In Our Opinion

OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY HOME

By • Jun 16th, 2006 •

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.”

–Gen. George Armstrong Custer bidding goodbye to his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, as he leaves for what both know is his last tour of duty in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.

Olivia de Havilland, nine decades old on July 1, still remembers that day 65 years ago when Errol Flynn uttered those parting words to her on a back-lot soundstage in Burbank.
“I felt real sorrow when we filmed that,” she recalled. “I felt the same way the next day and the day after that. I felt it for many days and couldn’t understand why. Then, years later, I realized something inside me sensed this would be the last picture I’d ever make with Errol Flynn.”

Little Big Horn was, indeed, the last stop in their cinematic adventures. They were The screen team-in-residence at Warner Bros., romping through eight films in seven years. Their films were key examples of an exuberant, elegant style of old-guard filmmaking which has–frankly, my dear–gone with the wind. The gamut ran from THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE to DODGE CITY and was liberally splashed with swagger and dash.

The Flynn-de Havilland epics were bread-and-butter basics for The Brothers Warner but, somehow, they didn’t pack the prestige of, say, Paul Muni in a beard or Bette Davis in a snit–and, for this reason, both stars wanted out of those constraining period costumes.

Flynn, the more typed and limited of the two, flailed about with standard-brand heroics, going with the studio flow, anesthetized by booze and debauchery. By 1950, he could not stand up for the finale clinch in MONTANA–literally: he reclined on the ground so Alexis Smith had to stoop down to kiss him. In contrast, by that point, de Havilland had made it through a particularly dark patch of the Hollywood forest, emerging with two Academy Awards (out of five nominations) and a place of respect in the business. In 1955, she abdicated by marrying Paris Match editor Pierre Galante and making France her home.

This past year–her 90th–she returned home to Hollywood for a high-profile visit and was accorded a sold-out salute from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy’s Beverly Hills branch was packed to the Guilds with across-the-board co-workers, friends, fans and industry officials, all of whom gave her three standing ovations and a truncated, but hardy, round of “Happy Birthday.”

The ladylike dignity and grace that were always her stock in trade remained intact. Summoning a surprisingly sprightly pace, she moved down the aisle to the stage, arms swinging with calculated casualness–the determined effort of a well-seasoned star.

The hair was silver and swept into a chic French twist. Decked out in a creamy silk suit with knee-length skirt, plump pearls and matching pumps, she was a vision of white heat.

Nor had time withered her regal ways. She exited a queen (Queen Anne) in her 49th and final feature, THE FIFTH MUSKATEER, in 1979–a motion seconded by the royal roles she did after that in TV films. And, when she finally retired from acting altogether in 1988 (via the television movie, THE WOMAN HE LOVED), it was as Wallis Simpson’s aunt.

Thickened a tad by time, she now resembles The Queen Mum (whom she played in a TV flick six years earlier, THE ROYAL ROMANCE OF CHARLES AND DIANA) and admitted as much in a charmingly self-effacing way in greeting the crowd: “I would like to say I very much appreciate the warm welcome all of you have just given me. It’s most reassuring because, after all, the years do pass and the pounds do accumulate. Thank you for recognizing me.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Robert Osborne, a de Havilland disciple for years on Turner Classic Movies and in real life, provided the introductory notes to the splendid selection of film clips and administered the Q&As to the lady herself at the end of the program.

According to Osborne, acting was an accident that happened to de Havilland during the summer between her graduation from high school and her enrollment in Mills College for Women to become a teacher. She was cast as Hermia in a Saratoga Community Theater production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and executed it so well she was urged to go to Los Angeles where the great stage director, Max Reinhardt, newly emigrated from Germany, was preparing a lavish Hollywood Bowl rendition. She snagged understudy and–true to Warners’ own 42ND STREET myth–actually went on for the leading lady, Gloria Stuart (yes, the TITANIC Gloria Stuart). When Warners turned that extravagance into a film, it insisted on de Havilland. It also insisted on a seven-year contract, which, at that point in time, seemed a small price to pay to debut with Shakespeare and Reinhardt.

She didn’t realize her second film would be ALIBI IKE with Joe E. Brown and her third would be THE IRISH IN US with James Cagney. Both beat DREAM to the marketplace.

