Olivia de Havilland, a star still shining

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday January 15, 2019
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Olivia de Havilland, a star still shining

Olivia de Havilland (b. 1916), the last living star from the 1930s, published "Every Frenchman Has One" (1961) about her life in France following her marriage to Paris "Match" editor Pierre Galante, but has yet to write her memoirs. Ellis Amburn's "Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood" (Lyons Press, $27.95) attempts to remedy that.

She made her debut as Hermia in William Dieterle's/Max Reinhardt's 1935 film of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She had played the part at the Hollywood Bowl in the legendary Reinhardt production, having left Mills College to join his company. Warner Bros. signed her to a seven-year contract. She was rushed into many films, notably opposite Errol Flynn (1909-59) in hits like "Captain Blood" (1935), and as a beautiful, spirited Maid Marion in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). They made seven smash pictures together.

Major stardom followed her exquisite performance as Melanie in 1939's "Gone With the Wind." The 1940s were her peak years, although she continued appearing in movies and television until the late 1980s.

Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in Tokyo to English ex-pats. Her sister, future star Joan Fontaine (nee Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, 1917-2013), was 15 months younger. When the girls were little, their parents divorced. Their mother relocated them to Saratoga, CA, near San Francisco. They competed intensely for their mother's affection, which may have carried over into their professional lives. They're the only sisters to have won the Best Actress Academy Award. (Fontaine changed her name to avoid trading on her sister's reputation.)

Amburn claims that de Havilland lost the role of the second Mrs. De Winter in 1940's "Rebecca" to Fontaine, which made her famous. (Surviving screen tests for that very sought-after part include those by Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, Anne Baxter, and Fontaine.) He quotes de Havilland admitting her disappointment yet saying that Fontaine was a better choice. Fontaine's Oscar came for 1941's "Suspicion." De Havilland was among that year's losing nominees.

Amburn doesn't shed much light on the reasons for their often-strained relationship, with flare-ups discussed in the press. Yet in the late 1960s, when de Havilland needed money, Fontaine leant her a substantial sum, then suggested she go on the lucrative lecture circuit, which she did, and soon repaid the debt. According to Fontaine's 1978 memoir "No Bed of Roses," the (presumed) final break occurred during their mother's last illness and in the planning of her memorial service. De Havilland generally remained silent until after her sister's death.

Amburn, a sympathetic biographer, knew de Havilland years ago, but didn't interview her for this book. He relies primarily on secondary sources, often gossip columns and interviews. He's good when assessing her complex relationship with the charismatic, handsome Flynn, who loved her deeply, but only revealed it late in life. She reciprocated his feelings, but also kept them to herself. During their years as a screen couple, he was married, making him off-limits to her. He was a womanizer and a drinker, not ideal husband material. She, on the other hand, was a dedicated, disciplined performer who didn't rush into marriage, despite serious romances with James Stewart and John Huston.

Amburn is effective discussing the de Havilland Decision, resulting from her 1942 suit against Warners over the expiration of her contract. The studio contended that the periods when she had been on suspension should be added to it, thereby extending the end date. She objected, sued, and won, but was off the screen for several years. That landmark decision still benefits performers.

She returned to films in 1946's "To Each His Own," as an unwed mother who gives her son up for adoption, for which she won her first Best Actress Oscar, and "The Dark Mirror," playing identical twins, one good, one evil — a virtuoso performance, although Amburn dismisses it. Her graphic yet restrained portrayal of a mentally ill woman in "The Snake Pit" (1948) earned a losing Oscar nod but garnered the New York Film Critics Best Actress Award. She collected both prizes for her superb Catherine Sloper in William Wyler's "The Heiress" (1949), based on Henry James' "Washington Square."

In 1946, she married writer Marcus Goodrich, who pushed her to star in Broadway revivals of "Romeo & Juliet" and "Candida," both poorly reviewed, although the latter was a box-office hit in a pre-New York tour. Amburn plausibly explains why she rejected Blanche in the 1951 movie of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."

She was back on screen as "My Cousin Rachel" (1952), from Daphne Du Maurier's novel — an appropriately ambiguous performance. Among her more interesting later films are 1962's "A Light in the Piazza," playing a mother of a mentally limited daughter, and 1964's "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte," in which she replaced Joan Crawford to co-star with old friend Bette Davis.

She and Goodrich had a son, Benjamin, but his abusive behavior resulted in a 1953 divorce. She had a daughter, Giselle, by Galante. They separated in 1962 but lived together for their daughter's sake. They divorced amicably in 1979. She cared for him in her Paris home during his final illness. Amburn offers few details about why the marriage ended.

In the 1960s, she was a frequent presenter on Oscar telecasts, and she received a lengthy standing ovation when she appeared on the 2003 show. In 1991, her beloved son Benjamin died, aged 41, from overradiation for treatment of lymphoma, leaving her brokenhearted.

In 2017, Catherine Zeta-Jones played her in the Netflix miniseries "Feud," about the rivalry between Crawford and Davis. De Havilland sued, claiming comments attributed to her about Fontaine were false. Additionally, she hadn't given anyone permission to portray her. A final decision hasn't been rendered.

She's active in Paris' American Church, occasionally grants interviews, battles macular degeneration and hearing loss, is understandably proud of her achievements, yet is fully engaged in the present. Admirers hope she's also writing her autobiography.