Tuesday, July 26, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The Great Olivia de Havilland

Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland in 1941's "The Strawberry Blonde."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Celebrating The Glorious Centennial of The Great Olivia de Havilland.


"NOW LISTEN, we won't say a word to them. Just let them pass. Of course if they say something, we'll say something, and if they don't say anything, just drop your eyes."

"Drop my eyes?"

"Yes, that'll show them that we're good girls and they can't trifle with us."

"Well, for goodness sake, what did we come here for if not to be trifled with?!"

That's one of the delicious exchanges between Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland in 1941's "The Strawberry Blonde."
Miss Hayworth was Virginia Brush, the avaricious strawberry blonde who flirted but wanted to be known as a "good girl." Olivia was Amy Lind, an independent young woman of the 1890s who didn't mind being trifled with — on her own terms. Although this film, and "Blood and Sand" helped turn Rita into "The Love Goddess" Miss de Havilland was already a very big star, top-billed in this movie with James Cagney.

Olivia de Havilland turned 100 years old while we were on vacation recently, and fans of this luminous star — twice an Oscar winner — have been patiently waiting for me to acknowledge her centennial. (Last week, in fact, we received a note: "Waiting very patiently for your tribute to Olivia!!!" Didn't seem too patient, actually.)
Luscious, lovely 1930's Olivia.
Now, likely some of you thought I'd open up with a line from Olivia's most famous role, as Melanie Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind." And it is her most famous role because "GWTW" remains, to this day, the most famous movie ever made. (Sorry, "Godfather," "Star Wars" and, uh — "Twilight" fans.) But Melanie was also one of — to me — Olivia's least appealing roles. It wasn't her fault. Melanie was, as Scarlett O'Hara often remarked (in the glorious person of Vivien Leigh), "a simp." She's even more saccharine in Margaret Mitchell's epic novel. Olivia/Melanie did her level best against glamorous, tempestuous Vivien/Scarlett but it was a losing battle. In any case, neither woman looked particularly smart being madly in love with dreary Ashley Wilkes! (Scarlett got wise to the charms of Rhett Butler, but by then he simply didn't give a damn, my dears.)
Scarlett, Melanie and the waste of space they both love, Ashley Wilkes.
OLIVIA MADE what movie audiences considered her screen debut as the ravishing Hermia in 1935's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (adorable Mickey Rooney as Puck and James Cagney as Bottom.)  There had been two minor films earlier the same year. 
With Mickey Rooney in "A Midsummer's Night Dream." Even in those days, it wasn't wise to let Mick too close to your skirts!
She was the opposite of her acting sister, Joan Fontaine, whose beauty was more structured and cheek-boney and pinched. With the exception of Fontaine's best performance in "Rebecca" she did not come off like the kind of girl you took home to meet your parents. Olivia did. (The sisters were famously at odds most of their lives. Fontaine died in 2013 at 96. These women not only took good care of themselves, they were competitive in every way!)
Olivia and Joan — Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters ...
Somehow, in real life, Olivia avoided Errol Flynn's swordplay. (Although, "the chemistry was there!" she admitted.)
DE Havilland was under contract to Warner Bros. the most workmanlike of the studios; she did as she was told, as they all did. Sometimes she got lucky; a few of her co-starring roles with Errol Flynn, such as the classic "The Adventures Robin Hood" ... some delicious comedies ("It's Love I'm After" ... "Four's A Crowd"), and she held her own against Bette Davis at her most wildly mannered in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex." Olivia's gorgeous, duplicitous lady-in-waiting was a foretaste of more alluring, darker Olivia of later years. She would also co-star with Davis again in "In This Our Life" with Bette once more devouring scenery and Olivia trying to invest her character — a level-headed girl appalled by Davis' on-screen machinations — with authority and presence.)

