My grandma had a closet full of old movies. I would run to it at the end of each visit, cast my eye over rows of VHS tapes, and ask to borrow some. She had a terrific collection, taped off TV and bought through magazine offers.
Grandma was born a contemporary of Shirley Temple, and adored her, so I saw many of her films as a child. (I can still sing The Good Ship Lollypop from memory.) She fancied a few cinematic blokes in particular (Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable) so she had plenty of those to offer, but along the way I also discovered Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Myrna Loy, Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland.
You may know Olivia from 1939’s classic Gone with the Wind. She plays the long-suffering but sweet Melanie Wilkes. Tired of playing damsels in distress and drawn to Melanie’s gentle goodness, Olivia had to fight hard for the role. She used her connections to the studio’s wife to land the part. She plays the forgiving Melanie across from the scheming Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a character often overlooked in favor of more memorable ones, but who remains the story’s moral backbone. It took me many years to realize Melanie is the heroine, not Scarlett. The woman who upholds all the virtues I wish I had, who forgives unconditionally, and who thinks well of everyone, even when they give her no cause. My grandmother and I shared a similar love for this film. When she passed away, she left me her Limited Edition GWTW plates.
Though one of the more popular characters Olivia played, it’s not her only magnificent performance. She starred in original films, comedies, classic book adaptations, and even a few thrillers. Due to their intense chemistry, the studio often cast her opposite Errol Flynn. They played lovers in westerns, swashbucklers, and in Robin Hood. They appeared together in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, alongside Bette Davis. Though a talented actress and willing to debase her appearance for a good role, Davis had a ferocious tempered matched by Flynn. The two loathed each other. In one scene, as Queen Elizabeth, Davis hit Flynn for real instead of using a stage slap. He almost struck her back, but thought better of it!
Though known for playing beautiful and demure women on-screen, Olivia in real life is anything “but”! In the early days of Hollywood, studios owned their actors and actresses and held them under contract. While stuck there, they could not work for another studio without a negotiated agreement (often a “trade” — this is why, though wanted for Dorothy, Shirley Temple does not appear in The Wizard of Oz). Alfred Hitchcock wanted Olivia for his film Rebecca, but her studio refused. The part went to her sister Joan Fontaine. This system meant actors and actresses had no control over the parts they could take and no ability to negotiate for their earned wages. Some, like Bette Davis, got stuck under contract and under-used or forced to take up minor roles just to fulfill their contracts. (Davis despised this.)
When Warner Brothers attempted to add extra months to Olivia’s contract, citing an extension because she was not “on-set seven days a week,” she sued them. The lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1945, where she won and established the ability for actors to become agents of their own careers. Thanks to her, all Hollywood stars now had control over their parts and could reject any role they did not want. She was also notorious in Hollywood for her ongoing rivalry with Joan Fontaine. It began as sibling rivalry in childhood and escalated when in 1942 both sisters received Best Actress Oscar nominations. (Joan won for Suspicion.) Lest you think Olivia has gotten calmer with age, she hasn’t—she sued Fox a few years ago for “defamation of [my] character” in their scripted series Feud, which portrays the rivalry between Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. Olivia did not like her portrayal as a “gossiper.”
Life has changed in a hundred years. My grandmother lived through the 1920s and a world war, saw a man walk on the moon, and left me a love of old movies. And Olivia de Havilland turns 104 today (July 1st). Though she has not done a film in decades, her movies forever capture her as one of the most beautiful, feisty, and talented actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. ♦
Join us as we celebrate Olivia de Havilland’s birthday, through reliving some of her more interesting performances. Please check back over the next two days to read all the entries.
July 1st Entries:
Was Rachel an accused innocent or a devious femme fatale? That’s the question Daphne du Maurier’s fans have been asking since she wrote her novel, My Cousin Rachel. Though not as well-known as Rebecca, it has the same gothic overtones, and intense obsession… more.
I have come to realize that I actually don’t like A Midsummer Night’s Dream very much. The story and characters don’t grab me, and I find several characters and much of the story preposterous, even grating. However! This filmed version is a fascinating watch, worth it for the special effects and the luminous Olivia de Havilland alone… more.
Guys. Olivia de Haviland turns 104 today!!! Isn’t that amazing? My first introduction to Olivia de Haviland was probably The Adventures of Robin Hood and it’s remained my favorite role of hers. I’m super excited to talk about it today… more.
During World War II, a middle-aged businesswoman accidentally befriends another middle-aged drifter when she saves his life during fire patrol on New Year’s Eve. She agrees to dine with him that evening but abruptly breaks the date when she learns that a certain young pilot is coming to London that evening… more.
It is so fun to watch actors and actresses in different roles. You can compare the characters to each other and see how wide a range the actor or actress can play. Today I’m going to review a movie where an actress played TWO roles! That actress is the fabulous Olivia de Havilland who is turning 104 today!… more.
July 2nd Entries:
Like many other Olivia de Havilland fans, I grew up remembering her in such films as Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind, or other roles in which she was a damsel in distress, a lady-in-waiting to a tempestuous queen, or an innocent woman accused of murder. I’ve since seen her stuck and desperate in an elevator and as a murderess (or was she?), but by far the role that impressed me the most, because it went against her usual fare, is in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. If you have not yet seen this horror film, spoilers abound… more.
In the nineteen-fifties, Olivia de Havilland was married and living in Paris with her husband and two children, but she still made films now and then. In 1958 she starred in The Proud Rebel opposite Alan Ladd… more.
On July 1, 2020, Dame Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 104th (!) birthday in Paris, France. Aside from being the last surviving cast member from Gone With the Wind, she is also one of the last surviving figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Olivia is a two-time Oscar winner, having won the Best Actress Academy Award for her roles in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Heiress (1949). However, aside from being known for her age and status as an Oscar-winner, Olivia is probably best known for her nine (!) collaborations with the incomparable Errol Flynn… more.
The Pale Writer: Love and Medicine (Not Necessarily in that Order): Olivia de Havilland in “Not As A Stranger” (1955)
Olivia de Havilland has been in some of the most iconic films of all time, from Gone With The Wind, to The Snake Pit and The Heiress. But in 1955 she starred in a film that despite having an almost all star cast, including Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford, Charles Bickford and Gloria Grahame, and being based on a bestselling novel, is now largely forgotten… more.