' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Olivia de Havilland

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

In Memoriam: Olivia de Havilland

Where does one begin with Olivia de Havilland? Do you begin by saying she was the last star of Old Hollywood, one so consequential and monumental that even the most jaded modern film critics who spent time in her presence came away in awe? Or do you begin by saying that she, Old Hollywood’s last star, was also directly responsible for bringing about the end of Old Hollywood’s Star System and ushering in a new era of freedom for her acting brethren? Or do you begin with the famous feud between her and her sister, Joan Fontaine, for reasons they both took to the grave, and how the final scoreboard now reads: Olivia – 104, Two Oscars Joan – 96, One Oscar? No, I want to begin with “Captain Blood” (1935) and “Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). I don’t remember watching either of these movies for the first time; I just remember that growing up in a house with a classic movie buff for a mom, these two movies always seemed to be playing in the background, on Betamax, as much the soundtrack of my youth as “Thriller.” They are essential parts of my moviegoing DNA, establishing a preference for fanciful and festive, not authentic and factual. De Havilland made these sheer entertainments with Errol Flynn, and though she was so much more than one-half of an onscreen couple, their chemistry was nevertheless unsurpassed by anyone in movie history, save for Bogey & Bacall. Of course, unlike Bogey & Bacall, who came across in sync the moment they locked eyes, Olivia & Errol were required by screenplay machinations to start at odds and then come around. Once they did, look out; it was manifestly the look of love. The conclusion of “Captain Blood” is such pure silver screen joy it will stretch your smile to burst. They do not make ’em like that anymore; they barely made ’em like this to begin with.

No one has seen it all, but de Havilland came as close as anybody. She died on Saturday, four months into the COVID Pandemic, 104 years after she was born in Tokyo the day the Battle of Somme began, July 1, 1916, two years before the Spanish Influenza. Soon after, she came to California with her mother and sister and was given the second understudy role of Hermia by Austrian director Max Reinhardt for his 1934 production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In a twist of fate that seems scripted but happened for real, the lead and the first understudy dropped out, ushering in Olivia’s liftoff. She excelled. And when Warner Bros. insisted Reinhardt use their contract players for his ensuing cinematic production of the same play, Reinhardt balked, bringing de Havilland onboard anyway. As such, she received her first notice in Variety, short but prescient: “Olivia de Havilland, as Hermia, is a fine artist here.”

Not long after, she signed a contract with Warner Bros. But because the contract locked her into an operation favoring expediency and economy born of tried and true production and story templates, she was featured in dreck and dishwater as often as the likes of “Captain Blood” and “Adventures of Robin Hood.” And though the latter were, truly, “the best of their kind” as de Havilland noted to the British Film Institute, per Farran Nehme’s essential de Havilland essay, “(t)he movies did not revolve around her character. She played these women with spirit,” Nehme notes, “but they were not complex, dynamic or conflicted.” To get those sorts of roles she had to be loaned out by Warner Bros., to David O. Selznick for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), where she pointedly wanted to play Melanie in an industry teeming with would-be Scarletts, as if more interested in humanizing the movie’s moral center, and to Paramount for “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941) where she skillfully evinces the transformation from shy schoolteacher to falling under love’s precarious spell, foreshadowing her mid-career turn to performances where she truly lived whole lives.

That turn would make some doing. When her contract with Warner Bros. was up, she realized it wasn’t up at all. Having grown chagrined with her lack of challenging roles, de Havilland frequently refused to show up for work, causing studio chief Jack Warner to suspend her without pay…and tack additional time onto her existing contract, prolonging her servitude. Rather than remain stuck, she took him to court, seeking to release herself from “bondage”, in the word of Bette Davis who had a similar if unsuccessful fight with Warners in the 30s. Olivia did win, of course, in a landmark ruling emblazoned into the culture as The de Havilland Law, a victory for labor everywhere and the first genuine, significant blow landed against the theretofore indestructible Studio System that would soon topple. Every Hollywood actor working with who they want, when they want, owes de Havilland a debt of gratitude.

Finally, after two years of not working as the lawsuit dragged on, she came roaring back, seeming to make up for lost time by playing two parts in “The Dark Mirror” (1946) as twin sisters, doing extensive research for “The Snake Pit” (1948) as an apparent schizophrenic and in her first Oscar-winning role, “To Each His Own” (1946), as if repudiating years of typecasting, demonstrating impressive range by playing a mother searching for her daughter across decades, evincing young, old and in-between. And then there was “The Heiress” (1949). My god, was anyone ever better than Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress”? Based on the Henry James novel “Washington Square”, she won her second Oscar for playing Catherine Sloper, the eponymous beneficiary who in being manipulated by both her suitor (Montgomery Clift) and her father (Ralph Richardson) lays bare the human condition. She begins the movie innocent and awkward, underlined in her timid posture, almost apologetic, like she’s sorry for taking up space, before de Havilland virtually hardens before our eyes, absorbing life’s cruelest blows and coming out on the other side.

Who knows what else she could have done? She was offered the role of Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) but said nah. Indeed, if she fought Hollywood on her own terms, she left it on her own terms too, moving to Paris with her second husband in the mid-50s. She never really stopped acting, but in her own way, for all intents and purposes, she retired from the Hollywood lifestyle. She stayed in Paris for the remainder of her life, six decades or so, reinforcing my unproven theory that the best means to longevity is decidedly not treating time like money.

Olivia de Havilland, as so many film lovers and scholars noted over the weekend, was the last living link to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the only remaining observer of what film critic David Thomson has deemed The Whole Equation. That’s what makes her loss not simply sad but profound. Like losing the final eyewitness to some crucial historical event, we are all now twice removed from the industry’s headwaters, with nothing left but the accounts and the legends, which she surely was.

No comments: