Monday, July 27, 2020

The Late Great Olivia de Havilland

Dame Olivia de Havilland was not the last star remaining from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ann Blyth, Rhonda Fleming, Norman Lloyd, June Lockhart, Margaret O'Brien, and a few others are still alive. That having been said, she was the last major star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the last one whose name the average person might recognise. And there is little wonder why. Even when one does not count Gone with the Wind, she starred in movies that in their day were the equivalent of Star Wars (1977) or Titanic (1997) in terms of their success. Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), and To Each His Own (1946) were box office hits, and critically acclaimed as well. Even after she retired Olivia de Havilland remained very much in the public eye. Sadly, Olivia de Havilland died yesterday, July 26 2020, at the age of 104.

Olivia de Havilland was born on July 1 1916 in Tokyo to British parents. Her mother, Lilian Fontaine, had studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had appeared on stage. Her younger sister, Joan de Havilland, was born on October 22 1917 and would gain fame as Joan Fontaine. Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine remain the only sisters to have both won major Academy Awards.

It was in 1919 that Olivia de Havilland's parents decided to return to England because of both of their daughters' health. They sailed from Japan to San Francisco where they stopped in order to have Olivia treated for tonsillitis. While in San Francisco, Joan developed pneumonia, after which Lilian Fontaine persuaded her husband to let them remain in California. Their father eventually deserted the family.

From an early age Lilian Fontaine raised her daughters in the arts. Olivia began ballet lessons at age four and piano lessons at age five. Olivia learned to read before she was six years old. Lilian divorced Olivia and Joan's father. She later married George Fontaine, who managed an O. A. Hale & Co. department store in San Jose, California. Olivia de Havilland attendd Los Gatos High School, where she took part in school plays. She attended attended Notre Dame Convent in Belmont, California as well.

It was in 1933 that Olivia de Havilland made her stage debut in a production of Alice in Wonderland by the Saratoga Community Theatre. She later appeared in the theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as Puck. Not long afterwards legendary director Max Reinhardt was in California staging a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl and he offered Miss de Havilland the position of second understudy for the role of Hermia. When  Gloria Stuart, set to play Hermia, and then the first understudy, Jean Rouverol, quit, the role then went to Olivia de Havilland. Afterwards Max Reinhardt and film producer Henry Blanke convinced Olivia de Havilland to sign with Warner Bros.

Olivia de Havilland made her film debut in the Joe E. Brown comedy Alibi Ike in 1935. It was a little over a month later that she appeared in the James Cagney comedy The Irish in Us. While it was in production before both comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, was released later in 1935. Late in the year Olivia de Havilland starred with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The film catapulted both Miss de Havilland and Mr. Flynn to stardom, and in the next several years they would be frequent co-stars. Olivia de Havilland would see a good deal of success in the late Thirties, appearing in some of the biggest films of the era, including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dodge City (1939), and, the biggest of them all, Gone with the Wind (1939). In the Thirties, she also appeared in the films Anthony Adverse (1935), Call It a Day (1937), It's Love I'm After (1937), The Great Garrick (1937), Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), Four's a Crowd (1938), Hard to Get (1938), Wings of the Navy (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Raffles (1939), My Love Came Back (1940), and Santa Fe Trail (1940). It was with Call It a Day in 1937 that Miss de Havilland first received top billing.

Olivia de Havilland would continue to have success in the Forties. She appeared in such films as The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Male Animal (1942), In This Our Life (1942), Princess O'Rourke (1943), and Government Girl (1943).  She was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Hold Back the Dawn.  It was in 1943 that Miss de Havilland's contract with Warner Bros. ended. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. decided to extend her contract by six months to make up for those times when she had been suspended for refusing certain roles. While many actors would have simply accepted the situation, Olivia de Havilland mounted a lawsuit against Warner Bros. In 1943 the Superior Court decided in Miss de Havilland's favour. Warner Bros. immediately appealed. A little over a year passed before the California Court of Appeal for the Second District ruled in her favour, making Olivia de Havilland the first actor to take a major studio on in court and win. The court's opinion of California Labor Code Section 2855 would afterwards become known as the de Havilland Law.

