I still remember the first scene I ever saw Olivia de Havilland in. Sweeping towards the audience, matronly in her large hooped gown, across the foyer, an expression of sincere joy upon sighting the woman who lusted after her fiancee; no malice, no ill-intention, simply open-hearted warmth. A perfect opposite to Vivien Leigh's vixen-like heroine, the role she played was Melanie Hamilton and became the beacon of good-will in film filled with hardship and survival. I remember how I felt watching her scenes, her kindness a breath of fresh air, neither sickly-sweet or disillusioned. Having read the book, I didn't expect to be introduced to a Melanie Hamilton quite so electric on screen.
Not as scandalous as Elizabeth Taylor, nor as distinctly volatile as Bette Davis, de Havilland still stands amongst the legends as the Golden Age of Hollywood's' most gentle and respectable leading ladies. Famous for roles such as her Melanie Hamilton (Later Wilkes) in Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) and Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz, Keighley, 1938), the two-time Academy Award winner made her name for playing the kind matriarch that all other women would aspire to be.
However this did not make her any less exciting beside her counter-parts, not in the least. Growing up amongst actors, and working the stage from a young age de Havilland came to notoriety, playing Hermia in the screen adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream (Reinhardt, Dieterle, 1935) at just eighteen years old. She went on to become a household name standing out amongst her contemporaries for her virtuous roles in an era of 'bad women'.
"I am afraid of nothing, least of all you." Maid Marian to Robin Hood - The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
In some of her most beloved roles, she would be sharing the screen with the sex symbol of the time, Errol Flynn. Working together a total of eight times, she starred in his most successful films, including the aforementioned Robin Hood, Captain Blood (Curtiz, 1935), The Private Live of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz, 1939) and They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh, 1941), de Havilland held her own beside the reckless Flynn in many a costume romance, her honesty, wit and good-heart eventually stealing his own. Their chemistry was undeniable, sparks flew when they were on screen together (de Havilland would later admit that she was very much attracted to him but never allowed a relationship to be pursued between the two). Meanwhile women idolised her; she was a beacon of light to the Flynn fans, that a good girl could claim the heart of even the most wandering of eyes.
My own personal favourite moment between de Havilland and Flynn occurs in Robin Hood. It is a role I loved for her most for, in a scene in which I could only have dreamed of being her then and there. Robin ascends the castle walls to visit Maid Marian one night; a war of words, playful recklessness and eventual confessions of love all bubbling with overwhelming romance and fantasy proceed to follow. The way they look at one another, the tension that radiates form both of them makes it one of the most iconic scenes of the Golden Age.
"Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing." - George Armstrong Custer, They Died with their Boots On (1941)
Her peers admired her. She was a woman who knew what she wanted and would go after it, never one to shy away from confrontation for the good of a role. Close friends with Bette Davis, having starred many films together such as It's Love I'm After (Mayo, 1937) , Elizabeth and Essex , In This Our Life (Huston, 1942) and years later Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Alrich, 1964).Usually rivals with their final film shifting the equilibrium between them, she was an actress as brave as Bette Davis when it came to the roles she took on. Never afraid to allow the make-up team to do their worst, looking sickly and plain or get her hands dirty her turn in the role of a schizophrenic inmate in the acclaimed The Snake Pit (Litvak, 1948) for which she was later nominated. She was even required to record the noises of Scarlett O'Hara retching after her return to Tara, following the fall of Atlanta, as Vivien Leigh deemed it unladylike-like for herself to do it. But she had fun doing those sorts of things, as she stated in the The Making of a Legend (Hinton, 1988) of the film I, and also playing pranks on set, never afraid to get her hands dirty. Of those who worked with her, they recalled she was mischievous behind the scenes with a wicked sense of humour.
Off-screen she would fight against the studio system which required actors to work under contract to a single studio, being loaned out for business deals or as punishment to the actor. When her time with Warner Brothers was meant to came to an end, they chose not to release her just yet and she took them court over the proceedings (Davis had attempted and failed in the 1930's). Eventually she was let go but black-listed by most studios, unable to work effectively in the system for two years. This was no hindrance, however as through the 1940's was able to work on far more challenging and meatier roles in films such as Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 1946) and her academy award winning turn in The Heiress (Wyler, 1949)
"She's a pale-face, mealy-mouthed ninny and I hate Her!" - Scarlett O'Hara, Gone withe the Wind (1939)
She will forever be immortalised for her part as Melanie in Gone with the Wind, for which she won her first academy award for best supporting actress. A character often considered too passive, too responsible and sometimes just too dull in comparison with the far more meaty and exciting parts in Scarlett, Rhett Butler and Mammy, de Havilland found the fire and the fight in the woman that made her such a reliable ally to the protagonists throughout the tale. Melanie was always the strongest of them all. She becomes the backbone of the cast, finding the good in all of them despite all their flaws. Her charm and on screen charisma lifts the character from the page and brings her to life with such warmth and humility, you'd be hard pressed to find a dry-eye in the room following her last scenes.
De Havilland went quiet in later years, working occasionally in television and eventually retiring to Paris whilst still remaining active in the film world, attending special events and providing her endorsement and voice work on a variety of minor projects. She became stuff of Historical Hollywood gossip due to her 'feud' with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine. These stemmed from various places including rumours of jealousy over roles and award wins but we'll never know who was right, who was wrong or how their relationship really was. She denied many of the claims. The actress would later dispute slander in the form of poorly received Televisions, Feud: Betty and Joan (2017) series which fictionalised the relationship between her and Fontaine. But this isn't how either of them deserve to be remembered.
"Playing good girls in the 30's was difficult, when the fad was to play bad girls. Actually I think playing bad girls is a bore; I have always had more luck with good girl roles because they require more from an actress." - Olivia de Havilland
In her own right, de Havilland was a powerful actress, an almost forgotten gem. And we shouldn't forget, just like so many of the classic actors of days gone by but few remaining and far between. Because by forgetting, we forget how far we have come in cinema, in storytelling. Without them, opening doors that otherwise were firmly shut many people would not be working today or be given the credit they rightly deserve. De Havilland challenging the studios later brought the disassembly of an outdated and broken system that hindered creativity and artists freedom.
The Golden Age is long gone. It's sad to lose another legend, it's sadder if we forget the past. Because in forgetting the mistakes and achievements of those before us, we remain ignorant of how to move forward. But the stories still survive and stand strong. Without actresses like de Havilland, bringing soul to the characters other actresses would have found too dull or too depressing, changing them into the very heart of the story, they wouldn't be worth remembering.
Olivia de Havilland
1916 - 2020