Star of the Week: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND

Hello dear readers!

As promised, I am diving straight into Star of the Week mode. This segment is one where I will be focusing on one of the classic greats, showing you important clips and pictures from their work over the span of a week. This week’s honors go to a 2-time Oscar winner and living Hollywood legend, one of the last great ladies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Olivia de Havilland.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton, in "Gone With the Wind."

The star of such great films as The Snake Pit (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award) and The Heiress (for which she won), her greatest success and fame was achieved through the epic 1939 masterpiece Gone With the Wind, in which she played the second lead, the demure Melanie Hamilton. She is also known for leading a high profile lawsuit against Warner Brothers in 1943, securing a release from her contract and defining what is currently known as The de Havilland Decision, a ruling that is found in law books today and is studied by those pursuing entertainment law. 5 times nominated for the Academy Award, and twice a winner, Miss de Havilland is truly one of Hollywood’s great leading ladies.

Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents Walter and Lilian de Havilland, on July 1, 1916. The following year saw the birth of her sister Joan, later known to Hollywood as the actress Joan Fontaine (whom we may get to on another Star of the Week segment as she is a very fine actress in her own right), and due to the ill health of both toddlers, the family decided to uproot and resettle in the United States. The town that they found was a quaint little village by the name of Saratoga, 45 minutes south of San Francisco, and that is where they stayed. Walter soon returned to Tokyo and his practice as a patent attorney, and by 1925, Walter and Lilian were separated.

The de Havilland family in Tokyo, Japan, with some housemaids. When this picture was taken, her mother was pregnant with Olivia's sister, Joan.

Olivia and Joan were raised by their mother and a very overbearing stepfather by the name of George Fontaine, who ensured that the girls were brought up in a rigid, military fashion. This had a marked effect on both of them, and when Olivia was discovered participating in a play without permission, her stepfather gave her an ultimatum–leave the play, or leave the house. Olivia decided to leave. She was 16.

This did, however, give her the freedom to be in as many plays as she wanted, and soon became the star of such local productions as “Alice in Wonderland” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” receiving accolades from The San Francisco Chronicle for her performance as Alice. She was soon discovered by Max Reinhardt, and declined a scholarship to Mills College to accept the role of Hermia in Reinhardt’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl.

As Alice in Wonderland, 1932.

From there, her career took off. She reprised her role in Reinhardt’s film version of the play, and soon signed a contract to Warner Brothers studios, where she acted in a number of small-budget films before gaining status and acting alongside Bette Davis in It’s Love I’m After and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, who would become her most frequent co-star and love interest. She describes her first meeting with Errol Flynn, in this adorable interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2006.

It was shortly thereafter that Olivia secured the role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind. After convincing Jack Warner to lend her to Selznick Studios for the film, she gave a performance that secured her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 1940 Academy Awards, losing, however, to Hattie McDaniel in the same film. The loss hurt Olivia at the time, but she soon came to realize what an important win that was–McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Academy Award.

Olivia and Hattie McDaniel in a scene from "Gone With the Wind."

Olivia continued to make films for Warner Brothers, notably with Errol Flynn, until 1943, when her contract expired. She was prepared to leave, until Warner Brothers told her that she had to stay on for time spent on suspension. Olivia, unsatisfied with that response and feeling an instinct that something was wrong, began researching law books and came upon an obscure California law stating that an employer may not hold an employee for a period longer than 7 years. She brought this law into court, and after a long, drawn-out battle between her and the studio, Olivia won the case, as she learned while in the South Pacific visiting wounded soldiers. She describes the experience in this interview from the Academy of Achievement:

The win was a monumental victory not only for her, but for the entire entertainment industry. Citing the de Havilland Decision, no actor may be held for more than 7 years by an employer.

In the years after the de Havilland Decision, she began to garner meatier roles,and began to establish a reputation as a raw, emotional actress. She earned her first Academy Award for To Each His Own in 1946, having been nominated twice previously (her 2nd nomination had been in 1941 for Hold Back the Dawn, for which the award ironically went to her sister, Joan Fontaine, for Suspicion), and followed that with another nomination for The Snake Pit in 1948 and a second Academy Award for The Heiress in 1949. With her husband, Marcus Goodrich (whom she had married in 1946), she had a son, Benjamin, but the marriage didn’t last, due to Goodrich’s controlling behavior toward her and their son. Shortly after their divorce, Olivia made a voyage to Paris with Benjamin, and met a charming Frenchman by the name of Pierre Galante, who would become her second husband. The family settled in the city, and Paris has been Olivia’s home for the past 50 years.

Working relatively infrequently due to her move to Paris, Olivia focused on her family, caring for Benjamin and her daughter Gisèle, born in 1956. She made some notable films in the 1960’s, including Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Bette Davis and The Light in the Piazza with Rossano Brazzi, but her life had shifted to France, where she served as the president of the Cannes Film Festival jury and was a presenter at the César Awards, France’s version of the Academy Awards. It is in Paris that she continues to live, a vibrant and active 94-year-old who is the recent recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest accolade. She also received a standing ovation at this year’s César Awards when she was mentioned as being in the audience.

