The TCM Classic Film Festival is less than 3 months away, and per the annual ritual, fans have been speculating about the opening night film. Opening night is a fancy affair, complete with a red carpet for passholders and VIP guests, followed by a film and a gala party. Reserved for the highest level passholders, opening night is an opportunity for festival guests to mingle with the Hollywood elite.
Historically, the film is an anniversary restoration. Because of the emphasis on VIP festival guests, it is also a film which has stars still living. Due to the ever-dwindling pool of representatives from classic Hollywood, it was probable that the opening night film would be from the past 50 years, and guesses ranged from The Godfather to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?.
Speculation about the opening night film was put to rest last week, when the festival announced that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) would open the festival. In attendance will be director Steven Spielberg alongside producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
To this day, E.T. is one of the few movies that consistently make me cry. At the end, when E.T. touches Elliot’s head and says “I’ll be right here,” my eyes fill with tears. As a story, it is interesting to note that it essentially has the same plot as The Wizard of Oz and closely follows Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure of the hero’s journey. It rarely gets the credit it deserves for its adventurous yet familiar, fairy tale-like storyline.
E.T. is a slight diversion from the normal TCMFF opening night films. In the past, the anniversary restoration has traditionally been a musical from the golden age of Hollywood. This trend was broken in 2019 with When Harry Met Sally, the last time the TCMFF was held in person. The choice of E.T. immediately following When Harry Met Sally speaks to a shifting festival atmosphere, one that is sure to ruffle some feathers. Debate rages in the classic film community over what constitutes a classic, but TCM has historically taken a flexible approach to the question, playing films on the channel up through the 2010s. Most amateur analyses show that the festival still focuses on the golden age of Hollywood, but there is a great deal of fear for its future as TCM has been engulfed in corporate acquisitions of Turner.
As far as the guests go, notably absent (at least as of this writing) is the phenomenal Drew Barrymore. At 7 years old, her gifts are far beyond her years and she gives one of the most heartfelt performances in the film. Festival passholders would, of course, be thrilled to see her not only as an actor from E.T., but also as the granddaughter of John Barrymore.
The opening night film is reserved for Spotlight and Essential passholders, which the festival website tells me are currently sold out. However, plans change, and there is a very dynamic waitlist. If you’d like to be added, you can find more information here: https://festival.tcm.com/tcm/.
Passes for the TCM Classic Film Festival go on sale to the general public today, and I have been happy to see that so many of my friends will be returning to Hollywood this year. After two of virtual festivals, the excitement of seeing our festival friends in April is palpable.
Since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has been the crown jewel of classic film festivals––a five-day, multi-venue event where the community is as important as the movies. Affectionately known as the “TCMFF” by attendees, its audience is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. Once, before a showing of Double Wedding, presenter Illiana Douglas asked a trivia question: “Does anybody know how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together?” The answer, immediate and enthusiastic, rang through the theater. “FOURTEEN!” shouted the entire audience together. It is a place for people with this level of enthusiasm to connect with each other and the movies they love.
Putting on a festival of this magnitude is a staggeringly expensive effort. Theater rentals, appearance and licensing fees, security, and transportation all contribute to a huge financial expenditure on the part of TCM. That cost is passed on to attendees in the price of festival passes, which has long been a sticking point for devoted fans who want to come, but have to choose between paying for a pass and paying the rent. Many fans who attend save all year for the experience, and this year prices have increased upward of 18%. The prohibitive price of the festival has been a touchy subject, and it is something I have definite opinions about, but I would like to put that discussion aside for the moment and focus on the passes that many fans are purchasing today.
In the interest of helping people get the most out of the festival as they consider a pass (or attending without a pass, an option I will address later), I thought I would do a rundown of pass levels and what they get you. Some people believe that Spotlight is the only way to get the “full” festival experience, and thus decide not to go if they can’t spend that much money. This is not the case. You can have a wonderful and fulfilling experience without the top level pass, and you should not let the price of the Spotlight pass deter you from the festival.
