100 Reasons to Love Olivia de Havilland (Part I)

olivia_candidThis is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end of this month.

To mark her centennial, I’ve decided to list 100 reasons why I admire, worship, and adore her—starting with with 50 today.

What about the other 50? Just wait until I’ve watched my way through her filmography! Some of my reasons are frivolous, some have altered cinema history. I offer them here in no particular order. So please join me in giving thanks for a great actress and an inspiring woman.

1. She took on the studio system—and won her fellow actors greater rights and freedoms. Golden Age Hollywood wasn’t so golden for actors under contract to studios. If they chose not to do assigned roles, they could be put on suspension… and the term of that suspension would be added onto their existing contracts. Olivia de Havilland put her career on the line to fight her battle against studios that treated their artists like property.

verydoneAfter completing a disappointing melodrama called Devotion, Olivia thought she was finished with her constraining Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner, however, insisted that the time she’d spent on suspension still counted against her. With lawyer Martin Gang, Olivia decided to take Warner Brothers to court for a practice that she considered unlawful. If she lost, she’d never work in Hollywood again.

The battle was a long an arduous one, as expertly described by the Self-Styled Siren. But Olivia’s gamble paid off. She emerged victorious—to seek out the complex roles she’s yearned for. Her colleagues could also revel in their new-found freedom. As Olivia recalls, “No one thought I would win, but after I did, flowers, letters and telegrams arrived from my fellow actors. This was wonderfully rewarding.”

You know how stars today can choose their roles carefully and shape their careers? Well, that’s what de Havilland’s guts and brains earned for them back in the 1940s. As Bette Davis said, “Every actor in the business owes a debt of gratitude to Olivia de Havilland for taking us out of bondage.”

2. She can swear like a trucker if the occasion calls for it, as her bloopers indicate. Each year Warner Brothers created a humorous reel of “breakdowns” or “blow-ups” featuring snippets of stars flubbing their lines or on-set mishaps. There aren’t many clips of Olivia in these reels (I’m guessing because she knew her lines word-perfect most of the time). But there are a few choice moments, like this outtake from In This Our Life.

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She seemed to have more blow-ups than usual in 1946—no doubt because she loathed Devotion, the silly, colorless costume melodrama that Warner assigned her. See if you can detect the note of hostility in her bloopers. This is unvarnished footage of a woman about to rebel, a lady feeling the weight of the last straw before she decided to sue her employers.

3. She spent much of WWII visiting military hospitals, including psychiatric wards. A Major Richardson asked her to talk to his patients, feeling that her sensitivity and kindness could “do some good” for men under severe pressure and shock from army conditions.

I’ll let her tell it in her own words…

Olivia toured hospitals from Alaska to Fiji on such a demanding schedule that she contracted pneumonia and almost died. So, the next time you watch one of her films and she’s risking her life to stay true to her values or struggling to hold her life together as the world falls apart around her, remember: her life was no less impressive, no less courageous.

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Olivia with Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Arthur J. Dodd at the Naval Air Station in Kodiak, Alaska, 1944.

4. Her wry winking motif in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Whenever she winks, it fills me with such glee and hope for humanity that I want to hug the nearest object.

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5. She has a splendid sense of humor—especially about herself. Her witty memoir Every Frenchman Has One is as jam-packed with bon mots as the Étoile is jam-packed with lunatic drivers. Or, in her words…

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She begins the book by assuring the reader that she is not dead (“I’m not at all sure that you know that I’m alive…”). She moves on to cheerfully recount her often-mortifying adventures with the French language and culture, like that time she announced that French sailors are expensive (matelot, which means sailor, and matelas, which means mattress, sound awfully alike). Or the memory of being told that her accent was “légèrement Yugoslav.” Negotiating the minefield of niceties that is a French dinner party, she “really did want to die” after a series of faux pas involving a countess and an enormous brandy snifter.

My favorite anecdote involves her taking her young son to a French-dubbed screening of Robin Hood on the Champs Elysées. Afterwards, little Benjamin exclaimed, “Mamma, you spoke better French then than you do now!”

6. She gave us the best-ever onscreen depiction of a rabid fangirl in It’s Love I’m After (1937), a.k.a. the best screwball comedy you may have never heard of. Amusingly enough, Leslie Howard plays the matinee idol that Olivia’s character is stuck on, which gives this movie a delightful air of retrospective irony. In any case, it’s startlingly funny to watch future-Melanie tackle future-Ashley like this.