But as the years rolled on, Miss de Havilland felt her talents were being wasted. As much as she liked — more than liked! — Errol Flynn, she was tired of being his feminine prop in what came to be eight films. Time stands still for no star, especially a woman, no matter how lovely. (To the matter of Mr. Flynn, Olivia admitted in later years she was quite tempted by his wicked, wicked ways, but wisely stayed alert to danger and kept her corsets laced and her bustle in place — they often appeared in period films.)
Olivia and Mr. Flynn's in "The Adventures Robin Hood."
Olivia attempting to talk sense into Bette Davis in In This Our Life: "Darling, maybe a less 'busy' print?"
In 1945, Olivia fought to free herself from Warner Bros. (a battle that Bette Davis had lost!) A free agent, the star began to choose films to her liking and entered the greatest era of her creativity and success. "To Each His Own" (her first Oscar as an unwed mother who battles her way to respectability) ... "The Dark Mirror" (twins — one good, one bad) ... "The Snake Pit" (unhinged and institutionalized, her vulnerability suffused with paranoia and violence) and "The Heiress" (her second Oscar as a naïve girl brutally transformed by betrayal) ... "My Cousin Rachel" as a mysterious, perhaps deadly woman who drove Richard Burton to distraction long before La Liz.
Not only did these roles give Olivia the material to express herself fully, in that expression she revealed what was only hinted at previously, an appealingly dark side to her beaming beauty, and a sensuality not often approached.

Olivia's career reclamation came just in time; the 1950's loomed and arrived. Miss de Havilland had been a star since the '30s; decline was inevitable. There were more films ("Not as a Stranger" "The Ambassador's Daughter" and the lovely "The Light In The Piazza.") But the star was less interested now in flogging her career than she was in moving to Paris with her second husband, Paris Match journalist Pierre Galante, having another child, and being the extraordinarily intelligent, charming, interested, interesting woman she was. (Her correspondence was simply delightful. Olivia knew how to make a little note something you wanted to treasure!)
Money Changes Everything: Olivia de Havilland as "The Heiress" ("Bolt the door, Mariah!")
OLIVIA de Havilland's last feature film appearance was as the Queen Mother, in 1979's "The Fifth Musketeer." There would be some TV — including the inevitable "Love Boat" appearance. Her final work — so far — was 1988's "The Woman He Loved."
Olivia de Havilland with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour in "The Woman He Loved," 1988.
Now, if you ask me what my favorite de Havilland performance is, I might surprise you.

In 1964 Olivia stepped in to replace Joan Crawford in the second Robert Aldridge film Crawford and Bette Davis were going to make, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte." (The first was the wildly successful "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane.") While there had been no shenanigans between Davis and Crawford on the first film, "Charlotte" proved too much for both of them. (The best evidence indicates that it was Davis who simply couldn't take another moment of Crawford — who whatever her faults didn't "act out" publicly. Davis made conditions unpleasant. Joan caught a cold.)

In any case, Olivia, who had managed to cope reasonably well with the fiery, insecure Davis, took the role of "mad" Charlotte's sweet-talkin' city cousin Miriam, who arrives at the decaying family mansion to help Charlotte clear out, before the place is demolished. I won't spoil a thing, not even for a film this old. But Olivia is simply splendid. In some ways, I find it the defining performance of her career — so silky, so subtle, so very sexy! I feel perhaps it indicates what she might have been had Warner Bros. had not, for so long, seen her simply as a sweet-faced, occasionally "spunky" beauty. (Miss Davis and another co-star, Agnes Moorehead are also magnificent in "Charlotte" — brace yourself for the Moorehead/de Havilland confrontation on a staircase, not to mention Olivia's choice words and deeds to a gibbering Davis. Joan must have regretted not getting to play that scene!)
De Havilland as dear cousin Miriam in "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte."
OLIVIA de Havilland has won every major award available, including the Legion d'honneur. But the real reward has been what she has given to us, as an audience. To those lucky enough to know her, even a little bit — what a reward that has been! She has lived a scandal-free life (unless you're going to count her unhappy relationship with her sister.) She achieved satisfaction and respect in her work — indeed, Olivia fought for it, in an era and in a business that looked askance on a woman taking control. She is devout, but not tiresome — a witty, worldly woman, a delightful creature. I adore her and will give Miss de Havilland the last word:

"I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must sometime leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise lounge, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a cryptic British crossword."
Olivia de Havilland at home in Beverly Hills, 1942.
Photograph by Bob Landry/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; Digital Colorization by Impact Digital
OOPS! In writing yesterday about Tony Danza's stint at Feinstein's/54 Below, we put the Manhattan hot-spot on West 44th Street. It's actually on W. 54th — duh!

Contact Liz here.