100 Years Of Olivia De Havilland Handling Sexism, Her Sister, And Scarlett O'Hara

Jul 1, 2016
Originally published on July 1, 2016 6:54 pm

Actress Olivia de Havilland, the last surviving star of the most popular film of all time, retired from showbiz decades ago, apparently feeling that 49 films, two best actress Oscars, and a best-selling memoir were accomplishment enough for one career.

Friday in Paris, she celebrates her 100th birthday, which seems a good moment to reflect on the mix of sparkle and resilience that marked her public life.

She got her start onscreen as a sweet Hermia in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, graduated to being a sweet ingenue in a slew of forgettable comedies, and then someone had the bright idea of casting her opposite Errol Flynn. He was a swashbuckler, and standing opposite him, de Havilland got feisty.

They made eight pictures altogether, including the one that made her a star: The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which she played a sly, spunky Maid Marian. De Havilland looked like she had stepped out of a storybook, but she also gave the character intelligence and dignity. That clicked with audiences but did her no good at all with the brothers Warner, who kept casting her as ditzes.

Happily, a rival studio asked if it could borrow her as a foil for its ditz — Vivien Leigh, who had just been cast as vain, self-centered Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Leigh would flutter, they figured, and de Havilland's down-to-earth Melanie would anchor the story. And she did. An angel to Scarlett's hellcat, Melanie believed the best about everyone, and de Havilland made her belief credible by grounding the character with generosity, humility, self-sacrifice — all the qualities Scarlett lacked. No one could have been more saintly.

Off-screen, though, de Havilland was now able to be more assertive. Having proved she could do substantial roles, she started turning down sweet-young-thing parts, and Warner Bros. responded by placing her on a six-month suspension, then refusing to release her from her contract until she had made up the six months. She sued, and not only won but got a landmark judgment — known as the de Havilland decision — that limited the terms studios could impose on actors. The victory came at a price: She didn't make a film for three years. But when she finally did, she won her first Oscar as an unwed mother forced to give up her child in To Each His Own.

Oscar voters seemed to like the suffering de Havilland. She followed up that win with back-to-back best actress nominations for having a mental breakdown in The Snake Pit and a romantic breakdown in The Heiress. She won a second best actress Oscar for the latter.

But by Hollywood standards, she was now an old lady of 33. Roles came less frequently back then to actresses as they approached their 40s. And when de Havilland complicated the equation by moving to France, and turning down the part of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, her star wattage began to dim.

Not that she disappeared. Television beckoned with some of those meaty roles she had wanted. And when Joan Crawford fell ill and had to drop out of Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, de Havilland got to torment Bette Davis in what turned out to be the plummiest of plum old-lady roles.

She and Davis played dueling cousins, but 1960s audiences, primed by gossip columnists, thought they saw glimmers of a real-life relative when de Havilland's eyes flashed daggers. She and her baby sister, Joan Fontaine, had supposedly been feuding since childhood, a notion nurtured by studio publicists. Fontaine won an Oscar first, and married first ... and once quipped, "If I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

They both claimed publicly there wasn't an actual feud, though Fontaine kept the pot boiling with anecdotes in her autobiography and with catty replies when interviewers brought up childhood spats — say a physical altercation that resulted in Fontaine's breaking a collarbone.

"I'm sure it wasn't entirely intentional," Fontaine said to interviewers, with a laugh.

De Havilland did not take the bait, then or ever. She smiled sweetly when the subject of her sister came up and took her cues from ... well, from Melanie, more or less. Scarlett, after all, had been just awful to her, and what did she say?

"Oh Scarlett, you've been so good to me. No sister could've been sweeter."

No sister indeed. De Havilland was 22 when she said that line, still learning about life as her character was giving up the ghost.

She was the only star to die in Gone With the Wind, so perhaps it's fitting that she should be the star who gets to shine on in seeming perpetuity, a storied figure from Hollywood's golden age.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara was a hellcat in "Gone With The Wind," her sister-in-law Melanie was an angel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) No war can come into our world, Ashley. Whatever comes, I'll love you just as I do now until I die.

SIEGEL: Actress Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving star of the most popular film of all time. She retired from show biz decades ago. Apparently, she felt that 49 films, two Best Actress Oscars and a best-selling memoir were accomplishment enough for one career. Well, today in Paris, de Havilland celebrates her 100th birthday. And our critic Bob Mondello says she's got a lot to celebrate.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She was a sweet Hermia in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," a sweet ingenue in a slew of forgettable comedies. And then someone had the bright idea of casting her opposite Errol Flynn. He was a swashbuckler and standing opposite him, Olivia de Havilland got feisty in eight pictures all together, including the one that made her a star, "The Adventures of Robin Hood," where she played Maid Marian.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) May I serve you, my lady?