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7. Her Withering Glare of Righteous Judgement from In This Our Life (1942). I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass just looking at these screencaps. Phew.

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8. She was utterly unfazed by Hollywood’s bevy of man candy, at least according to this 1937 anecdote from Movie Classic magazine about Olivia and Robert Taylor after a radio performance. (Look, I know that fan mag articles should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe this one. And I sure want to believe it.)

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9. Her epic chowing-down-on-a-chicken-wing scene in Robin Hood (1938).
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10. Her astonishing range, from the fluffiest comedies to the grittiest dramas, from contemporary problem pictures to high adventures in faraway lands. I’d argue that her gifts as a comedienne are especially underrated. Had she not been one of the greatest dramatic actresses of her time, I have no doubt that she could’ve been a screwball comedy queen. Even when Olivia hated a role, she made something of it, stretching herself, learning, growing.

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11. Her laugh. A strange, coy, undeniably merry laugh. The kind of exquisite laugh that makes you finally understand what poets are talking about when they throw around words like “silvery” and “sonorous” to describe the voices they adore. Some laughter brays, some laughter snarls, some chortles, some twitters. Olivia’s laughter sings and sparkles and tickles the ear. No wonder she’s gravitated towards the French language. Her ringing laughter sounds like pure joie de vivre.

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12. She can fling a Shakespearean insult with verve and panache. As attested by this monument to feminine fury in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the first film Olivia ever made (though not the first released)!

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13. She was no mere damsel in distress. Lest we forget, Arabella Bishop, her character in Captain Blood, repeatedly flouts convention to save Peter Blood from torture and death. In Robin Hood, Lady Marian risks her life to help Robin escape hanging and then to spy on wicked King John and his allies. While de Havilland didn’t write the scripts, she invested these characters (and her many 1930s and 1940s costume heroines) with an air of competence, intelligence, and courage and made their heroism utterly believable. She played her love interest roles not as shrieking innocents, but as brave, spirited women—worthy equals of the heroes who wooed them. I can’t say how much that meant to me as a little girl when I discovered her films.

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14. She once spent her spare time calculating a formula for converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit. As she explains in her memoir, Every Frenchmen Has One, de Havilland was flummoxed by French thermometers, which only added to the anxiety of nursing her son through a fever in a foreign land. Determined to help other mothers in the same situation, “I stayed in bed in my room for twenty-four hours straight with a clutch of pencils and a quire of paper…. And finally, triumphantly, I found a formula which would translate Centigrade into Fahrenheit.” Remember, now, this happened in the days before all human knowledge was accessible through smartphones. De Havilland’s formula was published in a letter to the NY Herald Tribune. While a few mansplainers reared their heads in response, she’s proud of her formula. As she should be.

15. Her chilling double performance as good and evil twins Ruth and Terry in The Dark Mirror (1946). This psychoanalytic noir gave Olivia the chance to play against type as a jealous, charismatic murderess who nearly succeeds in gaslighting her gentle, suggestible sister.

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What’s so uncanny about this Freudian thriller is that Olivia embodies two distinct characters with an identical appearance. We get to witness how different a friendly face can look when a malevolent personality lurks behind it. Ruth and Terry have recognizably different postures, voices, and mannerisms. Abetted by skillful camera trickery, The Dark Mirror opens the audience’s eyes to the subtle sorcery of Olivia’s craft, since we can see two of her creations share the frame.

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16. The adorable dance that her daffy heiress character is doing here in Four’s a Crowd (1938) to provide a screwball comedy distraction.

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17. Her raw, shattering, fearless, compassionate performance in The Snake Pit (1948).

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18. She means what she says. When de Havilland started making films, she asked James Cagney for advice on screen acting. His advice: Always mean what you say. You can hear that she took those words to heart. She is so grounded in her text. She says things with startling sincerity—startling because sincerity is not common.

19. Her magnificent I-came-to-slay face and pose in this 1930s publicity portrait. That’s almost too much fierce for a single image to contain.

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20. And lo! Olivia’s I-came-to-slay face is still with us today. Because she’s still slaying. In vintage Dior. (Photo by Brian Adams for The Evening Standard.)

