Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Dame Olivia de Havilland is Alive and Well!

Olivia de Havilland, age 18, on the set of what would mark her film debut and introduction to fans around the world.
Whatever Happened to Class?  It’s Alive and Well in Paris, and Her Name is Dame Olivia de Havilland.
by Denis Ferrara

“I CAME away with the impression that it was the present moment, with all its exigencies, that held more interest than her career.” 

That’s what author Ellis Amburn writes in his new biography of Olivia de Havilland. Amburn, who wrote biographies on Elizabeth Taylor, Janis Joplin, Roy Orbison, Jack Kerouac and others, had just spent a charming afternoon in Paris with Miss de H. in 1973.  (Mr. Amburn died two months ago, at age 85, and completing this book, on an actress and woman he admired consistently, was very much an impetus to keep on going, until it was completed to his satisfaction.)

Amburn’s observation — that her life, and life around her, was of more vital importance than lingering on her career, is pretty much borne out by “Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood” (from Lyons Press). 

Not that acting was in any way secondary to the two-time Oscar winner, but throughout this meticulously researched book, de Havilland’s easy vitality, her realistic sense of herself and her profession, her full life outside of a full career, define her more than most of her famous roles. 

Although Amburn met her just once, her charm was, obviously, potent.  He did his homework on this one, and the book is studded with vintage interviews with de Havilland, from her earliest days in Hollywood, to more recent revelations to the likes of Vanity Fair magazine. 

What is striking about her remarks, from the age of 18 — when she began her career — to today, at the ripe and feisty age of 102, is her remarkable sense of self and her willingness to stop, listen and look — to her own wants as an actor, as a wife, mother and defender of what others put into her mouth, in lurid TV shows. (That means you, Ryan Murphy and “Feud.”)  

She refused to be rushed into marriage, dating and loving men as varied as Howard Hughes, John Huston and Errol Flynn. (Flynn, her co-star in eight films, was the one that really got away.  Wildly attracted to one another, the “romance” was likely never consummated, but deep feelings stirred throughout the years. Ms. de Havilland wisely knew — as she did about another wild man, director John Huston, that marriage to either might have not only destroyed her love, but her own sense of herself.) 
De Havilland with Errol Flynn, the one that really got away. 
She was Hollywood’s witty and apparently unconcerned bachelor girl until the age of thirty. Her first husband, Marcus Goodrich was abusive, but at least from it she had her wonderful son, Benjamin.  He second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante was more successful for a while (she even moved to France, and wrote an amusing book on her new life “Every Frenchman Has One”)   That wedlock produced another child, Gisele and though it eventually ended in divorce, she maintained a civilized and affectionate relationship with him to the very end.
De Havilland as Maid Marian in 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
As Scarlett O'Hara's soft-hearted cousin in "Gone with the Wind."
Her career was a surprisingly difficult haul.  A sweet-faced beauty, signed by Warner Bros., de Havilland was cast relentlessly and to her mind, pointlessly, as “the girl” in film after film.  She was considered highly decorative and romantic — her Maid Marian in 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” was iconic even in its time — but her talents were often disparaged even after her acclaimed Melanie in “Gone with the Wind” (a film that has aged disastrously with the exceptions of the performances of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh), her witty turn in “The Strawberry Blonde” or after wisely allowing Bette Davis to make a fool of herself when they starred together as sisters for “In This Our Life.”  (In the latter film she briefly displayed the harder edge to her personality, something that would come in handy in the future.)
Teaming up with James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde.
Starring with Bette Davis as sisters “In This Our Life.”
Of all the major studios at the time — the “Golden Age” Warner Bros. was by far most workman-like and least apt to coddle its stars, with perhaps only the volatile Bette Davis getting away with more than anybody else on the lot could.  Davis had famously fought the studio system back in the 1930’s.  She lost her case, but did at least return to better roles and eventually two Oscars.  Olivia, less respected as an actress — although adored for her cameo-like beauty — found herself in an even more difficult position.  She was captive to a contract that afforded her no freedom of choice and which, if she had the temerity to refuse a role, not only resulted in a suspension of her salary, but an extension of that contract. 
As Miss Josephine 'Jody' Norris in "To Each His Own," in which she won an Academy Award.
Finally, in 1943, de Havilland had had enough.  She left Warner’s and fought to free herself.  It was a dicey risk — she was no longer in the flush of youth, and as it turned out, three years would pass between “Government Girl” her last film for Warner’s and “To Each His Own” her great comeback film for Paramount.  Her fight would result in The de Havilland Rule, which stated that no contract should ever have to continue more than seven years. (By the time the studio system was collapsing completely in the early 1960’s seven year contracts were finally kaput — no actor wanted such confinement, and no studio had the time, money or imagination to build — or entrap stars as they once did.
As Elizabeth "Smokey" Allard in “Government Girl,” her last film for Warner’s.
DE Havilland’s career after her triumph against Warner Bros. had a spectacular, if relatively brief resurgence. “To Each His Own,” “The Snake Pit” and most brilliantly, “The Heiress” (her second Oscar) all contained elements of her previous ingénue’s deepened with despair, mental illness and bitter realizations.  Warner’s had indeed wasted her.  (I also have great fondness for “The Dark Mirror” — the old good twin/bad twin plot, and “My Cousin Rachel” in which her beauty is at its mature peak, as is her ability to convey sweetness and perhaps a malign duplicity, with silky ease.) 
The Final Scene of “The Heiress” (1949).
Her career went on and on, with some delicious high points, even as she concentrated more on her personal life.  She was beautiful, sensitive and convincingly conflicted as the mother of a mentally handicapped girl in “Light in the Piazza” and presented, brilliantly, the opposing sides of her screen persona as Bette Davis’ “helpful” cousin Miriam in “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”  (This is a far more entertaining Grand Guignol than “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” IMO.) 

