Olivia de Havilland–The Golden Era’s Last Star
It’s very sad to say goodbye to Olivia de Havilland, who passed away yesterday at the age of 104. It’s a melancholy goodbye not only because she was a great lady of talent and grace, but because she was the last remaining star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. By that, I mean the era before World War II. It’s subjective, of course, if you choose this as the greatest era of filmdom, but the term is generally accepted to mean the years when seven major film studios produced hundreds of movies every year for a ravenous, loving film public that devoured all sorts of genres. The output was unsurpassed, and production values often outlandish.
At the center of this unabashed era of entertainment were several top actresses, which included Olivia de Havilland. She possessed a superb speaking voice and a lovely face that exuded warmth, deep concern, and romantic depth—in short, all
the qualities perfect for leading ingénues of the 1930s. Her coloring also had a beautiful “blush” that was perfect for Technicolor. Indeed, she was the leading lady for several early Technicolor spectacles for Warner Bros.: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), Dodge City (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
In 1939, she connived and convinced Jack Warner to loan her to the independent film company of Selznick International Pictures to play the part of Melanie Wilkes in the biggest film production of the year, Gone with the Wind. However, it must be remembered, Dame de Havilland had
a very formidable film career beyond her lovely performance as Melanie. In fact, her best performances are in The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949). By 1950, she had won two Academy Awards (for The Heiress and To Each His Own) and was the reigning queen of the dramatic cinema.
Her road from sweet ingénue to fine dramatic actress was long, frustrating, and professionally dangerous. And the reason for her respect from her peers in the Hollywood community includes three great achievements that had nothing to do with her film
The first and most famous was her courageous stand against Jack Warner and the studio contract system. In the ‘20s, ’30s, and ’40s, it was common practice for studios to sign stars to a seven-year contract. The studios would then assign roles to the actors. Supposedly actors had some choice of roles but in truth, very little. This worked very well for the stars for whom the Havilland be bound to his studio. Warner underestimated de Havilland’s determination to advance her art with better roles of more depth. She sued Warner Bros.—an action that made all other stars in Hollywood tremble in fear. The case dragged on for a year and a half but she finally
This was Olivia de Havilland’s favorite dress from Gone with
the Wind—but you never get a good look at it in the film
won out over Jack Warner when the California Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in her favor in 1945. What became known as The De Havilland Law established that a studio could not arbitrarily extend an actor’s contract.
It was a courageous move that made life easier for other stars as well, but in doing so she put her own career on hold for a good amount of time—a time when she would otherwise have been at her peak artistically.
But after she won the case, her career did resume and she did her most outstanding work in Hollywood. She appeared in several excellent films in rapid succession, all released in 1946. In The Dark Mirror, she played twins, one good and one evil. In Devotion, she played Charlotte Bronte, and in her first Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own, she was an unwed
De Havilland in The Snake Pit
mother who gave up her infant son. Not only was her career back on the rise, but she had garnered the respect and gratitude of the entire film industry.
As her brilliant career continued, she did two other history-changing things. In 1951, because she had recently won her two Academy Awards, Warner Bros. offered her the type of role she had only several years before fought so hard for. She was to play Blanche DuBois in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. After a read-through of the screenplay with the original Broadway cast (Brando included) and for the original director
Elia Kazan, she turned to Kazan and reportedly said, “I can do this part and I can do it very well, but I’ll never be able to do it as well as Vivien. I saw her do this role on stage in London. You should call her right now and asked her to do this film.” Vivien Leigh did star in the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire and not only won her second Oscar but became as indelibly associated with Blanche DuBois as she had been with Scarlett O’Hara.
By doing this, Olivia de Havilland demonstrated one of the greatest things an actor can be—sure of what they can and can not do, but also able to put their own ego aside so that true art can be created.
The third wonderful thing Olivia de Havilland achieved involves another great actress: Grace Kelly. By 1955, Olivia was out of the Hollywood rat race and only occasionally making pictures while she lived full-time in Paris.
When Grace Kelly was taking a European tour, she stopped by to give her regards to Olivia. (Their film careers must have given them a lot in common.) Grace mentioned to Olivia that she was having a lot of trouble meeting Eligible Bachelors in Hollywood—someone she could marry and raise a family with. Olivia suggested that she and Grace take a little trip down to Monaco where she knew someone Grace might like to meet. Of course, the man was Prince Rainier, who Grace married, raised a family with, and stayed with for the rest of her life. So, it appears Miss de Havilland was as supreme a matchmaker as she was an actress, legal eagle, and casting director.
But when thinking of her achievements, we must not forget her vast and varied film career. Some of her other great performances that I personally love include The Strawberry Blonde (1941), In This Our Life (1942), My Cousin Rachel
Grace Kelly and Olivia de Havilland
(1952), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Light in the Piazza (1962), and last but definitely not least, all the epic romantic films she made with Errol Flynn, including Captain Blood (1935), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the magnificent The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.