When we think of two-time Academy Award winner Olivia De Havilland turning 100 on July 1st, our minds stagger to know that a fire from classical Hollywood is still burning. While it’s tempting to think that De Havilland’s career stretches over all of Hollywood history, in fact our appreciation of her begins by recognizing that De Havilland came along at, and helped to bring forward, a very specific and welcome change to the American film industry. Without mentioning De Havilland, David Denby wrote about the change in last month’s New Yorker.
[quotes quotes_style=”bquotes” quotes_pos=”center”]If sexual frankness disappeared, tawdriness went with it, and the old fables of domination were replaced by a new creation: the couple, two people matched in beauty and talent who enjoy each other’s company more than anything else in the world. For women, the screenwriting strategies created out of the Code were a net gain. Unlike the pre-Code goddesses, vamps, and bad girls, who crooned or spoke in snarls and wisecracks, the post-Code women could talk…In effect, the Code licensed pleasure in a woman’s words, in her temperament, and even in her laugh.[/quotes]
Denby doesn’t elaborate on it, but the Code accelerated a change that might have happened anyway: Hollywood was getting “classier,” (if not self-consciously neo-classical). Cheap, anarchic musicals and madcap talkies starring W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers suddenly seemed not only dated, but sloppy. It was time for crinoline, for bunting, for silk dresses, for style, for prestige. It was time for literary adaptations. And to make all that work, it was time for women like Olivia De Havilland.
De Havilland broke into Hollywood with two crucial supporting roles in period, prestige pieces, as Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and as Arabella Bishop in the Tinseltown adaptation of a 1922 novel by Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood (1935). As it turned out, the latter would be the first of eight films for Warner Bros. in which De Havilland would co-star with Errol Flynn, the most famous being the remarkably evergreen The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Together Flynn and De Havilland rewrote the meaning of big-screen adventure, making such films just a little more insightful, as well as a little more fun, than they’d been in Douglas Fairbanks’ heyday.
It’s a regularly cited cliché for actors that the hardest thing to fake is intelligence. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You simply can’t cast most models as nuclear scientists (unless you’re making a bad 007 film). Somehow, Hollywood found a surfeit of beautiful, unfakeably intelligent women in the late 1930s and built an industry around them. There were so many, in fact, that we often remember only a few: Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer. The “brand” was so in demand that Hollywood could provide leading careers to both De Havilland and her similarly gifted sister, Joan Fontaine. But make no mistake: De Havilland’s “brand” of smarts, looks, and class was never easy to pull off, evidenced not only by her two Oscars but also by how rarely we see it today.
In a world, then, of strong powerhouse women, perhaps one of the canniest things an actress can do is play a role defined by vulnerability. It’s a bit like Steph Curry reacting to an NBA of ball-hogs by insisting on passing the ball. Or as De Havilland herself put it, explaining why she risked her Warners contract to audition for (the non-Warners) Gone with the Wind (1939):
[quotes quotes_style=”bquotes” quotes_pos=”center”]Jack [Warner], for example, said, “Oh, you don’t want to play Melanie. You want to play Scarlett.” I said, “I don’t want to play Scarlett. I want Melanie.”…I had for four years been earning my own living, going through all the problems of a career woman, self-supporting and even contributing to the support of others, which is what Scarlett did. That’s what Scarlett did. So, I knew about being Scarlett in a sense, but Melanie was someone different. She had very, deeply feminine qualities. Scarlett was a self-absorbed person. She had to be. Career women have to be, that’s all there is to it. But, Melanie was “other people-oriented,” and she had these feminine qualities that I felt were very endangered at that time, and they are from generation to generation, and that somehow they should be kept alive, and one way I could contribute to their being kept alive was to play Melanie, and that’s why I wanted to interpret her role…the interesting thing to me is that she was a happy person. Scarlett was not a happy woman, all self-generated and preoccupied, but there’s Melanie, “other people-oriented,” a happy woman, loving, compassionate. She had this marvelous capacity to relate to people with whom she would normally have no relationship. For example, look at her behavior with Belle Watlin, absolutely astounding, marvelous.[/quotes]
If De Havilland’s Melanie was a housecat in a world of leopards, Gone with the Wind was, conversely, a lion in a world of American shorthairs. Like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941), one reason that GWTW fascinates us today is that pre-war Hollywood was at its most Fordist – think assembly-line, interchangeable parts – and yet there are films that took years (and more dollars) to plan and execute. These pictures disrupted the rules, and those disruptions had ripple effects, one being GWTW’s continuing place as the highest-grossing film ever made (adjusting for inflation), another being De Havilland’s refusal, after the film’s success, to return to the relative indentured servitude of her contract with Warner Bros., where Jack Warner wanted her in nothing but, well, Fordist films.