She even managed to keep her dignity in “Lady In a Cage” (crippled, trapped in an elevator, tormented by James Caan) and “The Swarm” (bees on the attack) and “Airport 77.”   She ended her acting playing Civil War nurses, various royals, and was a member of the star-studded cast of “Roots: The Next Generations.”
Trapped between floors  in "Lady in a Cage" (1964).
Mr. Amburn’s book does touch — how could it not — on the antipathy between Olivia and her actress sister, the late Joan Fontaine, but there’s little new there. Fontaine, a brittle type, wrote her furious memoir, “No Bed of Roses” and had her say. (Fontaine would insist nobody on this earth ever helped her in any way. She sprung, apparently, fully formed from a bed of crabgrass.)  Miss de Havilland has been promising her own book for many years.  We are still waiting.
Joan and Olivia keeping it cordial. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
More time is spent on de Havilland’s loving emotional support of her son, who suffered from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  He made a fine life for himself but died young at 42. And there is her religious life — firm but not tiresome.  She became one of the first women lectors at the American Cathedral in Paris, and was still doing readings on major feast days up till a few years ago.  She has spoken often, amusingly and wisely on her own Hollywood experience, the star system and her personal growth as a woman outside that world.  (Hedda Hopper, the infamous Hollywood gossip, once remonstrated with Olivia that she was ‘too analytical” for her own good. Miss de Havilland sweetly disagreed.)
Olivia with her son, Benjamin in 1949.
Amburn’s excellent, informative book — which Olivia’s daughter read in its entirety, and de Havilland herself several chapters — ends appropriately with the great star’s ongoing lawsuit with producer Ryan Murphy, on the matter of how she was portrayed in his gossipy TV series “Feud: Bette and Joan.”  The lawsuit was dismissed, but never underestimate a woman who uttered the words “I have been taught by masters” before she left handsome, if shiftless Montgomery Clift, desperately banging on her locked door in “The Heiress.” 

To celebrate her 102nd birthday, Olivia de Havilland appealed this ruling.  That’s a star, a lady and a survivor. 
And now I appeal — again — to Ryan Murphy, who won an Emmy on Monday night, to be a damn gentleman, remove the offending words uttered by Catherine Zeta Jones who portrayed Miss de Havilland and apologize!!!!!   You say you are all for women, for mature female stars who maybe don’t get the chances and choices for interesting work. (Although casting these women so often as grotesques rather makes you the Robert Aldrich of the 21st century.) 

Well, how about having some respect for the literal last survivor of Hollywood’s greatest days, the last major player still living from what is considered by some to be the greatest movie ever made. (Mickey Kuhn, age 85, who played the child Beau Wilkes in “GWTW” is also going strong.) 

I don’t expect this to happen.  Ryan Murphy has some talent, but little class. 

Miss Oliva de Havilland has a lot of both, and both are celebrated with panache and affection in Ellis Amburn’s worthy biography.
Contact Denis here.