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.
Originally, this film was a follow-up project of the director, hot on the heels of the surprise hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? That film about a demented child star who has never matured past her childhood success (Bette Davis) and her wheelchair-bound sister (Joan Crawford) became a runaway cult classic, so the director signed the duo up to make another, equally sinister flick about gaslighting. But Bette Davis loathed Joan Crawford so much, she set out to run her off the project and succeeded. Then, when Joan bowed out, she ran to her friend Olivia de Havilland, with whom she had made many pictures when they were much younger, and begged her to take Joan’s place. Olivia, initially, protested because she did not think her fans would like her in this film… and I can see why.
The story follows Charlotte (Davis), a woman who has all but lost her senses after traipsing out to the summerhouse during a party in her youth and finding her lover hacked to pieces. Everyone thinks she did it, and she thinks her father did it, so she has stayed in his house to protect his secret and reputation for forty-odd years. But now a major highway is coming through, and they intend to tear down her house. Rather than give up without a fight, the paranoid, insecure, and neurotic Charlotte calls upon her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) to help her. But once Miriam arrives, sinister things happen around the estate to frighten both of them, causing them to wonder… is the place haunted? Or someone tormenting Charlotte into madness?
Miriam is a charming and compassionate woman who tolerates her cousin’s temper tantrums with a surprising amount of consideration. She soothes her, calms her down, and once in a while, lets her have it. In a brilliant twist halfway through the film, after Charlotte has gone half-mad from seeing her lover’s severed head tumble down the stairs… we discover the brilliant twist: Miriam is behind all of it. Her intent is to drive Charlotte insane, so she can put her into a mental institution and claim “all that lovely money” for herself!
The story shifts rapidly from us seeing Miriam as a potential murder victim to a perpetrator. The gorgeous Olivia de Havilland, who waltzes around in the film in clothes out of her own closet (as a small-budget picture, they could not afford to replace Joan Crawford’s wardrobe) gets shoves a woman down the stairs to her death. She drugs Charrlotte. She slaps her cousin about the face and screams at her. Miriam tries to hide a dead body in a swamp. We discover she has been blackmailing a woman for decades and was behind the letters that have been driving Charlotte slowly insane for years. But the most spine-chilling scene is when she drops the mask of tolerance, understanding, and niceness and shows “her true face.” It sends a shiver up my spine no matter how many times I see it. She scares me!
The film isn’t perfect, but it’s also an interesting perspective on gaslighting—a psychological practice in which someone attempts to undermine another person’s mental health by causing them to doubt their own mind. In the original Gaslight, a man does this to his wife—stealing things from her and pretending she lost them, flickering the gaslight and pretending he did not see it, letting her hear footsteps and denying he heard them, until he drives her over the edge. Having a woman use these tactics, and be “the brains” of the operation is a nice twist, and plays into the theme of the deceitful woman that Shakespeare used in Lady Macbeth.
In a Sherlock Holmes story, when Dr. Watson asked Holmes why he wanted nothing to do with women, Holmes replied that he respected their intellect too much to trust them. “The most winning woman I ever knew poisoned three children for their insurance money,” he said. Miriam is one such woman, and an excellent villain in her own right. She torments her cousin into insanity, with a callous disregard for her feelings. She looks at her in contempt for her weakness and preys on it, rather than finds compassion for her instability. She is a perfect sociopath. The film gives us clues early on that she is more than she appears to be, which become visible with subsequent viewings.
Olivia gives such a nuanced performance, even if you guess before the reveal what Mirium is doing, there’s still a shred of doubt in your mind, because she seems sincere. But… perhaps a little too nice. Here, Olivia’s vast array of performances benefit her villain, because you give her the benefit of the doubt. You expect Olivia not to be a villain, because she is often the heroine. And cinematically, in terms of her performance, there’s quite a switch between the generous Miriam to the cruel Miriam to the giddy one who, moments before her death, is drinking champagne and deciding what to do with all her money. Olivia has the role with more menace, while Davis has the part with more range, but both of them are consummate actresses—and it shows. Though not as serious a role (because of being a horror film) as many of her others, it’s a memorable one that gives Olivia the chance to play not a misunderstood heroine, not a woman gone mad, not an altruistic woman or even one under suspicion, but an outright cruel one. And for her fans, that is a cinematic treat.
I wrote this article as part of the Olivia de Havilland Blogathon. Please click below to visit the main post and read the other entries.