Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland


On 1 July 1916  in Tokyo, Olivia de Havilland was born (to British parents). She, her mother, and her younger sister (later Joan Fontaine) moved to Saratoga on the San Francisco peninsula three years later and the girls went to school there following their parents’ divorce. She went on to the all-women Mills College in Oakland, where she was noticed in a play by the legendary German imperssario Max Reinhardt, who took her to Hollywood to appear in the Warner Brothers’ 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (most notable for James Cagney playing Bottom).

Also in 1935, she was paired for the first of nine times with Errol Flynn, in “Captain Blood.” She was lent to David Selznick/MGM to play Melanie, the woman who gets the man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) that Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) wanted (for reasons that escape me, and is a friend of the man Scarlett should have (and throws away), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in “Gone with the WInd” (1939).

She was very touching in “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), being used by Charles Boyer playing a Romanian in need of an American bride, and was nominated again (she’d been nominated as best supporting actress in GTWT, losing to Hattie McDaniel in GTWT, as Vivien Leigh was acclaimed best actress). It must have been a bitter pill to swallow her hated sister, Joan, winning the Oscar (for Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”) and de Haviland had to wait until 1946 to win her first Oscar, as the mother who gave up her son in “To Each His Own.” After not winning another in “The Snake Pit,” as most everyone had expected, she did win a second (topping her sister’s total) for William Wyler’s adaptation of Washington Square, “The Heiress” (1949). That was probably her best performance, especially not answering the door when Montgomery Clift came calling, along with suffering the nastiness of Ralph Richardson as her father.

After that, her appearances onscreen were few and far between. Bette Davis cajoled her to play the duplicitous cousin in Robert Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), the first movie in which I saw her and such other Hollywood Golden Age stars as Davis, Mary Astor, and Agnes Moorhead. I don’t know if it is a “guilty pleasure,” but I still have a soft spot for it. (A DVD special feature includes memories from Bruce Dern, who played the slain lover of Charlotte.) I was also impressed early in my old film-watching career by her 1955 performance as a Scandinavian nurse with Robert Mitchum, Broderick Crawford, Lee Marvin, Charles Bickford, and Frank Sinatra (all as doctors!) in the hospital melodrama “Not as a Stranger” (the first film directed by Stanley Kramer) and with a young Richard Burton in the title role of the 1952 “My Cousin Rachel.”

Not having read her memoir, I suspect she had the most fun playing twin sisters (how could she not draw on her own sister for the part of the bad ‘un?) in “The Dark Mirror” (1946), directed by noir master Robert Siodmak (and in some ways adumbrating her role in “Charlotte”).


De Haviland’s last big-screen appearance was in the 1979 “Fifth Musketeer,” followed by the small-screen appearance in the 1988 tv movie “The Woman He Loved” (not in the title role, which was played by Jane Alexander). She had won a Golden Globe (and been nominated for an Emmy) as the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 miniseries “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” (in which Amy Irving played the title role).

De Haviland has lived in Paris since 1953. She was married to a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, from 1955 to 1979. She is reputedly convivial and considerate, unlike her sister (contrast the accounts of each in Don Bachardy’s Stars in My Eyes).

I revere her legacy and wish her the best, having become the second two-time Oscar-winning actress to reach the centenary mark (Luis Rainer was the first).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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