These are observations that I have gleaned from my eight years attending the TCMFF, and if anyone reading has advice to add, please feel free to comment below!
I will start from the lowest pass level and work my way up.
THE PALACE PASS
The Palace Pass, going for $349, is a great budget option for people looking to experience Los Angeles while in town for the festival. It gives you access to festival venues starting Friday, April 22, but it doesn’t give you access to any of the parties, the Chinese Multiplex or Club TCM (which hosts panel discussions and interviews). For people who have come into town specifically for the festival, restricted access might be a dealbreaker, but for casual festivalgoers who would like to go on day trips to explore the city while in town, and avoid being in a dark theater all day, this might be just the pass for you.
I have met many Palace Pass holders in line, and a few of them hadn’t read about the pass before they purchased it––but of those that had, and had made the informed decision to experience the festival this way, they are almost universally very satisfied with it.
THE CLASSIC PASS
The Classic Pass, going for $849 this year, gives you access to all festival venues, Thursday through Sunday. The only thing it doesn’t give you is access to the Opening Night Movie and Opening Night Party––everything else you can access. The difficult thing about the timing of pass sales is that the opening night movie has not been announced yet. This leaves fans gambling on whether or not the opening night movie will be worth the extra cost of a higher level pass. But there are other movies on opening night as well––and with a Classic Pass, you are guaranteed a movie to see on Thursday night.
Personally, I am a huge fan of the Classic Pass and recommend it to anyone looking for my suggestion. To my mind, it’s the best deal of the festival––and even though it’s still expensive by any standard, you get the core of the festival––all the movies except opening night, and everything at Club TCM.
THE ESSENTIAL PASS
Going for $1,099 this year, this is the perfect pass for those who were thinking of going the Classic route, but know they want to see the opening night movie. To justify the extra expense, there are a few ways to figure out what the opening night movie might be––it is usually an anniversary restoration of a classic musical, so that leaves the likely years of 1942, 1952, 1962, 1972, or 1982 (TCM usually doesn’t go beyond the 1980s for opening night movies). If there’s a movie from any of those years that you know will be getting a restoration, and you desperately want to see it, the Essential Pass might be worth your gamble for that alone. The Essential Pass also gets you a gift bag of TCM collectibles, which in past years has included mugs, journals, and collectible programs.
For festivalgoers trying to decide between the Essential and Spotlight Pass, keep in mind that the Essential Pass doesn’t give you priority entry the way the Spotlight Pass does. You’ll be waiting in the general line alongside the Classic and Palace Pass-level attendees. If priority entry and seating is important to you, you might want to consider going up to the top level.
THE SPOTLIGHT PASS
The highest level pass is the Spotlight Pass, which for $2,549 gives you access to everything the festival has to offer. You will attend the opening night movie and go to the party afterward, also attended by VIPs and TCM hosts. People holding the Spotlight Pass get priority entry into all screenings, and opportunities to socialize with the festival’s special guests. In prior years, Spotlight holders also got breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, though I’m not sure if that will be happening again this year.
The Spotlight Pass is a good choice for people who want to experience the TCMFF in “first class.” Some Spotlight passholders I’ve talked to see the festival as a kind of vacation––the same way people might look at a luxury all-inclusive package. But I know many diehard fans who buy a Spotlight Pass every year, and see it as a unique opportunity to meet their favorite stars and talk to TCM hosts. The Spotlight Pass is really what you make it.
There is also an option that doesn’t require a pass, the STANDBY alternative. Let’s take the photo above as an example: if you know that you want to see My Darling Clementine on Friday at 9:30, you would go early and get in a standby line. Passholders go to a separate section––Spotlight and VIPs in one line, Classic, Essential, and members of the press in another––and they are let in first. If the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, the theater opens to standby attendees, and you purchase your individual ticket for $20.
I know a few people who are doing standby this year, due to the significant increase in pass prices. It is rare that a screening completely fills up, but for very popular films and those in small theaters, you might face a bit of a letdown. But truthfully, sometimes Classic and Essential passholders face the same letdown when demand exceeds expectation, and in that case, the film in question is often shown again. Just like a regular passholder, you can try again when the film is re-screened.