“At Warner Bros., it really was very difficult because I did have to play a lot of roles with which I felt no connection whatsoever and in films that I didn’t think very interesting.”

There was no escaping the mediocrity for contract players back then, but there was some subterfuge in the search of good roles. When de Havilland discovered that all finished scripts went to the make-up department so Perc Westmore could properly anticipate the hair demands before shooting began, she conducted a night raid on Westmore’s office, purloined a script of THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, found a role to her liking and stormed the office of the startled producer to ask for it. “No, I don’t want the title role,” she told him. “I want to play Amy because I understand her. In addition, she’s funny.” She got the part.

When Jack L. Warner fumbled in his bid to buy GONE WITH THE WIND–for Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, George Brent and de Havilland–the latter went around left end to the Real boss of the lot, MRS. Jack L. Warner, who persuaded her husband to loan the actress out.

Principal photography on GONE WITH THE WIND ended on its 449,512th foot of film and de Havilland’s 23rd birthday. She spent it doing retakes on the birthday party scene for her screen husband, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard)–welcoming to the fold, with a sincere and open heart, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), much to the consternation of the town biddies who had just caught Scarlett making one of her periodical plays for Ashley.

While the world in the late ‘30s was queuing up to play Scarlett O’Hara, de Havilland shrewdly opted for the shorter line: Melanie Hamilton was a stark and heavily sweetened contrast to Scarlett and, therefore, more of a challenge for her. “Scarlett was this valiant, self-sufficient woman obliged to find her way in life and support other people and be independent. Well, ever since the age of 18, I too had been self-supporting, struggling with life, trying to be independent–and I had a few dependents too, just like Scarlett.

“I wanted to play Melanie because she seemed to have so many qualities that were rare and always endangered, generation after generation. I thought, ‘Well, one way of helping them–to keep them alive–is to play Melanie, who is the epitome of all of those characteristics.’ That’s why I wanted to play her. She was other-people-oriented, and Scarlett of course was not. She was a loving person, and, because she was a loving person, she was a happy woman. Scarlett was not really loving, and she wasn’t happy.”

That performance won her her first Oscar nomination–in the supporting category (it was won by GWTW’s Mammy, Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American so honored). All her other Oscar bids were in the starring category–for studios other than Warners. “I always wanted to win Academy Awards for Warner Bros., but they made it impossible.”

She flew Paramount’s colors in the Oscar race with three different gradations of spinsters. All Charles Boyer wanted from her in 1941’s HOLD BACK THE DAWN was entry into the U.S.; Montgomery Clift wanted her inheritance in 1949’s THE HEIRESS, and she had a double-cast, film-debuting John Lund for lover and illegitimate son in 1946’s TO EACH HIS OWN. Her sister, Joan Fontaine, got the prize in ‘41 (they’re still the only sisters to win Best Actress Oscars), but the last two performances were her Oscar-winning work.

Fox provided her with her fifth nominated role–and de Havilland’s favorite de Havilland: the mental patient who makes it back to sanity in 1948’s THE SNAKE PIT. For that stark performance and the iconic one she gave as THE HEIRESS a year later, de Havilland became The New York Film Critics’ only back-to-back Best Actress award winner.

Lest that statistic be taken for happy happenstance, be advised that de Havilland went after THE HEIRESS hammer and tongs. At one of his Sunday brunches, director Lewis
Milestone told her that he had just returned from New York where he’d seen her perfect follow-up to THE SNAKE PIT. She was on the next train instantly–and saw Wendy Hiller give a “brilliant” if “stylized” performance of “The Heiress”–“marvelous in the theater, but it wouldn’t do, I knew, for film. I thought I saw another way of playing Catherine that would be effective and true on film. By the end of the second act, I knew I had to play her–had to–so I rushed back and talked to my agent.” They came up with a short list of directors: George Cukor (who’d worked with her early on in, and secretly throughout, GWTW) and Anatole Litvak (her SNAKE PIT director). Both had other projects so she went with a director she respected but had never worked with: William Wyler. He made the same beeline to Broadway, called her afterward and declared “All systems go.”

