Olivia de Havilland at 100: One Critic’s Love Letter to the Hollywood Legend

Olivia de Havilland, one of the last living links to Hollywood’s golden age, turns 100 on July 1. Like Napoleon, she is a diminutive giant born to conquer.

Rather than invade and occupy nations, the doe-eyed brunette with the plummy contralto annexed hearts and minds. In the screen roles of Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), her chief weapons were beauty and conviction.

While she would win Academy Awards as the unwed mother in To Each His Own (1946) and the eponymous spinster in The Heiress (1949), de Havilland’s real-life 1944 lawsuit against Warner Bros may have had a more lasting impact. Talk about conviction. The actress maintained that she had fulfilled her seven-year contract signed in 1936. The studio argued that “seven years” included only her time before the cameras — not the months she was on suspension for rejecting “insubstantial” parts.

De Havilland called it peonage. On Feb. 3, 1945 the California Supreme Court agreed. Not only did winning the suit liberate the actress to choose the roles that earned her kudos and cinematic immortality — the De Havilland Law also protected future actors and musicians from being treated like corporate assets.

While I admire her activism, the quality I admire most about de Havilland is nuance. Though most of her films are black-and-white, she projects a color spectrum of emotion and intelligence. In an era when females on screen either were prudes or whores, her virtuous characters, like Melanie in GWTW and Emmy Brown, the schoolteacher in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) radiate honor, not prissiness.

I also admire that she cared more about character than costume. “The type of thing I was looking for, the other ladies wouldn’t have played,” she once said. De Havilland was secure enough in her looks that she often played unglamorous and ended up looking radiantly natural next to her made-up costars. As the freethinking plain Jane to glamor-puss Rita Hayworth in Strawberry Blonde (1941), the frowzy mental patient in The Snake Pit (1948), and the dowdy daughter in The Heiress, she didn’t allow decorations to distract from her performance. I don’t remember what she wore, but I remember those women.

Movie careers, especially those of actresses, tend to be short, but de Havilland was active on screen for more than 50 years, evolving from the dewy Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, made when she was 18) to the doughty Queen Mum in the TV movie The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). (If you’re curious, you can see the full evolution on Turner Classic Movies, where she’s the star of the month for July.)

In 1998, in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, I was fortunate to interview de Havilland for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

With the exception of her sister, the late actress Joan Fontaine (the two were famously estranged), it’s hard to think of another screen star that aged so gracefully. De Havilland’s spun-silver hair was like a halo over impish eyes and apple cheeks.

The stories she could tell! Alas, the onetime intimate of Howard Hughes, James Stewart and John Huston (she liked them tall, skinny, and smart) is the soul of discretion. She married twice, once to novelist Marcus Goodrich (they divorced in 1953) and a second time to French journalist Pierre Galante (they divorced in 1979). Since 1955, de Havilland has lived in Paris, where she wrote her droll 1962 memoir Every Frenchman Has One. In honor of her centenary, the book has been reissued with a new afterward from the author in which she said that 60 years in France have taught her the “importance of tact, restraint and subtlety.” On that score, I think de Havilland gives far too much credit to her years in France. In every screen performance she’s given since she was a teenager, she’s exhibited those traits in abundance.

A (very brief) de Havilland screening guide:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
It has action, adventure and romance, and the dashing Errol Flynn and the incandescent de Havilland. Offscreen, the leads were besotted with each other. Alas, Flynn was married. As she told it, to get her attention he snuck into her dressing room and put a dead snake in her underdrawers. “That was the only way he would ever get into my pantalets,” she said with a mischievous smile. (Available on iTunes)

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
One of the great romances. Charles Boyer, a Romanian gigolo, is in a Mexican bordertown, hoping to emigrate to the U.S. He is enmeshed with old pal Paulette Goddard who urges him to marry an American to get citizenship, as she has. He meets unsuspecting schoolteacher de Havilland, cynically professes his love …and then something shocking happens. (Airing on TCM July 22 at 1:45 a.m.)

To Each His Own (1946)
During World War I, de Havilland falls for an aviator who dies before she learns she is pregnant. A scheme to give birth and adopt the baby backfires, leaving a hole in her heart. She becomes a successful businesswoman. During World War II, she tells her story to a stranger in a London bomb shelter…and then something shocking happens. (Airing on TCM July 15 at 12:15 a.m.)

The Heiress (1949) and My Cousin Rachel (1952)
Two great literary adaptations, the former of Henry James’ Washington Square in which de Havilland plays a drab woman without mystery, the latter of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic novel, in which de Havilland plays a woman of mystery. She exquisitely underplays them both. (The Heiress: available on DVD and airing on TCM July 15 at 10 p.m.; My Cousin Rachel: available on Google Play)