Since 2013, I have attended as a member of the media, which essentially provides the same benefits as a Classic Pass. I did purchase an actual Classic Pass in 2012 when Backlots was in its infancy, and I was very pleased with it. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything––I had little interest in the parties and had other movies on opening night that I wanted to see. But my preferences are not everyone’s, so I hope this guide has been helpful as you consider a pass, or going without one, today.
In the spirit of carpe diem, I have just returned from a trip to Paris to attend the three-day opening of the Olivia de Havilland Theater. It was a trip that I hoped would happen since I learned about the event earlier this year, and by the time it came around, the circumstances were such––COVID-wise and otherwise––that I could go. It was a wonderful event, and I would like to share my experiences with you. This is a version of a blog post that will also appear on a Parisian site in the near future, and when it is posted, I will link it here.
The Olivia de Havilland Theater is the centerpiece of the Monttessuy Center for the Arts at 9 Rue de Monttessuy, the new artistic home for the American University of Paris (AUP). Located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the university’s main campus, the center will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay.
In the late 1970s, the building that now houses the Monttessuy Center for the Arts was the art history building, so designated due to its high ceilings that could accommodate the slide projectors of the day. Art history classes later moved to Rue Bosquet, where they stayed for twenty years, but when AUP sold that building, the art department was left without a home. Classes and offices were scattered around campus, and there was no central location for art students to meet. But in 2014, a series of renovations grouped those classrooms and offices together again, and interest in the arts surged at AUP. Over the past five years, the arts department has grown 270%. This led the university to renovate 9 Rue de Monttessuy and recreate it as the hub of AUP artistic life.
The plans included the Olivia de Havilland Theater, the first at the university, with the idea that it would host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes. Olivia had always loved school, was a high-achieving student, and thrived in academic environments. But as a teenager, she went through a period of intense struggle. At the age of 16, her stepfather, having learned that she was in a play without his permission, gave her an ultimatum––give up the play, or leave the house forever. Olivia left the house.
This was the beginning of a very dark period for her, and her grades began to slip until she was failing classes. It was her teachers, she remembered, who brought her out of a severe depression and give her life meaning again. With the help of those teachers, she bounced back to the top of her class, graduating second at Los Gatos High School. From then on, she felt a duty to give back to the education system that helped save her. She never forgot her teachers, sending them Christmas cards every year until they had all passed away.
She moved to Paris in 1953 and her son, Benjamin, eventually enrolled at AUP. Olivia saw a way to actively repay the debt she felt she owed, to help students the way her teachers had helped her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s, she became the first female trustee at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
It was a historic time for Paris, for students, and for the world. Olivia watched the unfolding student unrest from her position as trustee, violence that culminated in the 1968 student revolts in Paris and those at Kent State in 1970. Viewing her position as one of student liaison to the university, she listened directly to student concerns and put students at the forefront of her work on the board. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was happening in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she gave them an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She welcomed countless AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, and remained the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.
Olivia de Havilland died in July 2020 at the age of 104. To celebrate the extraordinary place she held at the university, AUP began plans for a theater in her honor. It has now reached completion and is ready to welcome students.
Three days of festivities led to the formal dedication of the theater and the ribbon cutting for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts. On October 20, donors, friends, and university trustees attended a screening of To Each His Own, the film that brought Olivia her first Oscar win. Professor Marie Regan introduced the film, calling attention to Olivia’s extraordinary use of her voice to communicate changes in character. The following night, Olivia’s son-in-law Andy Chulack introduced The Heiress, Olivia’s second Oscar-winning role. Chulack, an award-winning television editor, spoke of how well the film was edited and his favorite scene, when Olivia’s character reacts with fury to her father––perhaps reflecting Olivia’s own feelings, Chulack said, when her stepfather abandoned her as a teenager.
