The classic film community has been dealt a very painful blow today. The actress Olivia De Havilland has died at her home in France, at the age of 104. While that is certainly a remarkable age to live to, it in no way lessens the pain I feel right now at her loss. She is one of my favourite actresses and delivered some truly remarkable performances during her fifty year film career.
I was first introduced to her as the outwardly gentle and fragile, yet internally strong, Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.
That film was not only one of the first to get me interested in classic era films, but it also instantly made me a fan of a Olivia and led me to seek out more of her work.
Olivia was not only a great actress, but she was also quite the badass in real life. She took Warner Brothers Studios to court in 1943, to challenge their handling of actors contracts.
Olivia’s friend Bette Davis was also unhappy about the studios behaviour regarding contracts, and had launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against Warner Brothers in the 1930’s trying to get out of her contract.
At the time the film studios had the habit of extending actors contracts past the amount of time that had been agreed when the contract was initially drawn up and signed, by suspending actors who turned down any roles that they were told to take,and also by adding on any days not worked, such as weekends or holiday periods.
In 1943, Olivia discovered her own contract with Warner Brothers was going to be extended by an extra year. Olivia’s court case rested on an existing section of the California Labor Code which forbade employers from enforcing employee contracts for longer than seven years from the date of first performance. In June 1943, the Superior court agreed with Olivia and ruled in her favour.
The studio appealed the courts decision, but a year later the appeal court also sided with Olivia. The ruling became known as The De Havilland Law. This landmark court case loosened some of the power the studios had over their actors and earned Olivia the respect of her colleagues in the industry. Unfortunately Olivia was in effect blacklisted for her actions by the studios and couldn’t work for the next two years.
In 2017, Olivia sued FX Networks due to the way she was portrayed in the miniseries Feud. She alleged she was wrongly portrayed as a hypocrite and a gossip. She also objected to a scene where the Olivia in the series referred to her sister Joan as a “bitch”.Olivia claimed she had never referred to her sister like that. Unfortunately Olivia didn’t win this one, but the case was very interesting and was closely followed by many of us in the classic film community.
Olivia was born on the 1st of July, 1916, in Japan. Her mother, Lillian, was an actress and singer. Her father, Walter, was a professor of English at the Imperial University in Tokyo. Olivia and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, would both go on to become two of the most acclaimed and popular American actresses of the classic film era. The sisters famously had an up and down relationship from the time they were children, and sadly disputes and differences continued throughout their lives which eventually led to estrangement. Joan died in 2013.
When people hear the name Olivia De Havilland, most will instantly think of her impressive performances in The Snake Pit, Gone With The Wind, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, The Heiress, but Olivia is also superb in somewhat less well known/less discussed gems such as The Dark Mirror(in which she plays twin sisters with very different personalities), Dodge City, Captain Blood, The Strawberry Blonde, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, My Cousin Rachel.
Olivia first appeared on screen in 1935. This year was key for her because not only did it see her get her start in the film industry, but she was also paired with Errol Flynn for the first time, in the swashbuckling classic, Captain Blood. Errol and Olivia would become one of the most beloved screen teams of the classic era and made eight films together. My favourite of these films are Dodge City, Captain Blood and The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
Olivia and Errol are one of those special couples who have that magical chemistry which is clearly evident on screen. Over the years there has been a great deal of gossip about Errol and Olivia’s relationship in real life. There’s been much speculation that the pair were lovers, but Olivia later said that while they both fell in love with one another, they never acted on their feelings.
Over the years Olivia would take home two Oscars, one for her portrayal of the damaged Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, and the other for her portrayal of Josephine Norris in To Each His Own. Quite how she didn’t receive a third Oscar for her harrowing performance as the mentally ill, Virginia Cunningham, in The Snake Pit is beyond me. That film features what may well be her best performance.
My top five Olivia De Havilland films? The Snake Pit, The Dark Mirror, The Heiress, Gone With The Wind, Dodge City. She is at her best in these five films as far as I’m concerned. Not only do I love these films for their stories, characters and her performances, but because these films also highlight her great versatility as an actress.
The word legend is often bandied about, but it is perfectly apt in Olivia’s case. She was one of our last links to Hollywood’s Golden era. While my heart is heavy, I take comfort in the vast film legacy she has left behind her. My hope is that future generations will seek out her work and discover her great talent. R.I.P, Olivia. Thank you for so many remarkable performances and memorable characters.