21. She was lobbying for strong female protagonists decades before it was cool to do so. While she made the most of her “love interest” roles, she didn’t want to keep on playing guests in other people’s stories (cough, cough, men’s stories, cough, cough) for the rest of her life. As she told the Academy of Achievement, “The life of the love interest is really pretty boring…. I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things.”

22. That scene between Melanie and Belle Watling in the carriage in Gone with the Wind (1939). De Havilland’s whole performance is flawless, filling the movie with an almost otherworldly grace. But, if I had to choose only one scene to show her artistry, this quiet scene in a film of bombast astonishes me much more than the burning of Atlanta. Her Melanie is one of those rare people with the intelligence and humility to understand that the smartest thing we human beings can do is to be kind to each other. Melanie knows that survival depends not only on Scarlett values—like ambition and chutzpa—but also on love and caring. Scarlett values can keep you from dying when your world’s gone to hell, but Melanie values will keep you truly alive.

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23. The Heiress: it was her idea to make the story into a film, she selected the director, and she delivered a virtuoso dramatic performance that runs the gamut from devastated vulnerability to commanding authority, a performance that shows what she was fighting for all those long years. The freedom to make great art and to realize a vision of her own.

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24. This clip of her dishing on her silent crush on Errol Flynn. (Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build a time machine so I can slap Errol upside his head. “Dude, a snake? Seriously? Seek help!”)

25. The fact that she didn’t let Errol Flynn (and his ridiculously gorgeous face) derail her life plans. Respect. That must’ve taken superhuman discipline.

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A pretty accurate depiction of Errol and Olivia’s relationship.

26. Her jaw-droppingly determined and terrifying build-up and climactic flip-out in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Few people have out-Bette-Davised Bette Davis in a Bette Davis movie, but I think Olivia has in this instance.

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27. The vivid expressions that she lavished even on a silly spread in a 1937 issue of Modern Screen magazine. She’s supposed to be writing “a letter to her beau,” the sort of things that fan mags of the 1930s routinely cooked up. But, damn, look at these faces. Olivia never does things by halves. You’d think she was auditioning for Juliet. Or Lady MacBeth. Or Ophelia. Or all three at once.

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28. Her wrenching, poignant, and utterly convincing Oscar-winning transformation—in mind, body, and spirit—from dreamy young woman to embittered matron in To Each His Own (1946).

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29.  Her gift for conjuring the essence of a character through her voice alone—an ability which served her well on the radio. Listen to the brittle, nervous tones she brings to this 1944 Lux Radio Theater version of Suspicion.

(I wonder what sister Joan would have thought. And that’s is the only oblique reference I will be making to the de Havilland-Fontaine feud in this piece, thankyouverymuch.) For more excellent de Havilland radio performances, I refer you to this wonderful post on Once Upon a Screen.

30. This triumphant portrait, which seems to say, “Yes, I’ve got two Oscars, I’ve outlived all the haters, and I look fabulous.” (Photo by Philippe Biancotto for Madame Figaro.)

31. Her exquisitely vulnerable performance in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which needs a DVD release as soon as possible. As the naïve American who marries a European gigolo in Mexico—unaware that he’s just looking to cross the border—de Havilland exudes wonder, tenderness, and innocent sensuality. The story’s redemptive arc works because you believe that something about this shy little schoolteacher can free a world-class operator (Charles Boyer, never better) from his hardened cynicism. She embodies the best of small-town America, in all its starry-eyed kindness and cluelessness. Really, see this movie if you get the chance.

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32. This pout from Call It a Day (1935).

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33. Just look at her cuddling with these cats.

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And, hey, I’m all for equal-opportunity snuggling. Here’s Olivia with a puppy on the set of Hold Back the Dawn.

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34. Based on these publicity stills for Captain Blood, she totally should’ve had her own swashbuckler movie where she wore boots and a cutlass and took down the patriarchy. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

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35. She illuminates even the clunkiest, dullest films with passion and pathos. Take Anthony Adverse (1936). Now, I love Fredric March, but he looks bored to his knee breeches and buckle shoes by this unwieldy literary adaptation. Claude Rains does his best wicked Claude Rains, and Gale Sondergaard does her best wicked Gale Sondergaard. It’s Olivia who delivers the film’s most memorable tearjerking moment (in my opinion) with her devastating, “Goodbye, Anthony…” whispered from the stage of a Paris opera house.