At noon on October 22, Ambassador Amy Bondurant moderated a panel with some of Olivia de Havilland’s closest friends and family members, who reflected on their fond and often hilariously funny memories with her. Audience members and panelists opened miniature bottles of champagne together, honoring Olivia’s famous love of champagne. It ended with an enthusiastic imitation of her distinctive laugh, led by Olivia de Havilland’s niece Deborah Dozier Potter.
The formal ribbon cutting occurred that evening. The audience heard remarks from professor Jonathan Shimony, Mayor Rachida Dati, Consul General Colombia Barrosse, university president Celeste Schenck and chair of the board of trustees Doris Daughney, who spoke on the importance of the work AUP is doing for its students and the world, and how this new artistic center will further the development of students’ humanity, the core of AUP’s mission. To most, Olivia de Havilland is known as a film star. Few are aware of her devotion to education, and to AUP in particular. As the Monttessuy Center for the Arts opens, with her theater at the center, Olivia de Havilland’s name will be synonymous with educational excellence, her debt to her teachers repaid with each student who walks through its doors.
Classic film fans on social media were abuzz this morning as news emerged that the TCM Classic Film Festival will return in person in 2022.
After two years of virtual programming, this announcement was met with palpable joy among long-time festival attendees. Since this morning, I have seen friends making plans about where they’ll meet for meals, and some have already booked their rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the headquarters of the “TCMFF.”
It will not be a complete return to normal, as COVID-19 protocols will be in place to protect festivalgoers. According to the website, this means that among other precautions, the festival will require “mandatory masking, social distancing, capacity limits, negative test results verification, and/or proof of vaccination.” There will be more detailed updates to come, and the festival will be following Los Angeles County guidelines and best practices.
There are still a lot of updates to come, and I will do my best to bring them to you as I learn them. Backlots has attended the festival since 2013, and I am so happy that this year, we finally have a return to the glorious in-person experience of the TCMFF. There is nothing else like it in the world.
When I first saw The Devil and Miss Jones several years ago, I found myself wondering how I could have missed such a funny, smart, compelling film for so long. Though seeming to have all the hallmarks of an instant classic, The Devil and Miss Jones is one of those films that too often, undeservedly, fly under the radar and land in obscurity. A few weeks ago, I heard that the spring Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon would be celebrating “Hidden Classics,” and I knew immediately which film I would write about.
Not only does The Devil and Miss Jones deserve to be more widely seen, but should be seen by all corporate executives and supervisors. In it, they will find insight into the plight of their workers, and the reasons why they unionize. It is explicitly pro-worker and pro-union, made in an era of seismic shifts for workers’ rights.
In the film, written brilliantly by Norman Krasna and directed by Sam Wood, J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) discovers that employees at his department store have been burning him in effigy and “agitating” to organize a union. As his workers have never seen him, he decides to go undercover and root out the organizers himself. He gets hired as a worker in the “hotbed of discontent” within the company––the shoe department. In a biting commentary, his intelligence test places him one point above the minimum passing score, invoking the disdain of his supervisor.
In the shoe department, in an effort to keep his enemies close, he befriends several outspoken organizers including Mary (Jean Arthur) and her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings). He becomes especially close to a woman named Elizabeth, close to his own age, and begins a romance with her. He takes notes on how to strategically stop the organizing in its tracks, but before long he finds himself sympathizing with the workers and their rights. After the organizing drive fails to get enough support, the list with the names of the 400 people who supported the effort ends up in Merrick’s pocket. But instead of siding with the management who wants to fire the 400 organizers, Merrick helps destroy the list of organizers, saving their jobs and siding with the employees in the struggle for better treatment. He puts the blame on the director for the unrest. “I’ve worked with these people. They have rights!”
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been in office 8 years by the time The Devil and Miss Jones was released. His presidency was seen by the American labor movement as a tremendous success, with the Wagner Act passed in 1935, giving unions collective bargaining rights and workers protection for concerted activity. Roosevelt believed that better treatment for workers was the key to a healthy labor economy, and robust unions were in the nation’s interest. However, the Wagner Act did not pass Congress easily, and in The Devil and Miss Jones, we can see just how new and contentious these rights were in 1941. Under the Wagner Act, no employee can be fired for engaging in organization of a union, but at the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, we see an employer trying to do just that.
