To Miss Olivia de Havilland
I know we all wish you the happiest, healthiest, sweetest, luckiest, tastiest, brightest, sunniest and best of birthdays. You have just joined a pretty exclusive group. It's lucky to have you.
On this very day you are celebrating your 100th birthday. Imagine. Ten decades of memories. I have heard you are excited about reaching the century mark and in fact has said you'd like to try for 110. Today is an extraordinary milestone, one that very few of us will ever experience. I think it's a big deal and one that will likely always be mentioned when one speaks of Olivia de Havilland.
I knew the day was coming and I've have been thinking of sending you this greeting. In the following picture I imagine I am sitting in that other chair in your circa-1800 Paris apartment and we are chatting away about those 10 decades of memories. Your immaculate, silver-haired elegance, your grace in speaking, your looking at me directly in the eye, your forbearing makes me tremble a little. I wonder if you notice. Being the eternal movie fan that I am, I know I am in the company of acting royalty and I feel a little undeserving.
Oh, someone is serving champagne and little cakes, one of which has a single candle on it. I don't let you know that I am too scared to have a go at either one of them, lest I gobble or spill or talk with my mouth full. I have to gush a little over you being the last great woman star of Hollywood's Golden Age. Is that how you see it, too? Of the big stars of the day, I think it's just you. On the male side, perhaps it's just the slightly younger Kirk Douglas. I hope you hear from him today among your many well-wishers.
I'd love to chat with you about your various lives in Japan and California and France. Do they seem very different from one another? I know you moved to Paris in the mid-1950s so you have been there the longest. I have always thought of you as an American actress though you were actually born in Japan of British parents. Did I read once you became a naturalized American citizen sometime in the 40s?
You and your 15-months younger sister, Joan Fontaine, were in Japan because your father, a professor and attorney, worked there. Your mother, Lilyan, both a former and a future actress, was the light of your life and your sister's as well. You two girls were never close and I suspect the rivalry started over who commanded Mama's attention.
So much has been written over the years about your feud with your sister. I encourage readers to Google it if interested but we won't go much into it here because it's your 100th birthday and it would interfere with my wishes offered at the opening here.
One little comment or two though. I realize it could be a testy relationship. There certainly were issues... don't most siblings have them? I just wonder if the feud angle wasn't just a bit overblown by Hollywood. They do love to do that... still. They talk about the years of non-speaking but they rarely mention there were many years you not only spoke but got together for chatty, sisterly visits, sometimes including your mother and other family members. Most of what we have ever heard has come from Joan who always seemed to be more bothered than you, who pretty much also held out for a dignified silence. I thought you gave a lovely comment or two at the time of her passing.
|The sisters looking very 1940s|
I understand as youngsters you were both kind of sickly at one point and your mother decided to take you away from Japan and though it may not have been the intended destination, you three wound up in Saratoga, California. All along Mama had been instructing both of her girls in deportment, elocution, art, music and dramatics. I never sensed that she was a true stage mother but she certainly passed on the thespian genes to you two girls.
Soon you were acting in amateur theater productions around town. One of them was in A Midsummer Night's Dream which led to you appearing in famed theater director Max Reinhardt's version of it at The Hollywood Bowl. It was then that reps from Warner Bros caught a performance and offered you a role in their upcoming production. You were thrilled. The movies. Who knew? Your smile lessened some when you heard it only came with signing a standard seven-year contract but you bit the bullet and signed on.
You at Warner Bros? It always seemed a mismatch to me. That was a rough crowd for a restrained, cultured lady like yourself. I always wondered how you would have fared at 20th or MGM which seemed like better fits. Oh, I dunno. I know you're weren't a pushover. You could be tough, too, as they would find out one day. It's a tough business. It was probably a tougher business at Warner's. Probably Mama taught you a little something about survival skills, too. You've probably reminded someone over the years of the old axiom... don't confuse kindness with weakness.
You had hardly caught your breath when they teamed you with Errol Flynn and ultimately you worked with him nine times! Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) were enormous successes and you became famous the world over as did he. The beautiful lady and the handsome bad boy were also teamed in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Four's A Crowd (1938), Dodge City and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, both 1939, Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941). There was also cameo performances for the two of you in the all-star musical-comedy extravaganza, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943).
You wanted to end the working association more than once but one way or another got roped into doing another one. Well, today, they're part of your legacy and as rousing, crowd-pleasing entertainment, they are hard to beat.
I hope I am not being too bold to suggest that you were in love with him while he regarded you as a dear friend. I don't remember if you admitted to it in your 1962 memoir Every Frenchman Has One. I found it charming but don't remember reading about the romance. You want to tell us? I would be happy to turn the floor over to you. No? I should continue?
Oh, there's more romance swirling somewhere inside my head but we better first discuss Gone With the Wind (1939). Obviously it's the film for which you are most well-known and pretty much the same could be said for everyone else in it as well. I've heard that Joan... by the way, is it true that when she started in films after you did, you asked her to not use the de Havilland name and she took your stepfather's name? Anyway, I've heard that Joan recommended to then-director George Cukor that they look to you for the part of Melanie Hamilton. True? You would have needed to be loaned out by Jack Warner to David O. Selznick's studio and he refused to do it, so you rubbed up against Warner's wife, Ann, and she in essence got you the part.
Some years later, when I first saw the great film, I was astonished at how nice Melanie was. I've not forgotten her demure bearing. I can hear her voice this very minute... why Mr. Butler (distressed over his tempestuous marriage), Scarlett loves you very much. If those aren't quite the right words, I can still hear the voice and see that face... as angelic as I had ever seen. I had not known a woman who was as nice as Melanie, certainly not in my family. The thing is, the spirit of her has never left you in all the years I've watched your work since. Well, maybe once. Let me pour you some more champagne... we'll get to that one.