In 1958, when she was in Los Angeles filming THE PROUD REBEL, she was invited to a gala costumers’ dinner. “Since costumers mean so much to a characterization and I have such regard for costume designers, I of course accepted. It was at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and, before we were all to go into the other room for dinner, I was standing in the
foyer talking when I felt somebody kiss me on the back of my neck. I turned around and
saw this tall, rather drawn, thin man standing before me. I said, ‘Do I know you?’ He
said, ‘It’s Errol.’ ‘Errol who?’ He replied, ‘You know. Errol.’ ‘Ooooh,’ I said, ‘Errol.’ I
didn’t recognize him, and I will tell you why. It was not just he was gaunt. It was his eyes. They were such merry eyes on screen. They twinkled. It was those eyes that had changed. They didn’t have the vitality that they once did. There was something dead about them.”

Flynn flinched at not being recognized by his Maid Marian but gamely recovered and gallantly escorted her to dinner, placing her on his right at his own table. Other people soon joined them, and Flynn made a perfect host of himself. “He was so delightful, so kind. He kept the conversation going around the table. And I sat there, bewildered by my own emotions. There I was–a happily married woman with two wonderful children I adored and a pleasant, satisfactory life in Paris–and I was getting furious because Errol Flynn was paying more attention to ladies on the left than he was to the lady on his right.”

About a year later, de Havilland happened to catch a revival of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in Paris. “I was absolutely enraptured by it–to such a degree that I went home and wrote Errol a letter. I said, ‘You may not have seen ROBIN HOOD in many years, like myself, but I have just seen it and I was utterly charmed by it. I hope you’ll see it because I think that you’ll feel the same way I do and that you will be very proud of yourself.

“Well, I wrote the letter. I put it in an envelope and sealed the envelope and got it ready for the post. Then, I thought, ‘No. It’s sentimental, and–well, I’d better not send it.’ And I didn’t. And, two weeks later, Errol died. It’s a letter that I very much wish I had sent.”

All those years of playing heroines turned de Havilland into an authentic one–one who challenged and successfully altered the iron rule of studios. Warners had extracted 28 films from her contract–and then she discovered the time of her unpaid suspensions for rejecting roles was added on her contract. Feeling this patently unfair, she took the matter to court and battled through three years of tension and unemployment to a happy verdict.

“It was daring, and it was dangerous–that’s perfectly true,” she conceded, “but I did read the law, and it was very clear in its intention. I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go ahead with this, and we’re going to stick straight through to the end.’ And we did. Everybody in town thought I would lose the case, but I knew I was going to win it–if the judges were honest. Luckily, the judges were honest. I won the case, and, from then on, I could choose things I really wanted to play.” She–and all actors–profited from “The de Havilland Decision.”

The happiest surprise of the evening was a de Havilland performance no one had seen: her screen test for DANTON directed by Reinhardt and shot Oct. 17, 1936. The talent was there, in plain sight at age 20, and she was announced for the film–a French Revolution opus that would be Reinhardt’s second screen endeavor. He only got through the first with some strong co-direction from the experienced William Dieterle and some flashy photography from Hal Mohr (whose lens wizardry is still the only write-in Oscar winner).

But DANTON died a quick death on the drawing boards ten weeks later, and Reinhardt never made another film, retiring to found an acting school and teach till he died in 1943.

There was an unstated farewell-to-the-troops undertow to the evening that stayed unstated until its closing moments “When you reach your 90th year and you realize you don’t have too many more years of life before you,” de Havilland remarked wistfully, “you tend to look back to those early years–your adolescent years and the dreams and ambitions that you had then. Well, I can’t help but think of an April day in 1935 when, between test rehearsals for CAPTAIN BLOOD–months before the final casting was made–I sat down on a stage ramp–age 18, I was–with a handsome, magnetic, 25-year-old Tasmanian.”

She remembered how she and Flynn were kicking around the idea of what they wanted out of life. His answer was immediate: Success! Hers was more thoughtful. “I said, ‘Respect for difficult work well done.’ Tonight,” she said–cue the tears–“you and the Academy have made me feel that perhaps, after all, I have achieved that young dream.”

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One Response »

  1. 9 decades old and still stronger than ever! I was wondering if she is doing any acting these days, and “heard” she did a narration for a 2009 documentary. I love her voice! Here is a clip to the film if you are interested:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54AtoQVGfwU

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