The movie coats the seriousness of its message with a healthy dose of self-awareness and lots of comedy. The introduction of the film reads:
“Dear Richest Men in the World:
We made up this character in the story, out of our own heads. It’s nobody, really.
The whole thing is make-believe.
We’d feel awful if anyone was offended.
The Author, Director, and Producer.
P.S. Nobody sue.
Using a name like J.P. Merrick, I suppose this was warranted.
The Devil and Miss Jones has a DVD release through Olive Films, and you can also watch it on Amazon Prime (though the irony is not lost on me, given Amazon’s recent history). It is a highly entertaining, well-crafted movie that takes a stand for what’s right.
If you are a longtime reader of Backlots, you have read of my connection to Olivia de Havilland. From the evening I spent with her at the American Library in Paris, to Backlots’ coverage of her court case against FX, Olivia de Havilland has been close to my heart for many years. Her career and her impact on the film industry have been well covered here and elsewhere. But not as well documented is the effect she had on the American University of Paris, during the era of the Vietnam War and beyond.
Olivia had a strong moral backbone and an instinct to fight for change. As an actress, she made waves in the industry as an advocate for labor rights. Faced with the possibility of an interminable contract at Warner Bros. due to the practice of adding suspension time to the end of seven-year agreements, Olivia successfully sued the studio and established the De Havilland Law, holding the industry to contracts of no longer than seven calendar years. The De Havilland Law has been used to assert labor rights in the entertainment industry for writers, actors, and musical performers, and is considered among the most important factors in the eventual fall of the studio system.
In 1953, Olivia moved to Paris with her son, Benjamin. When it came time for Benjamin to attend college, he chose the American University of Paris (known familiarly as AUP), a relatively recent Paris institution founded in 1962. Olivia had never gone to college, despite a deep desire to do so. A straight-A student at Los Gatos High School, Olivia had received a full scholarship to Mills College, hoping to become a teacher. Teachers saved her life during a very dark period in high school, she recalled, and she wanted to give back. But her career skyrocketed faster than she expected, and she was never able to go to Mills. Upon Benjamin’s enrollment at AUP, Olivia realized that she now had an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do, use her influence to speak up for students the way her teachers had done for her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s she was elected trustee, the first female trustee ever at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
Olivia served the university during an unprecedented, tumultuous time for students in Paris and all over the world. The student protests in 1968 brought brutal police attacks against students occupying Paris universities in protest of Vietnam War policy and strict student codes of conduct. In response, students took to the streets, tearing up cobblestones and hurling them at the police. Workers at several French companies participated in sympathy strikes in solidarity. Students and their allies built barricades in the Latin Quarter and overturned cars, demanding change in university policy and France’s social structure. The situation got to the point where President de Gaulle secretly fled to Germany, fearing civil war or a revolution. The protests are credited with bringing a wave of social revolution in France, and for normalizing women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights in French society.
Two years later, in May 1970, protests at Kent State University turned bloody. Kent State had been a center of anti-Vietnam protests, and at the time of the shootings, the students had been protesting Nixon’s Cambodia Campaign when the Ohio National Guard was called in. Following a standoff on May 4, after deploying tear gas and threatening the students with bayonets, the National Guard fired their weapons through the crowd, killing four students.
Olivia watched these events closely, and listened directly to student concerns. She viewed her position as one of student liaison to the university, and put students at the forefront of everything she did. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was going on in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she provided them with an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
That devotion and genuine care for the students of AUP continued for the rest of her life. She frequently used her name and position to help raise money for student causes, and her personal assistants were hired from the AUP student body. In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She was well known for welcoming AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, remaining the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.