The role became the first of your five Academy Award nominations and your only one for supporting actress. You lost it to your costar, Hattie McDaniel, who deliciously played Mammy, the first black performer to win the little gold man. You had lobbied to be included in the best actress category and isn't it a hell of a stroke of misfortune that you would have lost that one, too, to another costar, Vivien Leigh, in the role of a lifetime. Still, I've never forgotten Melanie, a steel magnolia... not unlike yourself.
Ok, back to romance. Did you really have one with Howard Hughes? I know most of the romances he's reported to have had with a gazillion young actresses are bogus, an effort to hide the fact that at minimum he was an awkward heterosexual and more to the point a reported bisexual. I'm jus' sayin'. I'd love to keep the facts, um, straight.
I know you dated Jimmy Stewart for awhile. Was it never very serious? I think you would have made a wonderful couple. And it was probably great fun running into him years later when you both appeared in Airport 77.
I once read that you said that director-writer-actor John Huston was the love of your life. Did either of your two husbands know that? Here again it seems like your temperament would have been at odds with a man such as he. We've established your lady-like credentials and he seemed a roughneck, an intellectual one for sure, but someone who thrived on disorder while you thrived on order.
You had first met him back when you were doing those amateur plays but then he was hired to direct you, Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan and George Brent in In This Our Life (1942), a film Huston didn't care for. Your love affair began. I expect he made you laugh, regaled you with his international tales and brought his passion for life to yours. Your separations during the war didn't help but ultimately it was his cheating that doomed the relationship. I see a certain wistful smile on your face as we speak of him. Let's raise a glass to John.
It was during the Huston years that you and Warner Bros made some news together. You sued them. In those days when actors refused work, they were suspended. That meant they were taken off salary and no other studio would hire them while on suspension. Let's face it, you had become pretty disenchanted with the stuff they were offering you. You endured a number of suspensions. What you came to realize was that there was an additional punishment and that was that all of those months that were you suspended would be added to the length of the seven-year contract. You were having none of it and so you sued. And you won! It is known as the De Havilland Decision. A seven-year contract is just that... seven years. Actors have thanked you ever since.
Yes, Miss de Havilland, I certainly do see those two Academy Awards beside you there. You left Warner's and signed a two-picture deal with Paramount and got Oscars for both of them. To Each His Own (1946) is a weepie about a woman who has a brief affair with a pilot and has an illegitimate child. She is forced to give up the child but watches him from afar for the rest of her life. Newcomer John Lund played both the father and the son. It was a marvelous de Havilland performance.
|The sisters looking pretty friendly here|
And a swift three years later and you won a second Oscar for The Heiress. Playing the spinster daughter of a wealthy and mean-spirited father while being romantically pursued by a man who is likely a fortune hunter has been called your best screen performance by many.
Sandwiched in between these two films are two more of your most special performances. I loved seeing you play bad and you gave it to us in 1946s oh-so-delicious film noir, The Dark Mirror, superbly playing twins, one of whom is a murderess. Everything about this film was topnotch. You also pulled out all the stops for The Snake Pit (1948), a harrowing look at a young woman's stay in a mental institution. You deservedly corralled another Oscar nomination for this one.
You married writer Marcus Goodrich in 1946. It lasted seven years and produced your son, Benjamin. You met Pierre Galante, at the time editor of Paris Match, at Cannes and married him in 1955. I recall that he became known to Americans around that time because it was reported he is the one who arranged the first meeting between Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. Around then, disillusioned somewhat by Hollywood, you packed it in and moved to Paris. Even after your 1979 divorce from Galante, you not only decided to remain in his country but you looked after him when he became sick. He did give you your daughter, Giselle. It's so sad that you lost your son Benjamin to Hodgkins Disease in 1991.
Your 50s screen appearances were sparse. You had not made a western since the Flynn days but you joined up with your old Warner director, Mike Curtiz, and with your Paramount buddy, Alan Ladd, who was having some hard times, in 1958s The Proud Rebel. I found you two to be a rather fascinating duo onscreen... I would never have put you two together in a film nor would I have put you with Dirk Bogarde, but there you were playing his understanding wife in 1959s Libel.
|With Yvette Mimieux in Florence|
Three years later you returned to the screen in what is one of my favorites of all your lovely performances, 1962s Light in the Piazza. As Meg, the concerned mother of a slow daughter, you were perfection and I gotta say, you were dazzling to look at. I do think, too, you were well-matched with Yvette Mimieux. Oh, I wish she were here today celebrating with us.
And wow, weren't you something in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)? A rare, villainous part for you that occasionally gave me chills as I spotted your duplicity. The role, of course, was first inhabited by Joan Crawford but she left the production under odd circumstances. I think that Vivien Leigh was at first wanted to replace her, but she was not quite herself during those times either. I wasn't surprised that you were not initially considered... who would think of Olivia de Havilland as so vile a creature? And you had reservations yourself, but your old pal Bette Davis talked you into it. We're glad she did.
|Just about to inflict some evil on Bette Davis|
It was fitting that you were so mean to her onscreen because turnabout is fair play after all the distress she caused you in three other films. I've always read that you were good friends but assume that it didn't extend much beyond work because your personal lives took you off in very different directions.
It was always nice seeing you in some of your later films and in some television productions but by and large you seem to have lived a gloriously satisfying life in Paris, out of the limelight. I recall seeing you on an Oscar show or something else and was always blown away at how elegant you looked.
Oh my, my, where has the time gone? And where are my manners? I appear to have done all the talking. Maybe I'll manage some of those little cakes while you fill in some of the details. I just love the details... ask anyone.
In the meantime, happy, happy, happy 100th birthday. What a accomplishment it is. What a treasure you are.
Movie review (tomorrow)