One hundred years ago today the Battle of the Somme commenced and future two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland was born in a hospital in Tokyo. Joan Fontaine, née Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, was born in the same place a little more than a year later, though she passed away three years ago in 2013, four years shy of the century mark, which might well have given big sister Liv a reason to celebrate. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, I don’t know and I don’t care. Their famous sisterly feud seems a drop in the bucket compared to what else Olivia de Havilland has accomplished in her impressive 100 years on this planet. Like, say, the groundbreaking California labor code that informally bears her name – The De Havilland Law. That came into being in the 1940s when, frustrated by the unchallenging roles assigned to her by the movie studio, Warner Bros., holding her contract, she put her otherwise successful acting career on hold in order to stand up to this stifling of creative rights, making her destiny her own by re-arranging the status quo to ensure no studio could own an actor forevermore.
The irony is that de Havilland’s work for Warner Bros. that prompted her drastic action holds a special place in my heart. In the house where I grew up, de Havilland was a fixture, and she was a fixture because Errol Flynn was paramount, because my mom dug Errol Flynn the way I dig Keira Knightley. And so, as a child of the 80s, with home video emergent, I reveled in numerous Flynn films numerous times, and on screen the overwhelmingly dashing Australian never went better with anyone else than he did with de Havilland. If Bogey & Bacall, the only other screen couple that holds as a fond a place in my heart, seemed to go together in each of their movies from moment one, the chemistry of Errol & Olivia was born more of gradual mutual respect. She surprised him, he surprised her. It wasn’t that opposites attracted, necessarily, it was that they were more similar in spirit than they first realized. And when their respective spirits truly connected.....holy cinematic incandescence.
Their twin triumphs were “Captain Blood” and “Adventures of Robin Hood.” Those two Michael Curtiz films hold the key to my movie upbringing as much as “Star Wars” (and “Star Wars” owes a debt to “Adventures of Robin Hood”). I adored their swashbuckling, yes, but also their innocent elation. Thirty years on and I’m still not sure cinema’s pure joy has ever been as immaculately encapsulated as it was in the visage of Olivia de Havilland’s omnipresent “Captain Blood” smile. There, Flynn, as wrongfully enslaved Dr. Peter Blood, understandably takes a little time to catch up to the having-a-ball part, but de Havilland emanates a good time from the get-go. It’s not a movie to be taken seriously; it’s a movie to sword fight along to in your living room when you’re a kid and to cheerfully laugh along to when you’re an adult.
But De Havilland did not completely care for these parts, given, as she would allude to in interviews over the years, how they were essentially about nothing beyond encouraging the hero - ahem, the male hero. Still, re-watching these movies years after reading up on her life, I could not help but see how her characters fought back against the system as much as de Havilland herself did, whether it was Marian, who might have been Maid but was no Damsel, more like a co-conspirator, fiercely turning up her nose at the corrupt new ruling class of England, or Arabella Bishop smilingly scheming to thwart her own pompous, nefarious uncle. Even in “Dodge City” (also with Flynn) her character was allowed to act as a kind of old west Veronica Guerin, using the town newspaper to expose the baddies. There was an underlying fire to these roles, which de Havilland herself had and played straight to.
Her Melanie Wilkes, the supporting part she brilliantly played in the most famous cinematic soap opera of all time, “Gone With the Wind”, had a little fire too, but mostly she had a pureness that felt analogous to her own. Unlike the majority of actresses at the time, de Havilland was not interested in the central role of Scarlett O’Hara, not that she would have been considered anyway. “She wasn’t the most beautiful. She was the nicest. That’s what she played,” wrote film critic Molly Haskell.
In subsequent roles, however, particularly post-De Havilland Law, she embodied traits of both Melanie and Scarlett, such as the “Hold Back the Dawn”, where she was marvelous, so benevolent and then undone by betrayal, before the script betrayed her at the end, turning the character back into something of Melanie. In her two Oscar-winning roles for “To Each His Own” and “The Heiress” she was allowed to interpret the great agonies and joys of human experience, which was her own phrase, and which she did so extraordinarily. Her work in “The Heiress” took me to a place that no other performance ever has, so much so that I wish to excuse myself in this moment from rationality for hyperbole instead: Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress” is the greatest screen performance I’ve ever seen. It’s it. The defense rests on its DVD and the life-changing evidence of how de Havilland invests every little moment with precisely the right choice as she builds all those choices into an arc of an innocence being shattered and a righteous revenge consumed. This was revenge against a gold-digging male, though it just as easily might have been read de Havilland’s revenge levied against all those male studio heads and co-stars who held her back. Either way, right on.
She kept working and her work was often good, but she moved to Paris and worked less, and less, becoming more interested in her overseas lifestyle, so much that she wrote a book about it. “I have the idea that anyone who has ever heard my name has the distinct impression that I was put under the sod years ago just before they buried Lillian Russell,” she wrote. “And so, when I wonder if you know that I live in France, I’m sure you don’t, because I am certain that you think me peacefully interred, and in good old native American soil. If that’s the case, you’re in for a surprise.” That they were, and to think, since that book’s publication she’s had another 54 years, full of adventures and National Medals, as well as being knighted in France, and occasionally agreeing to sit for interviews where even the snootiest of film critics, like my main man David Thomson, read as being deferential to Hollywood’s true grande dame.
De Havilland was born at the advent of the movies and not only witnessed but help usher in its change from the studio system to a more star-driven industry. I often wonder if she watches from afar and notes how the system in recent years has opted for franchises over burnishing future stars. It’s a strategy that has yielded all manner of articles bearing titles like The Death of the Movie Star, articles to which I always think, nope, not yet. If absolutely no one else, there is damn sure one Movie Star still left. Happy centennial, O.