While the lawsuit was underway, Olivia de Havilland was unable to make movies. She returned to film with To Each His Own in 1946 for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for To Each His Own. She would see a good deal of success in the late Forties. She was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for  The Snake Pit (1948) and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for The Heiress. She also appeared in the films Devotion (1946), The Well Groomed Bride (1946), and The Dark Mirror (1946).

Olivia de Havilland gave birth to her son Benjamin in 1949 and took a break from making movies. She made her Broadway debut in Romeo and Juliet in 1951 and appeared the following year in Canada. She returned to film with My Cousin Rachel in 1952. In the Fifties she appeared in such films as That Lady (1955), Not as a Stranger (1955), The Ambassador's Daughter (1956), The Proud Rebel (1958), and Libel (1959).

Miss de Havilland began the Sixties by appearing on Broadway in A Gift of Time in 1962. This would lead to her television debut when a scene from the play was performed in The Ed Sullivan Show that same year. She appeared in the movies Light in the Piazza (1962), Lady in a Cage (1964), Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Adventurers (1970). Olivia de Havilland appeared on television in episodes of the TV show The Big Valley, ABC Stage 67, and The Danny Thomas Hour. She appeared in the TV movie The Screaming Woman.

In the Seventies Olivia de Havilland appeared in the films Pope Joan (1972), Airport '77 (1977), The Swarm (1978), and The Fifth Musketeer (1979). She appeared on television in the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations. In the Eighties she guest starred on the TV show The Love Boat and the mini-series North and South, Book II and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. She appeared in the TV movies Murder is Easy, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, and The Woman He Loved. She retired in 1988.

While Olivia de Havilland had retired from acting, she remained very active in the film community. She did many interviews in the next several decades. She was a presenter at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003. In 2004 she appeared in the Turner Classic Movies documentary Melanie Remembers in which she was interviewed about Gone with the Wind. She also appeared at tributes to her on the occasion of her 90th birthday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006. In June 2016 she was appointed appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. Olivia de Havilland became the oldest woman to ever have the honour bestowed upon her.

As mentioned above, Olivia de Havilland appeared in some of the biggest movies of all time, but that is not the only reason she has remained one of the most beloved actresses of all time. Miss de Havilland was an actress of immense talent, talent that was obvious even early in her career. What is more, she could play a wide variety of roles and was equally adept at comedy as she was at drama. While she is best known as Melanie in Gone with the Wind and Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, she gave a number of great performances in her career. She shined as heiress and starstruck fan Marcia West in the comedy It's Love I'm After.  Her Oscar for her turn as Jody Norris in To Each His Own was well deserved. Olivia de Havilland also deserved to win the Oscar for which she was nominated for The Snake Pit, in which she played Virginia Cunningham, a woman whose descent into schizophrenia leads to a stay in a mental hospital. The movie was so influential that it led to changes in the conditions of mental hospitals throughout the United States. I have no doubt that Olivia de Havilland's powerful performance was much of the reason for the film's impact. Throughout her career Olivia de Havilland gave a number of great performances, including It's Love I'm After, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own, The Snake Pit, The Heiress, and more.

While I never had the opportunity to meet Miss de Havilland myself, I know plenty of people who have met her, interviewed her, and corresponded with her. They have all said the same thing, that Olivia de Havilland is one of the kindest, warmest most gracious people one could meet. She was clearly an actress who appreciated her fans. Of course, while Miss de Havilland was among the nicest of people, she also had a will of steel. Olivia de Havilland succeeded at something that even James Cagney and Bette Davis had failed at, she fought Warner Bros. and won. Olivia de Haviland's lawsuit against Warner Bros. was instrumental in breaking the power of the major studios and forever changed the relationship actors had with studios ever since. While many might remember Olivia de Havilland best as Melanie in Gone with the Wind, her legacy is so much greater than a single performance in a single movie. Olivia de Havilland leaves behind many great performances and broke the power of the major studios.

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