After her death in July 2020, AUP began plans for a new auditorium in Olivia’s name, to honor the extraordinary place she held at the university. The Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the first ever at the university. As AUP envisions it, the Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the centerpiece for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts which will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay. The auditorium will host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes, to an arts department that has grown 270% in the past 5 years. In October 2021, there will be a weekend devoted to Olivia’s memory at AUP, which will culminate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new auditorium. It will cement Olivia’s legacy at AUP, for the students she loved and cared for so deeply.
If you would like to learn more about the new arts center, honoring Olivia and the students of AUP, here is the website for the Monttessuy Center for the Arts. You can also click here if you would like to donate directly to the effort. There is an option to specifically support the auditorium, or give to general programs that will serve AUP liberal arts students. Toward the bottom of the page, you will see “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know,” and you can select whichever menu option you choose.
Thank you for reading and may the legacy of Olivia de Havilland live on in the students of AUP and universities throughout the world.
Contrary to what activity on Backlots might tell you, I am, indeed, alive.
Since September, I have been deep in the zone of Marion Davies work, and have a website for the project, which can be found here. I remain extremely busy, but wanted to update you on the progress of my work, and what to expect in the next few months.
The first draft of the manuscript is complete, and for the past few months I have been working on getting it ready to send to the publisher. It will be peer-reviewed later this year, after which more changes will be made, and in late September, we’ll have a final draft. It will be published in the fall of 2022, but pre-orders will be available long before then, so stay tuned on that front. I will be sure to let you know when that happens.
In the meantime, I will try to update here as much as I can. I hope all my readers are staying safe and healthy––remember to wear your masks and take care of each other. See you back here soon.
In November of 2013, I took a trip to the Margaret Herrick Library for the first time, in search of material on Marion Davies for a prospective book. The form the book would take, if any at all, was unknown. But I was determined to start the process, and despite the fact none of the names encountered that day were familiar, I left the library with an appointment to return.
I kept that appointment, and the next, and the next. I discovered a woman who led a fascinating and compelling life, on her own terms, closely intertwined with the history of the 20th century. Today, after nearly 8 years of in-depth research that has taken me all over the world, I can announce that Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies will be out in 2022, from University of California Press. Marion Davies had very close connections with the UC system, and for that and many other reasons, UC Press was always at the top of my list to tell this remarkable story.
It has been an exhilarating ride since that first trip to the Margaret Herrick Library, and I cannot wait to see what’s next. I will keep Backlots readers posted as the publication date nears.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me in anticipation of this moment. It means so much to have so many people behind me and this book.
Olivia de Havilland died peacefully in Paris on Saturday.
She went the way we all strive to go–in her sleep, having recently celebrated her 104th birthday. Her daughter Gisèle had just been over for a visit. She was loved and adored not only by a wide circle of friends and family, but by fans all over the world. She knew it, and she felt it always. In short, she left this world a happy, fulfilled woman surrounded by love. The fact that this is how it happened for her fills my heart.
With that said, yesterday was a very strange day for me. Olivia de Havilland has been a bedrock of my life for many years. From Backlots’ earliest days, Olivia de Havilland’s life and career has been a source of fascination, inspiration, and admiration. She lived a life filled to the brim with experiences most of us can only dream of, and I viscerally feel her loss–as though there is something missing in the world now.
Her accolades are well-documented. Five Oscar nominations and two wins, the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, and a woman of strength and backbone unafraid to stand up for what was right. She was a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, and received damehood in 2017. She earned vast respect, gratitude, and admiration from legions of fans and members of the entertainment industry. “We all owe Olivia a great deal,” said her sister, Joan Fontaine, in an interview in the 1970s. Indeed, Olivia changed the industry forever with her landmark suit against Warner Bros., singlehandedly striking down a longstanding contractual practice that amounted to involuntary servitude.
Her triumphs are in spite of, or perhaps because of, a life that was not always smooth sailing. From the very beginning, there were bumps in the road that she had to navigate, and challenges that seemed insurmountable. The pressures of early fame and her problems with Warner Bros. affected her psychologically–she developed anorexia and struggled with food for many long years afterward. Her first marriage, to writer Marcus Goodrich, was unhappy and violent. She lost her son, Benjamin, to the effects of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma treatment in 1991.
