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Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s Lady Triumphant

Olivia de Havilland with her Oscars in 1950.Associated Press

More than a few of the classic Hollywood stars had to be made. New name, new nose, fabricated past. Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach. Judy Garland started out as Frances Gumm.

Olivia de Havilland was born Olivia de Havilland, lived a full, rich life as Olivia de Havilland, and died Sunday as Olivia de Havilland, at 104, in her adopted city of Paris. (She moved there in 1955, as if her name itself had been calling her home). She was one of the very last surviving members of that tribe of pop culture gods and goddesses who came of age during the first decade or so of the sound era. Who’s left? Angela Lansbury? Soon there will be no one to say “This is how it was.” A lived past is on the verge of becoming history.


De Havilland had a special place in that cosmos: She was the Lady of the studio’s pre- and post-World War II Golden Age, more demure than Katharine Hepburn (that other natural aristocrat) but with a native toughness belied only by a gracious exterior. Arguably her greatest contribution came offscreen, when she sued Warner Brothers in 1943 on the grounds that extending her contract (to make up for being suspended as punishment for refusing roles) was illegal. She won the case and the appeal, and in so doing diminished the power of the studios and struck a blow for the creative freedom of actors. The legal opinion is still known as the De Havilland Law.

Olivia de Havilland in "Gone With the Wind."REUTERS

Bette Davis had tried the same trick in the 1930s but lost her case in British court; one wonders how much the de Havilland persona — direct, decorous, self-possessed — swayed the panel of judges. The decision freed her to do her best work. The actress was briefly blacklisted by the machinations of Jack Warner, but went to Paramount and quickly won two lead Oscars, for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949), the latter an adaptation of the Henry James novel “Washington Square.” In between was another best actress nomination, for “The Snake Pit” (1948), one of the first Hollywood films to treat mental illness with anything like accuracy, and “The Dark Mirror” (1946), in which de Havilland played twins, one sweet and one psychotic.


Wait, Olivia de Havilland playing a psycho killer? In truth, her talent was broader than the studios and most audiences were willing to admit. That was largely due to a defining role in a defining movie, “Gone With the Wind” (1939). She was as right for Melanie Wilkes as Clark Gable was for Rhett Butler; the character’s simple, uncluttered kindness fit de Havilland like a hand-stitched glove. A role that could have been sappy and sugary was steady and sure — the film’s moral anchor.

De Havilland’s other primary job at Warners was to be romanced and rescued by Errol Flynn in the eight films they made together, primarily swashbucklers on land and sea. The first, “Captain Blood” (1935), made them both major stars; “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), in which she’s a marvelous Technicolor Maid Marian, is one of the jewels of the Studio Era. The pairing of Flynn and de Havilland was an inspired match of bad boy and good girl, his teasing gradually disarming her wary common sense. They bantered beautifully, and if you sensed that de Havilland’s characters should know better, in reality she herself did. The actress later admitted that the attraction between the two stars was fierce and never acted upon. For one thing, Flynn was married. For another, that mattered to de Havilland.


Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress."G.E. Richardson/Paramount Pictures

As fun as many of their movies are, you had to look elsewhere to see what de Havilland could do when she was allowed to bring the full weight of her intelligence and commitment to a role. It’s there as early as her first film, the daft 1935 Warner Brothers version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which the 19-year-old actress recreates her role as Hermia from a celebrated Hollywood Bowl stage production. (The movie also stars Mickey Rooney as Puck and James Cagney as Bottom, ass’s head and all. It is best viewed in a state of slightly inebriated shock.)

In her finest roles, de Havilland excelled at playing women misjudged as strait-laced, as spinsters, only to reveal a mother lode of ardor coursing beneath. “The Heiress” is a period version, with the star frumped up as a wealthy New York wallflower courted by shifty Montgomery Clift and undercut by a belittling father (Ralph Richardson). “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941) casts her as a naïve schoolteacher romanced by gigolo Charles Boyer; the screenplay, co-written by a young Billy Wilder, gives it sass, the direction by the underrated Mitchell Leisen gives it sex, and de Havilland gives it an unexpectedly poignant heart.


That poignance is there in my favorite of the star’s movies, “To Each His Own,” also directed by Leisen. It’s a melodrama — the kind too often dismissed as a “woman’s picture” — that follows Jody Norris (de Havilland) over the decades as she ages and hardens from a young woman giving birth to a child out of wedlock to a successful businesswoman in World War II-era London. The part won her a first best actress Oscar — take that, Jack Warner — and if you make it to the final scene, one of a handful of movie moments that makes this critic blubber like a small child, you’ll know why. (The movie’s streaming on NBCUniversal’s new Peacock platform, and if you don’t mind putting up with some ads, it’s free. You’re welcome.)

There aren’t a lot of Olivia de Havilland biographies; it’s the Scarlett O’Haras of the world, not the Melanie Wilkeses, who get books written about them. (There have been a few tomes dedicated to dishing on the actress’s relationship with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, a feud that long smoldered beneath the public eye.) Last year saw the publication of perhaps the first dedicated study, by scholar Victoria Amador, of an artist who outlasted her co-stars and studio bosses and everyone else. It’s called “Lady Triumphant,” and I don’t think there’s a better title for what Olivia de Havilland did and was than that.


President George W. Bush greeted Olivia de Havilland as he presented her with the 2008 National Medal of Arts, in the East Room of the White House.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press