Olivia de Hallivand, the last remaining great Hollywood star of both the golden '30s and '40s, is an irresistible woman. When the subject of birthdays comes up in the middle of an interview, she looks the writer straight in the eye and declares, "I'm old enough to be your mother!," promptly brushing aside all polite demurrals. There's something at once amusing and touching when the remark is directed at a man on the cusp of 70 and comes from a movie star who's about to turn 90. Clearly the truthfulness that characterizes De Havilland's acting comes from the woman herself.
Generations of De Havilland's fans would recognize her instantly. The expressive dark eyes, the lovely complexion, the apple cheeks remain unchanged, framed by an elegant swath of silver hair, truly her crowning glory, swept up in an impeccable French twist. Blessed with robust health and an abundant love of life, she is a lively raconteur to whom laughter comes easily. De Havilland, her distinctive voice as rich and mellow as ever, understands that enduring beauty, beyond good genes, is a matter of spirit rather than artifice.
For her recent interview, in the garden of her journalist daughter Gisele Galante's spacious beachside home, De Havilland was dressed simply in a powder-blue skirt, an ink-blue blouse and accented by a colorful silk scarf and a pair of gold earrings.
De Havilland, who has lived in France since marrying the late Paris Match editor Pierre Galante in 1955, is in town for a tribute to her being held Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The event launches a retrospective of her finest films screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art beginning Friday and running through July 1. De Havilland will discuss "The Heiress" preceding its 8 p.m. screening Sunday.
She is undoubtedly best remembered as the noble-minded yet resilient Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," managing to bring dimension and humanity to a woman of unassailable purity and garnering an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. But she found even wider-ranging roles in "To Each His Own" (1946), for which De Havilland won her first best actress Oscar as a small-town upstate New York teenager who finds herself unwed and pregnant through a whirlwind World War I romance, and in "The Snake Pit" (1948), which earned her a best actress nomination for her portrayal of a young wife stricken with mental illness and thrust into a hellish state institution.
But "The Heiress" (1949), directed by William Wyler, which brought De Havilland her second Oscar, playing a Henry James spinster beset by the cruelties of an overbearing father (Ralph Richardson) and an untrustworthy suitor (Montgomery Clift), is a highlight in a career that could strike envy even in as versatile and successful an actress as Nicole Kidman.
De Havilland has been blessed by a deceptively demure cameo-like beauty that has allowed her to reveal layers of underlying warmth, passion and intelligence in her characters. She has shown that strength and femininity are hardly mutually exclusive, and the meticulously developed scripts that came alive within the stylized world of the studio system allowed De Havilland to create truly complete women, something that few young actresses have the opportunity to do in today's Hollywood. Her major films have stood the test of time, a phrase cherished by the American Film Institute — which has yet to honor her with a lifetime achievement award.
Unhesitatingly, De Havilland selects "The Snake Pit," directed by Anatole Litvak from Mary Jane Ward's autobiographical novel, as the film that means most to her.
"Remember, we made this at a time when there was still a medieval attitude toward mental illness. People just didn't talk about such things — they were considered shameful. The case in our film was that of a seriously deranged young woman at a time when there weren't any modern chemicals — just electric shock and hydrotherapy."
Ultimately, De Havilland's heroine is saved by therapy sessions with a dedicated staff psychiatrist (Leo Genn) who defies a sclerotic and underfunded bureaucracy to provide her with the help she needs. Alas, "The Snake Pit" in many ways remains all too unsettlingly timely. What especially attracted De Havilland to the project was her 1943 wartime tour of six military hospitals, including their mental wards, stretching from Chicago to Alaska and the South Pacific to Oklahoma, where she spent a Christmas Eve with a group of soldiers who had no reaction either to her presence or to a recording of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."
"That was a hard Christmas, but harder for them than for me," said De Havilland, who recalled that the public at the time had little awareness of the existence of these wards.
According to De Havilland, she was able to go on the tour only because she was on suspension from Warner Bros., which led her to take on then-studio head Jack Warner in court and successfully bring to an end the servitude that could emerge from the studio era's classic seven-year contract. (Every time an actor refused to play a part, his or her contract was extended to cover the time it took for a replacement player to fill the role.)
"I really had no choice but to fight," said De Havilland, who had balked when she was handed a script in which she had a decidedly small part and told to report on loan-out to Columbia the following Monday. She instead sought out Martin Gang, known for decades as one of Hollywood's most formidable attorneys, who showed her that state labor laws say that a seven-year contract commitment is for seven calendar years, period.
"Providing the judge was honest, the outcome in court seemed perfectly clear. I never really understood why Jack wanted to fight this. I wanted to bring Oscars to Jack, but he did everything to prevent me from doing so." (It was at Paramount where De Havilland won both her Oscars — and no, Warner did not congratulate her.)