In many cases, the clarity and levelheadedness with which Olivia met these challenges paved her path to better days. Her landmark suit against Warner Bros. took on the practice of adding suspension time onto a 7-year contract, hinging on a then-obscure California law interpreted to mean that an employer could not hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years. She won, and the case is now a hallmark of entertainment law. It has been cited in such varied industries as sports, music, and writing, and by personalities such as Jared Leto and Johnny Carson.
Following her divorce from Marcus Goodrich, in which she was granted sole custody of Benjamin, Olivia took him to live with her in France, turning over a new leaf far from the stresses that she faced in Hollywood. She bought a house at 3 Rue Bénouville in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, which remained her home until her death. She married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, with whom she had her daughter Gisèle. Though they amicably separated in the 1960s, Olivia and Pierre remained great friends. While Gisèle was growing up, they remained in the same home to provide Gisèle stability, and Olivia cared for him on his deathbed in 1998.
Her move to France allowed Olivia to explore her other interests (which were many), free from the scrutiny of gossip columnists and other Hollywood onlookers. She was able to work when she wanted to, and stay home when she wanted to. This contributed to her happiness, sense of normalcy, and, I believe, her longevity. When Benjamin died, Olivia turned in her grief to the American Cathedral in Paris, a “radically inclusive” Anglican community not far from her home. The Cathedral became a mainstay in Olivia’s life as she came to terms with the death of her child, and she became an active part of the community, often taking on “lay-reading” responsibilities at holidays.
She spent her last years in remarkably good health for a centenarian, and celebrated her 101st birthday by filing a lawsuit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal in the docudrama Feud. The case, about which I wrote extensively, was based on fictitious elements that were written into Olivia’s character that were misleading to the public. The suit went through the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately declined.
I was fascinated by the trial, and as longtime readers know, Backlots covered it meticulously. This site frequently broke news on the case, and I was present in the courtroom as the case was argued on appeal. Last summer I went to Oxford with the legal team (and Olivia’s family) to attend their lecture on the intricacies of the case.
While the Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case was disappointing, Olivia had made her point–that truth and respect should always prevail where real people are involved.
In a short interview in 2011, Olivia was asked about the most important things in life. Her response was indicative of the way she lived–the two most important things, she said, were love and laughter. “It is ‘to love,'” she clarified. “One must love.” Her smile lit up her eyes and her laugh was lilting and loud, reminiscent of her mother’s. Her sense of humor was extraordinary–intelligent, quick, and often quite bawdy.
I impart this information firsthand. I met Olivia in March of 2011 at a screening of I Remember Better When I Paint at the American Library in Paris, and she was everything I had heard she was. Dignified, classy, and articulate, a woman who loved people and valued their company. I heard that lilting laugh, as she realized with delight that my friend Sara and I both had a copy of her long out-of-print memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. As we spoke, she held my hand in hers, which felt so natural and gentle that I felt my palm melt into hers in reciprocation. It was a lovely moment that I cherish.
Olivia was not a big woman physically, but she dominated a room with her presence. Her voice, different in person than on the screen, was unlike any other that I have ever heard. When she stepped up to the podium to introduce I Remember Better When I Paint, I remember the precise moment when she began to speak. I audibly gasped at the beauty and uniqueness of that voice, which I frequently describe as “like melted chocolate.” It was perfect for the stage–deep and rich, carrying easily to the back of the room. To this day, it echoes in my ears every time I think of that evening.
I toasted Olivia last night with a glass of champagne and a screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). The role of Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s production was very close to Olivia’s heart, that role having launched her career both onstage and in film. It seemed to me a fitting bookend to watch it yesterday, as I remembered all the joy and gladness she has brought to my life, and the lives of all who loved her. I bid Olivia goodbye with one of Hermia’s lines, in Act II, scene ii of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“Good night, sweet friend: Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!”
