Olivia de Havilland: fighter for sophistication and rights

Olivia de Havilland was stylish and always friendly but fought hard for her rights as an actress. It was this will that distinguished her best roles. An Obituary

Actually, Olivia de Havilland wanted to live forever, in perfect health. And should she have to leave this life, the actress imagined that she was draped on a chaise longue, surrounded by perfume, wrapped in a velvet robe and decorated with pearl earrings. We simply assume that she succeeded in this or that similarly. She died of natural causes in Paris on Sunday, aged 104.

[“It would be a nice closing picture for a great career and a special life that began on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, where de Havilland was born as the first daughter of British parents, an actress and a patent attorney. Three years later her parents separated and she moved to California with her mother and younger sister, the later actress Joan Fontaine. Already as a teenager de Havilland was discovered by the emigrated Austrian Max Reinhardt at a school performance of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and was engaged as Hermia at once, first for his stage production, a little later also for the film version. So de Havilland landed a multi-year contract in Jack Warner’s studio, which soon turned out to be much less glamorous than it sounded.”] [“Certainly, it was the powerful studio boss who brought the beautiful English woman together with the Australian Beau Errol Flynn and created the romantic action-adventure dream couple of the 1930s: in films like Under the Pirate’s Flag (1935) or The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) he was the daring seducer, she the distinguished beauty who reluctantly succumbs to his rough charm. The champagne-sparkling chemistry between the two of them made even the formulaic constructions sparkle. With true seriousness, de Havilland gave depth to the thin rolls; she didn’t have much to do, but she made the most of it, so that a small scene on a balcony became a Romeo and Juliet event: Her standing up there, trembling with anticipation as he begins to climb up to her. How she tries to conceal her excitement, but then flinches in horror when he slips, until she gives herself to him in an embrace and kiss, melting away. As beautiful as it looked, in real life the two denied that they had always been a couple. With other colleagues from the film industry, with James Stewart, Howard Hughes, John Huston, and with John F. Kennedy they connected more or less significant love stories. Their two marriages, from each of which a child was born, took them outside of show business.”]

De Havilland never completed a classical acting education and is said to have once asked her colleague James Cagney: “What is the secret of acting? He is said to have replied: “I only know that whatever you say, you must mean it sincerely.” That\’s exactly what de Havilland did, and she was never concerned with fame or fortune. When asked what she expected from life, she once replied: “Respect for having done difficult work well.”

[“But demanding female roles were in short supply at the Warner Studio in the thirties. There, women were above all key players at the side of men, engaged to adore them as they drove the action. Olivia de Havilland had to fight hard for more complex, intricate roles, beginning with the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s southern epic Gone with the Wind. Actually it wasn’t intended that she played in the film of a competing studio, Jack Warner, with whom she was under contract, strictly refused to lend her to David O. Selznick. But de Havilland didn’t want to miss this chance so easily and without further ado looked for an ally in his wife Anne behind the back of their studio boss. He actually succeeded in changing her husband’s mind. This art of putting a good face on the outside and playing hard to get and still single-mindedly pursuing one’s own goals always shines through in her best roles, both as the cheated daughter in Erbin (1949) and as the deceitful legacy hunter in Meine Cousine Rachel (1952).”] [“But first she fought her way to her first big role at the age of just 22, in David O. Selznick’s famous Southern epic. Gentle, kind, unconditionally devoted and always willing to sacrifice, she embodied Ashley’s loving wife Melanie in Gone with the Wind. And although Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara wooed the man of her dreams, played by Trevor Howard, quite openly and aggressively, she persisted in bows and frills, bonnets and flared skirts without any guile and cunning, and with a mild smile and a forgiving look she always insinuated only the best intentions of her rival. She was a down-to-earth contrast to the capriciously exaggerated Scarlett and yet illuminated by an inner light.”]

“Melanie was a challenge,” de Havilland summed up many years later (and many years before the discussion about racist portrayals in the film): “Unlike my roles before, which were not real people at all, who had no opportunity to develop. Melanie was a real personality, compassionate and caring and at the same time intelligent and strong. Above all, she was a woman with a great capacity for happiness. I knew the film would be successful because it told a true story about true people. ” After a legendarily difficult production story with huge budget overruns and multiple changes in the director\’s chair, the film actually became a huge triumph and brought de Havilland her first Oscar nomination.

Afterwards she returned to the studio as a great star but instead of adorning herself with her Jack Warner let her continue to be a petty girl. If she dared refuse a role, she was suspended. After three years she decided to stand up alone against the overpowering studio system. She went to court in 1943. At the price of not being allowed to work for two years, in a lengthy and risky process she enforced the de Havilland law, which is still named after her today, which freed actors from the gagging contracts of the studio system, thus heralding the end of the era of classic Hollywood: After that, studios were forbidden to enforce a professional ban by their contract with an actor or actress. Even contracts of more than seven years duration were prohibited.

Image source: https://bit.ly/39wsYAO

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