From the acorn of De Havilland’s resistance to Jack Warner came today’s thousand-oak grove of star-actor autonomy. In 1930s studio contracts, which typically extended to the legal maximum of seven years, an actor could refuse a given role, but if she did, the time it took the other actor to play the role would be “tacked on” to her contract. De Havilland’s deal with Warners had been scheduled to end in 1943, but her previous role refusals had added another six months to her contract. A lot of people would have simply stuck it out for another half-year – indeed, it was common practice for other Hollywood actors to do just that, going along to get along. But it turned out that De Havilland wasn’t exactly the moonlight magnolia she played in Gone with the Wind. As she recounts it, her lawyer, Martin Gang,
[quotes quotes_style=”bquotes” quotes_pos=”center”]explained that there was a California law which limited the right of an employer to enforce a contract against an employee for more than seven years, and that no actor had dared to take advantage of the law by asking for declaratory relief, which is to say an interpretation of a law as it applied to an actor’s contract. I think a baseball player had done it, but no actor had ever dared to do it. So [Gang] said, “This is what it entails. You go into the Superior Court, and there we will probably lose. There will be a single judge, and he will be influenced by Warners’ lawyer and will see you as just a temperamental film actress. He will see it in emotional terms, not legal terms. Then we will appeal — having lost the case in Superior Court — to the appellate court, three judges, and they will judge the matters purely from the point of view of law. If we lose there, there is always the Supreme Court of the State of California to which we can appeal. So I said, “I’d like to read the law,” and he provided it. I read it. It was quite brief, only about three paragraphs long. Very clearly stated, and I thought its meaning quite obvious, that the seven years meant calendar years, not seven years of work. So I said, “Let’s go ahead with it, and we’re not going to get discouraged along the way. We will go straight to the Supreme Court.”[/quotes]
…but then something happened that they did not expect: they won. The Superior Court found De Havilland more credible than Warners’ lawyers. One has to wonder how many actresses could have pulled off such a convincing performance, then or now. Of course Warners’ lawyers continued to fight, but the “De Havilland decision” was maintained by higher courts, and its impact was felt immediately, first by returning soldier-actors, e.g. Jimmy Stewart, men whose sacrifices for their nation would no longer be punished by unfair suspensions or contract extensions. The ruling also helped writers and in fact all types of talent both above and below the line, who could now wait until they found the sorts of work they wanted. (If you’re thinking contracted actors had doomed themselves with their signatures, any contract lawyer can tell you that some contracts are unenforceable and/or illegal, the first example being any contract that makes someone into a slave.)
De Havilland wanted to do more for the war than help soldier-actors with their contracts, but women weren’t enlisted then, and unlike most of the women headlining U.S.O. tours, De Havilland (very avowedly) couldn’t sing or dance. So she flew to hospitals in the far reaches of the North and South Pacific to meet with soldiers and comfort them where she could. Perhaps traversing the ocean came naturally to De Havilland: she and her sister were born to British parents in Japan before moving to America as young kids.
If another actress had taken on the studios and won, one might have expected her to be at least unofficially blacklisted; no one forces the studios, then or now, to hire any particular person. And the industry even had her somewhat similar sister! But De Havilland was such a bright star and terrific actress that the studios not only wanted her, they helped develop the best roles of her career, from To Each His Own (1946) to The Dark Mirror (1946) to The Snake Pit (1948) to The Heiress (1949). In each of these, De Havilland, the unquestioned lead, plumbs depths of pathos and empathy in the service of powerful, dramatic, heart-rending filmmaking. For these, she earned three Oscar nominations and two wins. It’s hard to think of too many actresses, with the possible exceptions of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Lawrence, who have been permitted such a three-year run during this century.
Watching the noirish The Dark Mirror, where De Havilland plays rival twin sisters, one a Melanie-like innocent and the other a hard-bitten Stanwyck type, is particularly delicious given what we think we know about De Havilland and her star sister, Joan Fontaine. But did art really imitate life? It’s an often-told story that when De Havilland won her first Oscar, for To Each His Own, her sister Joan “snubbed” her on Olivia’s way to the podium. The industry press would later explain the “snub” as Joan’s reaction to Olivia, four years earlier, reacting to Joan’s Oscar win with “We won!” on a night when the two went head-to-head in Lead Actress. (They are still the only sisters to have competed against each other in that category.) The same media would go on to note that a 1942 Life magazine profile of the sisters barely pictured them together. Joan’s autobiography, written in the 1970s, would add more fuel to the fire, claiming that even as kids, Olivia taunted and bullied her 15-months-younger sister Joan because her (Olivia’s) performances were better received. Olivia has refused to dignify the controversy, and a few years ago, both sisters told Scott Feinberg that the idea of a century of animosity was overblown. We lost Joan only 2 ½ years ago at the age of 96; Olivia was “shocked and saddened.” One has to wonder if the press insistence on Hollywood’s most famous sister spite wasn’t partly a way of minimizing two strong, unapologetic females, if it wasn’t the same sort of sexism lampooned on “Seinfeld” when Kramer, George, and Jerry see something similar and say “c-c-c-c-c-c-catfight?”
Olivia De Havilland today lives in France. When she was born, neither French nor American women were permitted to vote. That particular barrier was removed in the United States before she reached voting age; let’s not kid ourselves about some of the related ones. De Havilland overcame considerable institutional biases against women, and if she was less than perfectly composed along the way, well, as Tina Fey once said, “bitches get stuff done.” De Havilland defied Hollywood gravity when she took on the studios and won, enabling freedom for generations across many industries; she could hardly be have expected to defy gravity twice and have a productive career as an actress over the age of 40. De Havilland made only six movies in the 1950s and three in the 1960s, and despite some admirable moments, the films haven’t aged well. Yet De Havilland has. Her recent observations about education and America’s place in the world show that she’s as relevant and perspicacious as she ever was.
One hundred years. A century. The yardstick by which we measure ancient monuments, redwood trees, and the greatest wisdom known to humanity. Somehow, a few people live as long as one of these yardsticks. When they do, it’s intuitive to think of them in terms of nature’s greatest miracles and humanity’s best accomplishments. In this case, it’s not a terrible fit. Olivia De Havilland came along at a time, and helped bring forward a time, when we needed a certain kind of poised, eloquent, no-nonsense woman who wouldn’t seem out of place in adaptations of literary adventures. She went on to expand freedom for workers inside and outside of Hollywood. The term “national treasure” gets tossed around far too liberally, but to call De Havilland a “national treasure” is to restore grace and luster to the term. Two-time Academy Award winner Olivia De Havilland’s 100th birthday is a happy outcome and a wonderful excuse to remember what’s best about her, and us. Happy Birthday Ms. De Havilland!