Screen legend Olivia De Havilland walks regally into a suite at New York City’s Essex House Hotel wearing a bright yellow linen suit, her silver-white hair swept up in a chignon, looking for all the world like an elegant Parisian--which, of course, she is.
Since 1953, she’s lived in the chic 16th arrondisement following her marriage to Pierre Gallant, a French journalist by whom she has a daughter, Giselle, also a journalist. Her first trip to New York in nearly a decade has been occasioned by New Line Cinema’s June 26 re-release of “Gone With the Wind” with a digitally remastered, color-enhanced print.
As the only surviving lead of the 1939 David O. Selznick classic (which finished fourth in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies), the 81-year-old actress is one of the last direct links to one of the most glorious chapters in film history and she plays that role obligingly as she sips coffee in a hotel suite. In the course of an interview, De Havilland is lively, spirited and, to the last syllable, theatrical, punctuating her lofty cadences with shrieks of laughter and, when the questions get too close for comfort, a look that says, “Oh, if I could only tell you, but I won’t.”
One gathers that the actress is a lot tougher and shrewder than the sweet, long-suffering, eternally noble Melanie of “GWTW,” the role with which she will most always be identified and for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, despite Academy Award-winning performances in “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949) and acclaimed turns in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Snake Pit” (another Oscar nomination), “The Dark Mirror,” “My Cousin Rachel” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.”
Question: A search of your name on the Internet yielded a note posted on a “Gone With the Wind” Web site by a young Latino from the Bronx, who had recently caught up with “Gone With the Wind” and is now a rabid fan of yours. What is it about “GWTW” that continues to captive people nearly 60 years later?
Answer: Well, it’s conflict, the conflict between two parts of the country, the conflict among the characters, the constant misunderstandings. I’ve just arrived from Europe, and we’re very worried about that conflict in Yugoslavia because it’s close to us. And when I saw “GWTW” yesterday, and I saw this devastating, terrible war portrayed, it profoundly shocked me. That element never struck me so fully before, that it happened here.
And the scenes are so wonderfully constructed. They had so much detail. Wonderful, intricate detail that’s absent from many modern films. Something happens, emotionally, psychologically, physically, every second. And there are plenty of wonderful special effects too, and those are masterful.
I’ve now seen it 27 times, I believe, and it never ceases to captivate me and move me. You’d think I’d be less vulnerable to that film, but nothing of the sort. It possessed me as fully as the first time I ever saw it. Perhaps more so.
Q: When you see the film, to what extent is it like watching a home movie for you? Have you ever been able to just sit back and watch it objectively?
A: In times past, no. But that’s exactly how I did it this time. It’s that power of that movie to reach out and pull you, draw you into the story, and into all the characters. I could identify with them all. I was identifying with Rhett! With Mammy! With the lot. It has a quality of intimacy in itself. You feel that you belong to them and they belong to you.
There was one exception to that objectivity. I did remember what this film meant to both David and Irene Selznick, his wife at the time, and the immense emotional investment they put into that film. They had very high standards, and I kept thinking of David’s love for that film when we were making it. [She becomes teary-eyed.] In a way, it’s a beautiful thing, not only to see that the film endures but all his [Selznick’s] love and passion too.
Q: There is that immortality of the spirit that film provides. Do you feel that when you see all of your now-deceased colleagues in the film?
A: That was what was so strange about yesterday. I thought to myself, “How wonderful that they’re alive. Look at you, Clark! Look at you, Vivien, you’re alive, you’re back and you’re with us!” That was just wonderful, wonderful.
And they have so much vitality. The film has so much vitality and humor. So that’s the image that has stayed with me, of Clark [Gable] and Vivien [Leigh] in those roles on the screen, so alive. And then part of my mind will start to remember Clark at a certain moment in the filmmaking, and then Vivien at another. And the next thought is, “Oh, and they’re gone.” And somehow that seems less real.
Q: Do you think those David O. Selznick standards that you referred to have fallen in filmmaking?
A: It looks like it, don’t you think? It would be very interesting to run all the contenders for the Academy Award in that year [“GWTW,” “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights"; at that time, more than five films could be nominated for best picture] and then all the contenders this year. I think if you did that, you’d have your answer.
Q: What did you think of “Titanic”?
A: Yes, well, I thought it was a good idea to make the film. It was a huge catastrophe, the ship and the dark sea and the menace and the danger. That is very gripping. And effective, and it’s been very popular.
Q: That sounds like a very diplomatic way of saying you didn’t like it much.
A: [Laughs.] Well, my opinion would not be so different from what yours would be, I would imagine.
Q: You mean that the characters and plot didn’t have nearly the same complexity and emotional content of “GWTW”?
A: Yes. Oh, yes. Yes, definitely [laughs]. But I’m not saying that. You’re saying that.
Q: Were you daunted by the fact that you might be typecast forever as Melanie, who strikes many people as too good to be true?
A: Well, I don’t think she’s that. Rare, perhaps, but she had some common sense and she was sophisticated and socially brave enough to admire and respect Scarlett. And that scene with Belle Watling, where she tells her she wants to call on her, that was courageous.
The columnists, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, thought that I should somehow protect that image. When I played in “The Snake Pit” or when I played Miss Norris, [an unwed mother] in “To Each His Own"--horrors! How could I? But I believed in following Bette Davis’ example. She didn’t care whether she looked good or bad. She just wanted to play complex, interesting, fascinating parts, a variety of human experience. I wanted Melanie to be just one of the images. Let’s have a few others.
Q: Did you read “Scarlett,” the sequel, or see the TV movie based on it?
A: Ohhhhh. You know, I have a superb memory but I can’t remember if I read the sequel or not. I didn’t see the movie. I thought it was a very poor idea, sacrilegious really. It’s an incredibly offensive idea to begin with. But here’s another thing. It was [author] Margaret Mitchell’s wish that the story end exactly where it did. I thought it was terribly wrong and artistically foolish to do a sequel.
Q: What do you think of today’s generation of movie stars and the mania surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio?
A: I find him quite beguiling, fresh and likable. I don’t think he has a counterpart from some previous generation. He’s very young, a special type. I find Jack Nicholson utterly irresistible, and Meryl Streep is wonderful, always interesting. She has the same ideals as Bette Davis, always challenging.
Q: Any advice that you might have for them regarding the ups and downs of a career in movies?
A: I think it’s very important to hold onto your ideals, to do only those things that you firmly believe in, so I’d suggest they save their money!
Q: Looking at some of the lives and careers of the stars of “GWTW,” you do get a sense of Hollywood stardom as something of a Faustian bargain. I’m thinking particularly of Vivien Leigh.
A: Well, I didn’t see her during these manic-depressive states, but I often wonder if the long hours spent working on “GWTW” didn’t make her vulnerable to tuberculosis and whether the drugs used to treat that further upset the chemical imbalance of her system. My relationships with Clark and Leslie [Howard] were much more formal, so I never really got to know them intimately.
But, yes, I suppose it can be a very difficult and lonely life. If you can’t achieve or develop that genuine private side of yourself in the midst of great professional success, well, then, you’re in trouble, deep trouble.
Q: What would you like your legacy to be?
A: Oh my, I have no idea. What a question. I’ll think about it and tell you later. But I won’t think about it today. I’ll think about it tomorrow.