When HBO Max announced that it would temporarily remove Gone With the Wind from its platform, in order to place a statement in front of it putting the film’s content into the proper context, it set off a firestorm of controversy online and in the media. Some decry the decision as censorship. Others believe that the movie speaks for itself and doesn’t need context. Still others lauded the decision, asserting that any and all attempts to educate viewers should be encouraged. Today, The Washington Post reported that the film would be back on the platform this week, with an African-American Studies scholar speaking at the front of it.
Controversy is not new to Gone With the Wind–it came under scrutiny for its depictions of slavery and race even before the film was released. Black-led organizations warned producer David O. Selznick, as early as pre-production, that he should tread carefully with his adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. It included offensive language and stereotypical depictions that would not be tolerated by the Black moviegoing public. Indeed, Selznick listened to the warnings about language (due in part to fears of protest that would certainly carry over from a planned re-release of Birth of a Nation the same year), but was walking a thin tightrope between the need for honest depictions of Black people and the financial need for the film to play in the merciless Jim Crow South. When the film was finally released, it received a storm of controversy from the Black press. Many Black critics praised Hattie McDaniel’s layered and nuanced performance as Mammy, and (somewhat surprisingly by today’s standards) praised the film’s restraint. The Crisis, the quarterly journal of the NAACP, wrote that Gone With the Wind “eliminated practically all the offensive scenes and dialogue” from the original book.
But Carlton Moss, writing for The Daily Worker, disagreed. The film was “sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story,” he stated, and he condemned Mammy’s devotion to the O’Haras, who “helped to keep her people enchained for centuries.” Black activists picketed and actively protested the film across the United States, with shouts of “Negroes were never docile slaves!” and “Gone With the Wind glorifies slavery!” Picketers carried signs outside theaters that were designed to elicit intense responses from the public.
A protest of Gone With the Wind in Washington, D.C.
As the film has aged, and became the cultural phenomenon that it is, the scrutiny and controversy continues. Theaters have cancelled showings of the film after public outcries of protest, followed by accusations of censorship for the cancellations. This latest controversy due to the move by HBO Max is only a continuation of the trend, not something new.
In this era where entertainment is literally at our fingertips, and access to Gone With the Wind is as easy as a push of a few buttons, I feel that it is dangerous and irresponsible to allow such an inherently controversial film to be viewed in such a way, without proper context. The tradeoff for such rapid-fire consumption of information is that for many people, there is no time for critical thinking, or analysis of the what, why, and how of the material they consume. In the interest of public safety in this era, I fully support HBO Max’s decision to pull Gone With the Wind until proper context can be provided.
I also urge them to add content not just by a scholar of African-American Studies, but a scholar of the African-American experience on film. A few years ago at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I attended a wonderful panel on Gone With the Wind led by Dr. Donald Bogle. Bogle is the pre-eminent historian on Black Hollywood and an instructor at New York University and UPenn. He is an impressive speaker and personally knew many of the biggest figures of African-American classic Hollywood, and his perspective would lend a personal dimension to the film. Also on the Gone With the Wind panel was Dr. Jacqueline Stewart, instructor at University of Chicago and current host of Silent Sunday Nights on TCM. Her knowledge of classic Hollywood in general, as well as her expertise on the African-American experience on film, would also be an excellent addition to HBO Max’s reinstatement of Gone With the Wind.
Donald Bogle and Jacqueline Stewart
I want to close on a positive note regarding Gone With the Wind. Yesterday was the birthday of Hattie McDaniel, “Mammy” in the film, who was an actor, a poet, a songwriter, an intellectual, and activist. She was one of the most prolific supporting players in Hollywood, though her roles rarely deviated from that of a maid. When she was selected for an Academy Award nomination, the Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho endorsed her and wrote to David O. Selznick: “We trust that discrimination and prejudice will be wiped away in the selection of the winner of this award, for without Miss McDaniel there would be no Gone With the Wind.” McDaniel won, and became the first African-American to receive an Academy Award.
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
Enjoy the site, and thanks for reading!
AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."