Welcome to Now That’s What I Call Kino, a column ready to take a deep dive into movie classics. These weekly features will take a look into a certain person or theme of classic movies.
Hollywood lost a true icon last week when the late Olivia de Havilland died at the grand age of 104. De Havilland’s years were filled with culture and stories – she was a true icon of the Golden Age, and also one of the last to tell us first-hand how it really was. She was raised to appreciate the arts, having been born in Tokyo and moving to the US at three years old; she was involved in not just amateur theatre, but field hockey and public speaking. In 1934, de Havilland got her big break when director Max Reinhardt caught her performance in a theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her performance as Hermia was so captivating that she was given the same part in Warner Bros’ Shakespeare adaptation. Her movie career had begun.
De Havilland was assigned the typical role of the love interest, but blossomed it further with the pairing of herself and Errol Flynn. They were both cast in the lead roles of Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood, despite both being little-known in Tinseltown at the time. But their chemistry was unrivalled and they went on to co-star in eight films together, the most famous being The Adventures of Robin Hood.
De Havilland brought a fresh nuance to the roles she was being given by Warner Bros. Her Maid Marian didn’t flutter her eyelashes but gave a rivalled passion into the intensity and care she put into her character. She created Maid Marian as a layered and complex character, the most varied in this entire ensemble of Hollywood talent. Her willingness to see the deeper aspect of Robin and his Merry Men’s doing gave the film its heart whilst everyone else was running around in tights, hitting each other with sticks. She was unlike any other star in Hollywood, not chasing awards but chasing the role fit for her. When 1939 rolled around and the script for Gone with the Wind hit the agencies, every brunette was rushing to audition for Scarlett O’Hara – all but de Havilland. Having read the novel, she felt a greater interest in the supporting character of Melanie Hamilton. She felt Hamilton’s quiet dignity and inner strength was something she could relate to and her performance speaks for herself. She was nominated for the Academy Award, her first out of five nominations (with two eventual wins).
When the 1940s came, de Havilland continued to distinguish herself as an A-List star, so much so that she changed the studio system when she sued Warner Bros. for breaking labour codes. Her seven year contract had come to an end abysmally, with de Havilland upset at the lack of challenge and fulfilment she was gaining in the pictures she was being chosen for. So the studio decided to get back at her and extend the contract a further six months, making up the time in which she had been suspended. In November 1943, the court ruled in her favour and the decision was one of the most significant in Hollywood history. It reduced the power that the studios had over their player’s and their elaborate contracts, extending greater freedom for these performers – she had destroyed the star system that had ruled California for the last twenty years.
Following that de Havilland began to gain first-billing in a wide range of films in the late 40s. The Snake Pit was a ground-breaking depiction into the treatment of patients in psychiatric hospitals. Her array of visual expression and emotion is the epitome of feeling for the drama and one of her finest performances ever. She had done great research, attending electric shock therapy and further treatments done at these hospitals. When a critic criticised the truth behind some of the plot points in the film, she even rang them to confirm that what occurred in the film is exactly as she saw it.
But her most acclaimed performance came a year later in William Wyler’s The Heiress. Prior to this, De Havilland had seen The Heiress performed on Broadway and approached Wyler herself to direct this film. In it she plays Catherine, a young naive woman of wealth that falls for the handsome Morris (Montgomery Clift) who her father (Ralph Richardson) suspects of being a fortune hunter. The role needed elegance, charm, naivety and she delivered on all aspects. Her blindness and reckless passion provided the story with its inevitable tragedy, after turning bitter and alone when her father was proven right. She won her second and final Oscar for the film, setting sights now on the good life.
De Havilland moved to Paris in 1953 after marrying Pierre Galante, an executive editor for French journal Paris Match. She continued to star in film, television and theatre for the next few decades but juggled this with her personal life. She studied Law in Paris and later became a journalist for both the US and France. In Paris, she had found her true home and remained there until her death.
Whilst many may have not known much about her before last week, her significance in the timeline of movie history will be forever set in stone. As well as breaking down the studio’s power, she was one of the last ever voices to shed light on the realities of this era of Hollywood that is so often romanticised. Her unfortunate passing now means this era can no longer be seen as something still attached to present day. The Golden Age is nothing but history now, only being interpreted by other’s recollections. De Havilland’s death may have brought this shocking notion to realisation, but even before then she was iconic, and will be remembered that way forever so.
Header Image Courtesy of The LIFE Picture Collection. de Havilland relaxes in her Beverly Hills home.