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36. This early 1940s home movie footage of her acting goofy in a pool with John Huston. Wow.

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37. She can rock a corset and an eyepatch simultaneously, as this still from That Lady (1955) shows.

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38. She makes good girls so interesting. In many of Olivia’s best movies, she’s “stuck” with the part that would make many actresses cringe: the nice sister, the quiet daughter, the dutiful friend. And she tackled those parts while going up against stars playing flashier (ostensibly meatier) roles—nymphomaniacs, shysters, shut-ins, sociopathic Southern belles. Many actors would be grateful merely to register as a blip on the screen against such a gallery of eccentrics.

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Olivia, however, never took good girls for granted. She underpinned their goodness with a rich psychological tapestry, woven in a unique pattern for each one. Roy in In This Our Life is a very different woman from Melanie in Gone with the Wind and from Emmy in Hold Back the Dawn—though they share many qualities and face similar situations.

Goodness never equates to dullness for Olivia, as for many other actresses. We often assume that a girl is good because she lacks imagination, because it never occurred to her to be bad. She brought a sense of interiority, of free will to her good-girl parts. They choose their course in life—for reasons specific to their characters—often more consciously and clear-sightedly than their sinful sisters/friends/rivals/relatives. And that’s why de Havilland’s good girls remain fascinating and complex—and tend to eclipse the flashier characters around them.

39. The seductive, enigmatic allure she channels in My Cousin Rachel (1952).

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40. She won over Bette Davis as a friend. And that was not an easy thing to do. As de Havilland says, “The first time I saw Bette Davis she scared the daylights out of me.” I’ll let these two legendary pals tell the story for themselves…

41. Her luminous beauty in Technicolor. Yes, that sounds shallow, but it takes a hell of a lot of poise and grit to seem serene and glamorous under blindingly bright and swelteringly hot lights!

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42. Her intrepid strength in the little-known made-for-TV movie The Screaming Woman (1972). I watched this on YouTube while going on a 1970s thriller binge (as one does) and hardly strayed from the edge of my seat until the denouement. Olivia’s portrayal of an older woman who solves a grisly mystery while questioning her own sanity not only provides gripping entertainment, but also sends a poignant message about society’s treatment of its elders.

43. She immersed herself in a foreign culture—and advises her fellow Americans to do likewise. 

44. Her searing take on Lady in a Cage (1962): “a depiction of the aimless violence of our era.”

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45. How absolutely believable Olivia makes it that Melanie got up from her sickbed, grabbed a saber, and toddled out, ready to hack a would-be-thief-and-rapist Union deserter to pieces. Look at the stone-cold conviction on her face. Sure, she’s sweet and gentle—BUT DO NOT MESS AROUND WITH HER FAMILY OR FRIENDS. Even Scarlett’s all, “Wow, I majorly underestimated how badly Melanie could mess somebody up.”

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46. She injects boundless enthusiasm into Alibi Ike (1935), her first released film. I can’t think of many kind things to say about Alibi Ike as a whole, except that it’s mercifully short. Olivia, by her own admission, “detested” making it. But you’d never know that from the sweet, spunky dream girl she incarnates on the screen. She almost makes this uneven baseball romp bearable. Almost.

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47. She used her art and talent in the service of a good cause, hoping that The Snake Pit would help to lessen the stigma of mental illness. As she told Time magazine, “We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been the hardest pressed.”

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48. This enchanting moment from Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), her first movie in Technicolor.

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49. Her ferocious intensity in a screen test for Max Reinhardt’s unproduced film project, Danton. She was just 19, but the maturity and conviction of her acting blows me away. Warner Brothers had a powerhouse dramatic actress on their hands. They didn’t know it. Thankfully, Olivia did.

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(You can watch this stunning clip as a supplement on the DVD release of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

50. Having achieved her centennial, de Havilland is still looking forward. In the most recent issue of TCM’s Now Playing guide, Robert Osborn reveals that Livvie announced, “I’ve changed my goal. I’ve decided I want to live to at least 110.

Long may you reign, Queen. Long may you reign.

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