discord between them. It’s such a funny and sweet little gem.
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) directed by Mitchell Leisen
One of Olivia’s finest dramatic performances, in which she plays a mousy schoolteacher (Emmy Brown) who is awakened to love and passion from a gigolo. The gigolo in question is Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), who marries Emmy just so he can legally enter the United States. A penitent Georges narrates the story for us. We see how he charmed and fooled Emmy, and can’t help but sympathize with her starry eyed discovery of romance. Olivia is still pretty next to glamorous Paulette Goddard, who plays the worldly Anita Dixon.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941) directed by Raoul Walsh
Another favorite discovery from last year. Biff Grimes (James Cagney) was always smitten with Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), but she married his rival Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). Biff instead married Virginia’s best friend Amy (Olivia), a nurse and fledgling suffragette. Outspoken about equality of the sexes, Amy was someone I loved immediately because of her indifference to marriage and social mores that allowed men to be wolves and women to be coquettish and defenseless lambs. Although it turns out that she’s not as enlightened as she purports to be, she does end up being a loyal and faithful wife to Biff. My sister loved the film because she thought it was so good of Amy to still be waiting for Biff after he’d gone to jail. A very sweet love story and one I can’t recommend enough.
In This Our Life (1942) directed by John Huston
You might expect Olivia to get shown up when she’s playing the good girl to Bette Davis’ wickedly bad girl, but you’d be terribly mistaken. Roy and Stanley Timberlake are sisters (no explanation is given for why they have masculine names but it’s a nice touch). Stanley (Davis) is flighty while Roy (Olivia) is more sensible and grounded. Stanley values her happiness above all, even if it means making other people unhappy. She’s engaged to attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent) but steals Roy’s husband Peter (Dennis Morgan). Marriage to Stanley ultimately drives Peter to suicide. Stanley may be the flashier role but there’s something about Roy’s quiet dignity that makes her irresistible to watch. She’s not a victim of her sister’s machinations, although she is hurt by them. Roy has a steely spine.
Government Girl (1943) directed by Dudley Nichols
This comedy is bogged down by lifeless direction and a boring male lead, but Olivia does her best. She’s very silly, proving once again how capable she could be in comedy. What range.
Princess O’Rourke (1943) directed by Norman Krasna
This film reminded me so much of Roman Holiday! Princess Maria (Olivia) from an unspecified European country, goes on a vacation to America. Three sleeping pills make her very woozy and a charming male stranger has to deal with her. Sounds familiar, only it’s not Rome, and this handsome man (Robert Cummings) isn’t a news reporter, but a pilot. I wonder if Dalton Trumbo was inspired by this film at all when he wrote Roman Holiday‘s script. Princess O’Rourke is much lighter in tone than the melancholy Roman Holiday. It introduced the “wearing the other person’s pajamas” trope that I love so much from the later film. It’s a patriotic film too and tied in very well with the war effort.
To Each His Own (1946) directed by Mitchell Leisen
A melodrama that left me a sobbing heap by the end. It could have easily devolved into a run of the mill soap opera, but Leisen’s sensitive direction and Olivia’s Oscar winning performance prevent that. She plays Jody Norris, a middle aged woman who recounts her life in a flashback. Olivia’s makeup is impressive because she was still only 29 when the film was released. Jody is a rigid woman. When she was young she was eager and bright eyed. A one night stand with fighter pilot Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) results in pregnancy. Bart is killed and Jody is left to give birth to a son on her own. One of the film’s most poignant comments is the way in which people who live in picturesque small towns are often small minded. Jody devises a plan to adopt her son, but she’s thwarted in her efforts and instead is forced to watch him grow up without her. I just love how Olivia reveals all of Jody’s shades. She’s a complex woman who’s been cheated out of this relationship. She has to appear strong but she’s vulnerable nonetheless.
The Snake Pit (1948) directed by Anatole Litvack
Watching this film was oddly cathartic for me. Olivia plays Virginia Cunningham, a patient in a mental hospital. Her diagnosis and recovery is a long winding road. Olivia had visited mental hospitals and the film is anchored in her truthful performance. The film’s layered portrayal of metal illness, its evocative cinematography, make it a masterpiece. There are so many interpretations for its themes. To me it provides biting commentary on how women are imprisoned, shut away from the world when they don’t conform to its rules, and how mental illness very often makes lepers out of people. I think it’s Olivia’s greatest dramatic work.
The Heiress (1949) directed by William Wyler
Her second Oscar win as Catherine Sloper was well deserved once again. Olivia is the one who bought the film rights to the play and even selected Wyler to direct. Rewatching this after years was so worth it. When I was younger, I had an ugly duckling phase and was just as awkward and insecure as Catherine. To see her brim with hope at the idea of love, only to have it dashed, and then to watch her transformation from a timid woman to one of cruelty is nothing short of a revelation. Even her voice changes; from breathy and girlish to brittle. Catherine Sloper is heroic if you think about it. Even if bitterness has come to define her, she walks with much more purpose and she will not be victimized ever again. How can you not cheer for that?
Libel (1959) directed by Anthony Asquith
This begins as a straightforward story about a libel suit. Sir Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde) is accused of being an imposter by a fellow former prisoner of war. Doubt falls on his story in court but his wife Margaret (Olivia) steadfastly believes in his innocence. What might have been a fairly typical wife role for Olivia becomes greater. She and the audience are just as clueless about who Mark is. She wants to be supportive but her belief in him is shattered. Olivia’s performance in the latter half is marvelous. It’s because of her that the stakes are heightened and we become more invested as a result.
Light in the Piazza (1962) directed by Guy Green
Anxious and overprotective mother Meg Johnson (Olivia) is vacationing in Italy with her luminous daughter Clara (Yvette Mimeiux), who is mentally delayed after a childhood accident. Clara catches the eye of Fabrizio (George Hamilton), who is taken with her instantly and she with him. Meg tries to rebuff Fabrizio but with little success. The two young people see more of each other and love begins to blossom. Meg only has Clara’s best interests at heart and worries about how she can break the news to Fabrizio and his family. She loves Clara so, so much, but like all mothers, wants her to remain her little girl forever. Such an achingly sweet movie, yet another that reduced me to tears. I like that even in the 1960s, Olivia could still play thoughtful, interesting women who weren’t mere archetypes.
There are a couple more films starring Olivia that I can’t wait to check out. She’s an actress of unmatched depth and talent. I’m glad she reached her 100th birthday and that we all can continue to celebrate her.
“I live for you,
I long for you, Olivia.”