Olivia’s acknowledgment and standing ovation occur at 1:18. Sorry for those who don’t speak French, Jodie Foster’s speech is all in French. But the ovation is universal.

There is another, less happy aspect to Olivia’s life story–and that is her lifelong “feud” (though I hate that word) with her sister, Joan Fontaine. It is said that the two of them have argued since childhood, and the final blow came when Joan published her memoirs in 1978, saying not so nice things about Olivia. I don’t like to talk about the feud between them because it is SO talked about in articles about the sisters, but it is worth mentioning in a bio of her life. Both sisters refuse to comment on their relationship, which seems to be a series of miscommunications and missed opportunities between them. As I say when discussing them, it seems to be no one’s fault, simply a sad circumstance. However, it has no bearing on Olivia’s work, which is comprises a truly incredible group of films.

WHAT TO WATCH

  • The Snake Pit. This is my favorite Olivia performance. She plays a mentally ill patient in a mental hospital, and gives a number of absolutely chilling scenes as a woman who clearly does not know where she is or how she got there. A difficult role pulled off with tremendous skill. The full movie is available on youtube. Also available on Netflix and in the classic films sections of most movie stores.
  • The Heiress. Olivia’s most revered and respected performance. She plays Catherine Sloper, a naive heiress to her doctor father’s fortune, who is seduced by a man who may or not be courting her for her money. The character makes an absolutely chilling turnaround at the end, with one of the most intense final scenes in the history of film. Available on youtube and Netflix, but not usually available in movie stores.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood. The most important of Olivia’s 8 films with Errol Flynn, and the most famous of the Robin Hood movies. Olivia plays Maid Marion, in a role typical of her early Warner Brothers days, and the movie is a great thrill to watch. Available in most movie stores.
  • Dark Mirror. Olivia plays a dual role, as twins accused of a murder. Something truly notable about this film is that the characters of the twins, though played by the same person, have completely different personalities as created by Olivia. Something very, very difficult. Also, it marks one of the early uses of split screen technology. A relatively rare film, it is not yet available on DVD, but can be found on VHS on Amazon.com and eBay. As I am hard-pressed to even come up with a clip on youtube, I give you the radio version as performed by Olivia in 1950.

I must add, too, that my choice of Olivia as this week’s Star of the Week is not entirely random. She is my favorite living actress, and I have seen just about all of her films, minus one or two that I haven’t been able to find anywhere. I also happen to be living currently in Paris, studying abroad for my university. By chance, this coming week, Olivia is introducing a new film she has narrated by the name of “I Remember Better When I Paint,” at the American Library in Paris. My friends (other Olivia de Havilland fans coming from all over Europe to see this event) and I are attending, and we are so incredibly excited about it that we can hardly stop talking about it. Of course, after this event is over, I will be reporting back with a post dedicated to our experience.

Happy watching!!

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5 responses to “Star of the Week: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND

  1. What a wonderful tribute to my very favorite actress, Olivia de Havilland. Thank you for making her your star of the week. I enjoyed all of the videos from her most popular films, especially the clip with her most well-known leading man, Errol Flynn. However, my favorite clip is the one with Jodie Foster since it is recent and I’m so glad to see Ms. de Havilland in good health.
    All the best,
    Ruth G. Zavitsanos

  2. I was all prepared to comment and tell you that little tidbit about Olivia turning down a scholarship to Mills, but OF COURSE you knew that. 🙂

    In that case, I will add that not only is The Snake Pit available through Netflix, it has just recently become available on Watch Instantly, so that one doesn’t even have to wait around for the disc and may watch… well, instantly, in the comfort of one’s home.

    Fabulous profile, Lara! I just realized I haven’t yet linked your blog on my blog, so I shall do so now.

  3. Did I seriously not mention that Olivia almost went to Mills?? LET THE WORLD KNOW: Olivia de Havilland very nearly went to Mills College, where I attended for 3 years and consider my alma mater of sorts. Also, she is a Bay Area native. Reason #434095830495 why she is the best.

  4. You’re very welcome, Ruth! Olivia is my favorite actress too. As I said I was going to, I did indeed meet Miss de Havilland on March 22. She is beautiful, open, and warm–she met and exceeded my ever hope and expectation. She signed my copy of “Every Frenchman Has One,” and held my hand as she spoke to me, which is the mark of a truly affectionate and sweet person, I think. Her health is perfect, she walks unassisted, is sharp as a tack and only wears glasses to read. I have a feeling she’s going to be with us for a long time to come.
    Thank you for your comment, and I apologize for getting back to you so late!
    All the best,
    Lara

  5. When is the Kennedy Center honors going to honor Olivia? (She is in her 90s). They have honored much younger and less talented artists. Yes, I truly love “The Heiress” but also own many of her films. I like both the early comdies and the dramas. Notice how lovely Olivia aged in “Light in the Piazza” as she wears a swimsuit in one scene. Sadly, some day she will be known mostly for “Gone with the Wind” though it is not where she was a lead.

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