DE HAVILLAND: (As Maid Marian) I'm afraid the company has spoiled my appetite.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, misfortune. Now, mine is excellent.

MONDELLO: De Havilland looked like she'd stepped out of a storybook, but also gave the character intelligence and dignity that clicked with audiences but did her no good at all with the Brothers Warner who kept casting her as ditzes.

Happily, a rival studio asked if it could borrow her as a foil for their ditz, Vivien Leigh, who'd just been cast as vain, self-centered Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind." Leigh would flutter, they figured, and de Havilland's down-to-Earth Melanie would anchor the story. And she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

VIVIEN LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Melanie Hamilton, what a surprise to run into you here. I hope you're going to stay with us a few days at least.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) I hope I shall stay long enough for us to become real friends, Scarlett. I do so want us to be.

LESLIE HOWARD: (As Ashley Wilkes) We'll keep her here, won't we Scarlett?

LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Oh, we'll just have to make the biggest fuss over her, won't we Ashley? If there's anybody who knows how to give a girl a good time, it's Ashley. Though, I expect our good times will seem terribly silly to you because you're so serious.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) Oh, Scarlett, you have so much life. I've always admired you so. I wish I could be more like you.

MONDELLO: Melanie believed the best about everyone, and de Havilland made her belief credible by grounding the character with generosity, humility, self-sacrifice - all the qualities Scarlett lacked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ladies, the Confederacy asked for your jewelry on behalf of our noble cause.

LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) We aren't wearing any. We're in mourning.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) Just a moment, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But it's your wedding ring, ma'am.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) It may help my husband more off my finger.

MONDELLO: No one could have been more saintly. Offscreen, though, de Havilland was now able to be more assertive. Having proven she could do substantial roles, she started turning down sweet-young-thing parts and Warner Brothers responded by placing her on a six-month suspension.

She sued and not only won, but got a landmark judgment known as the de Havilland decision that limited the terms studios could impose on actors. The victory came at a price. She didn't make a film for three years, but when she finally did, she won her first Oscar as an unwed mother forced to give up her child in "To Each His Own."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO EACH HIS OWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) If the people of this town so much as suspect he's yours, that little fella's life won't be worth living.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Jody Norris) I can't give him up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You've got to.

DE HAVILLAND: (As Jody Norris) No.

MONDELLO: Oscar voters seemed to like the suffering de Havilland. She followed up that win with back-to-back Best Actress nominations for having a mental breakdown in "The Snake Pit."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SNAKE PIT")

DE HAVILLAND: (Virginia Cunningham) Oh, I don't know why.

MONDELLO: And a romantic break down in "The Heiress."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HEIRESS")

DE HAVILLAND: (As Catherine Sloper) He must come. He must take me away. He must love me.

MONDELLO: She won a second Best Actress Oscar for "The Heiress." But by Hollywood standards, she was now an old lady of 33. Roles came less frequently back then to actresses as they approached their 40s. And when de Havilland complicated the equation by moving to France and turning down the part of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," her star wattage began to dim, not that she disappeared.

Television beckoned with some of those meaty roles she'd wanted. And when Joan Crawford fell ill and had to drop out of "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," de Havilland got to torment Bette Davis in what turned out to be the plumiest of plum old lady roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUSH... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE")

DE HAVILLAND: (As Miriam Deering) Your father always favoring you and holding you up as an example. Why wouldn't I tell him that his pure darling little girl was having a dirty, little affair with a married man?

BETTE DAVIS: (As Charlotte Hollis) You're a foul sorry little...

MONDELLO: These two played dueling cousins here, but 60s audiences primed by gossip columnists thought they saw glimmers of a real life relative when de Havilland's eyes flashed daggers.

She and her baby sister Joan Fontaine had supposedly been feuding since childhood, a notion nurtured by studio publicists. Fontaine won an Oscar first and married first and once quipped, if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it. They both claimed publicly there wasn't an actual feud, though Fontaine kept the pot boiling with anecdotes in her autobiography and with catty replies when interviewers brought up childhood spats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Breaking your collarbone was certainly...

JOAN FONTAINE: That was an accident. I'm sure it wasn't entirely intentional (laughter).

MONDELLO: De Havilland did not take the bait then or ever. She smiled sweetly when the subject of her sister came up and took her cues from, well - from Melanie more or less. Scarlett, after all, had been just awful to her and what did she say?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Hamilton) Oh, Scarlett, darling, you've been so good to me. No sister could have been sweeter.

MONDELLO: No sister indeed. De Havilland was 22 when she said that line. Still learning about life as her character was giving up the ghost. She was the only star to die in "Gone With The Wind." So perhaps it's fitting that she should be the star who gets to shine on in the seeming perpetuity, a storied figure from Hollywood's Golden Age. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.