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Olivia de Havilland appreciation: the golden-age Hollywood star who remade the industry

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 7/27/2020 By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Olivia de Havilland, Ray Milland sitting on a table: Olivia de Havilland receives her Best Actress Oscar from actor Ray Milland for her performance in "To Each his Own," directed by Mitchell Leisen, on March 19, 1947. © Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images North America/TNS Olivia de Havilland receives her Best Actress Oscar from actor Ray Milland for her performance in "To Each his Own," directed by Mitchell Leisen, on March 19, 1947.

Olivia de Havilland made her own luck from all the right ingredients: talent, ambition, luminosity, extraordinary longevity.

She died Sunday at the age of 104, in Paris, where she lived since 1953. She was the oldest remaining Academy Award winner; the only female Hollywood star (with an epic, lifelong sibling rivalry to match) whose actress sister, Joan Fontaine, also won an Oscar; and the last great exemplar of the Hollywood star system heyday.

Oh, and this, and it’s no “by the way” postscript. Olivia de Havilland sued her Warner Brothers overseers for unfair, punitive enforcement of an exclusive personal services contract. And she won. It’s known as the de Havilland law.

Hollywood and the film industry made a lot of money off unfair labor practices. If a studio contract player such as de Havilland declined roles, holding out for better material, for years the studios got away with interpreting the typical seven-year contract as a malleable, extendable arrangement measured not in calendar years, but by seven years’ worth of actual days working for the studio.

When mogul Jack Warner threatened to keep his “difficult” star locked inside her Warners contract, de Havilland sued. She wanted better, and she got it. The legal victory in 1943 altered the power structure of stardom and star-keepers forever.

“Hollywood actors,” her friend and fellow difficulty Bette Davis later said, “will forever be in Olivia’s debt.”

The rest of us will forever be in de Havilland’s debt for the work she accomplished after that legal battle — and the work was pretty striking before then. De Havilland won her first Oscar for “To Each His Own” (1946), and her second for the splendid and moving “The Heiress” (1949), a film she essentially co-produced without credit (she saw the stage version of the Henry James novel “Washington Square” on Broadway and brought it to director William Wyler).

In between those two she starred in “The Snake Pit” (1948). At the time, the drama’s treatment of mental illness stood out against much of Hollywood’s treatment of similar themes. De Havilland’s fierce portrayal of a woman circling the drain of sanity retains tremendous power.

She always had more than a touch of class in her favor, along with the ability — the hunger, really — to break through the artifice and the limitations of her ingenue-bred image. Born in Tokyo in 1916, de Havilland was the daughter of Lillian, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained actress and Walter, her philandering professor husband. Relocating to England, the uneasy family (both Olivia and Joan coped with various illnesses in childhood) docked in San Francisco, where the girls’ mother decided to make a home nearby in Saratoga, Calif. Their father fled the scene, going back to Tokyo and eventually remarrying. Lillian too remarried.

Here’s how de Havilland made her own luck in the movies. At 18, she played Puck in the Saratoga Community Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” An assistant to the theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt, who was preparing a lavish Hollywood Bowl staging of the same Shakespeare comedy — this was in 1934 — saw de Havilland’s performance, arranged a meeting and Reinhardt offered her the second-understudy job for the role of Hermia.

The actress cast as Hermia left the production a week prior to opening, as did the first understudy. De Havilland was ready and waiting. Then, alongside some A-list Warner Brothers talent, including James Cagney and a young, screechy Mickey Rooney, she came off fantastically well in the 1935 Reinhardt “Midsummer” film version. Eager to learn the trade, she found out how to find cinematographer Hal Mohr’s silvery light to her advantage, how to modulate a theatrical performance for the camera, how to blend precise technique (and, in her case, a gorgeous, melodious speaking voice) with just enough spontaneity and a sexy sort of ardor.

In her seven Warner Brothers films opposite Errol Flynn, that spontaneity became a long flirtation walk on screen, starting with “Captain Blood” (1935). They were delightful together. Flynn claimed they had an affair; she claimed they desired it, but never saw it through. (“A rascal,” she called him.) In a 2006 interview, de Havilland recalled testing for “Captain Blood” when she was still 18, and Flynn was 25.

Away from the cameras, he asked her: “What do you want out of life?” Nobody had ever asked her that question.

“I would like respect for difficult work, well done,” she replied. Flynn responded with what he wanted, which according to de Havilland, was simpler: “success.” And she thought to herself: “But that’s not enough.”

She didn’t give up on the movies after the first of her two marriages, and in 1953, reoriented her life toward Paris. But de Havilland had had it with the Hollywood lifestyle and finagling and obstacles. It seems strange, always, to realize that a lot of our first moviegoing encounters with great stars, who happen also to be great talents, are all about the schlock. In my case, with de Havilland, it was probably “Airport ’77” as a kid I saw every movie with the word “Airport” in it. Even there, she’s good, acting up a polished, imperious storm in a tin tube of a set designed to be a jumbo jet at the bottom of the sea.

There are so many discoveries to be made or remade with de Havilland’s career, outside of her most famous benchmarks. Yes, she miraculously found a way to humanize and dramatize the interior longing of Melanie in that snake pit of controversy known as “Gone With the Wind.” It will always be difficult to beat “The Heiress” for a dazzling activation of a potentially passive object of potential pity, two “potentional”s brilliantly sidestepped by de Havilland.

It’s also worth seeking out her earlier performances. In director Raoul Walsh’s “Strawberry Blonde” (1941), she plays a suffragette opposite James Cagney’s testy but gradually smitten boxer. Their chemistry is as mysterious and obvious as it was with de Havilland and Errol Flynn. Or seek out “It’s Love I’m After” (1937), a brittle, high-style screwball comedy, in which she and Bette Davis and Leslie Howard work in sly harmony in a movie all about romantic dissonance.

I nearly forgot to state the obvious: She’s a peerless Maid Marian in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). But of course she made perfect stylistic sense in historical fiction. De Havilland seemed to step straight out of whatever era she was charged with bringing to life. Her birth predated the 1918 global pandemic by two years and her death came in the middle of another one. She lived history, and made it in Hollywood, and lived her own kind of stardom — which was really more about seeking her fulfillment as an artist.

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