Still, De Havilland was not about to take chances. "The Warners attorney painted me as a spoiled movie star, so I defended myself as demurely as I could, and I decided to wear a little black hat with a little black veil." She said that it was only several years ago that she came to realize the full impact of her stand, which led to a drawn-out legal battle, when veteran Hollywood executive and recently retired Turner Entertainment Co. President Roger Mayer let her know what it had meant to screenwriters at the time. "Roger told me that writers would be assigned to stories for which they were totally unsuitable but faced suspension if they refused, but now they could retain their integrity."
A loyalty to Mitchell LeisenOF all the filmmakers who directed her in more than 40 feature films, De Havilland retains a special fondness for the late Mitchell Leisen, who directed her not only in "To Each His Own" but also in "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941), in which she plays an adorably naive Azusa schoolteacher on a cross-the-border outing in Mexico when she meets European lounge lizard Charles Boyer, who determines to marry her to get into the U.S. Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, "Hold Back the Dawn" allows De Havilland to reveal the passion and vulnerability lurking in a seemingly prim and decidedly unsophisticated woman. It also earned her yet another Oscar nomination for best actress. When the chance to do "To Each His Own" came up, De Havilland decided that Leisen was the only director at Paramount to do it. "But he was going through some emotional problems at the time and turned it down, but I held firm," said De Havilland, who refused to sign on unless Leisen was involved.
"Even when I heard that Ingrid Bergman was reading the script, which certainly worried me, I still held firm, and after about six months, Mitch finally agreed to do the picture." Both her films for Leisen are marked by fine shadings in the performances and a concern for nuance and telling detail. "During the first two weeks of shooting he was very professional but didn't seem happy," recalled De Havilland. "Then the following Monday, when he came on the set whistling, I knew he had fallen in love with the film. He even acted out my character in her early days of her pregnancy and showed me how I should lean against a table, something I had not thought of myself, and I knew he really understood my role and this film."
Born to British parents in Tokyo, where her father had business interests, and her mother had taught choral music, De Havilland and her younger sister, Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine, spent much of their childhood years in the charming Northern California town of Saratoga, where she made her stage debut in 1933 in a community theater production of "Alice in Wonderland." Even though the Depression had hit her mother, who had remarried, and her stepfather hard, she recalls a happy, active childhood. She had won a scholarship to Mills College, but her dedicated study of Max Reinhardt's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre led him to invite her to be an understudy for the role of Hermia in his Hollywood Bowl production of the Shakespeare play, where she not only wound up playing the part but repeating it in Warner's elaborate, spangly 1935 production, directed by Reinhardt with William Dieterle.
Mills College kindly kept extending the start date of De Havilland's scholarship, but there came a point where, she said with a laugh, "I couldn't let down Herr Doktor Reinhardt, the greatest director in the world."
Her contract with Warners paired her almost immediately with another newcomer, Errol Flynn, and in eight films they became one of Hollywood's most popular romantic teams, starting with the swashbuckler "Captain Blood" (1935). In one of their most enduring pictures, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), shot in Technicolor, the horse on which De Havilland's Maid Marian rode was none other than Roy Rogers' famous Trigger. "I was warned that he was a bolter and to keep my head down so that I would not be struck by any tree branches," said De Havilland.
"I think of Errol all the time," admitted De Havilland. "In different ways, almost every day. On 'Captain Blood,' Stanley Logan, the dialogue director, said to me, 'That man is troubled — look at the way he is always rubbing his thumb against the cuticle of his index finger. He seems to have a great deal of inner distress.' He really was a mixed-up man, but of course he was extraordinary-looking and had great charm."
Their teaming concluded with Raoul Walsh's 1941 "They Died With Their Boots On," which offers a provocatively sympathetic view of headstrong Gen. George Custer, in which Flynn gives one of his best performances opposite De Havilland's supportive wife.
When Custer goes off to the Little Big Horn, he knows very well he is unlikely to survive the battle, and Flynn and De Havilland's farewell scene is a classic. It is overwhelmingly poignant, especially when Custer says, "Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing."
"I sensed it really was our last film together," said De Havilland, "even though I did not know it then. After all, I did have two more years to go on my contract. Yet I experienced a sense of grief and loss, a terrible feeling, but couldn't define it at the time. I had sort of a sense of that you may know a person one way but not others. Errol and I were not sharing experiences and life but instead sharing the lives of these characters we were playing.
"But, oh, he did mean a great deal to me, but in that day a woman did not declare her feelings for a man. When his autobiography came out I couldn't resist checking the index and going to the page where he mentioned me. He said he thought he loved me. " 'Thought!' That meant he didn't! I didn't read another word! Then several years ago when I was returning for the release of the DVD version of "Gone With the Wind," I was determined to read more. I began with his second sentence about me in which he said that he decided that he did love me. To think of all those years I didn't believe he did."
Even though she made her home in Paris, her residence to this day, De Havilland would regularly return to the screen and television until the late 1980s. Since then she has not acted but has continued a busy routine of participating in documentaries and film industry events and honors.
Could she still be tempted by a good script?
"Oh, that's not enough!," exclaimed De Havilland, still holding firm. "It has to have a good part for me and a good director as well."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times