Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Disastrous Demise: Olivia the Outlasting!

One of the most remarkably enduring performers in the history of Hollywood cinema moved to the next plain on July 26th, 2020 at the incredible age of 104. With her, a chapter of the golden age of movies was closed. Dame Olivia de Havilland's movie career was 44 years long, though she continued on TV occasionally for another 9 years. But it was the catalog of movies, the significant costars and the weight of her decision to fight a domineering studio head (and win!), along with her jaw-dropping longevity, that help make her even more special. And, while it is hardly "disastrous" for a 104 year-old woman to die in her sleep, she earns that tag because she was part of the 1970s disaster cycle of movies that I hold so dear. We all know how crazy my life (like so many others) is, but I had to carve out the time to pay tribute to Ms. de, even though she was previously granted a full on tribute here.
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born to a professor father and an actress mother, both English, in Tokyo, Japan on July 1st, 1916. When she was only a toddler, her parents separated; she and her baby sister living in California with her mother. Later, a stepfather bristled at the young girl's aspirations in the arts. She played, as seen here, Alice in Wonderland at age 17 and eventually progressed to community and finally professional theatre, moving in with a friend rather than buckle under to her stepfather's line of thinking.
Having wound up as Hermia in Max Reinhart's celebrated stage production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," she was convinced to do the movie version of it, although at heart she wished to become a teacher. Nonetheless, she signed a Warner Brothers contract and was soon busy working before the camera. She was also put through her paces in countless publicity photos, such as this one. Such cheesecake would soon become a rarity for her.
No, this is not a portrait staged in the executive washroom of Warner Brothers! Just part of the job for a young starlet, being photographed in virtually every conceivable way...
...from the sublime... the ridiculous... the patently insane! But De Havilland wasn't going to have to endure much of this nonsense for very long. She quickly became a useful leading lady in many of the studio's most popular features.
When Robert Donat declined to appear in Captain Blood (1935), Warners took a chance on newcomer Errol Flynn, who instantly became a sensation and, with Olivia as his leading lady, began a fruitful collaboration that resulted in one of the screen's most captivating pairings ever!
His roguish reputation and adventuresome attitude perfectly complimented her playful ladylike image. In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and other films, they were a practically perfect on-screen couple. 
In this one, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Flynn was, to me, at his all time height of beauty, though she was disppointed to be cast third behind Bette Davis as Elizabeth. She and Davis would have intersecting careers and otherwise cross paths for many decades to come.
Reportedly, de Havilland never got to truly consummate the relationship between Errol and herself, which may be why so much romantic tension, chemistry and electricity existed between the two. She did dearly love him, however, and he thought the world of her as well (though Flynn never really seemed to care very deeply about most of the women - including his wives! - that he was involved with.)
In 1938, de Havilland went to the boss's wife and pleaded for help to be released by Warner Brothers in order to take part in the David O. Selznick production of Gone with the Wind (1939.) The Herculean movie, based on a staggeringly popular novel, was THE film of the year and remained an event telecast (and successful cinema re-release) for decades after. As Melanie Wilkes, she would retain a special place in the hearts of the movies fans forever after. Though the highly genteel character has its detractors, Melanie winds up being far more gutsy, resilient, fair-minded and forgiving than she is sometimes given credit for.
At that year's Oscar ceremony, de Havilland found herself pitted against Hattie McDaniel in the Best Supporting Actress category. The unforgettable McDaniel won, in a remarkably progressive decision. And though de Havilland admired and appreciated her costar's contribution, it was nonetheless crushing to lose the award. She would strive in the future to land roles worthy of recognition, though it wasn't easy.
De Havilland returned to Warners and was disappointed in the roles she was being offered. The aforementioned Elizabeth and Essex was decorative. And she was lent out to Samuel Goldwyn for Raffles (1939.) Finally, she went on suspension rather than accept any more junk from Jack Warner. After a later emergency appendectomy, she went on suspension again rather than appear in projects that would not advance her career.
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) was different. She was able to portray a multidimensional schoolteacher whose sexuality is awakened by the suave Charles Boyer. (Paulette Goddard is also shown here.) The part landed her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but the award went to her own sister, Joan Fontaine! Fontaine, who was 15 months younger than Olivia, had come into her own as an actress under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca (1940) and then Suspicion, the film for which she won.
Never the closest of kin, even in childhood, this event seemed to help fuel a feuding fire that went on and on, in ebbs and flows, for one reason or another, with occasional periods of peace until Fontaine's death at 96 in 2013.
In 1942, de Havilland was paired with Bette Davis as sisters in In This Our Life. Davis was the rotten one while Olivia was the kind one. As her contract at Warners drew near a close, she was stunned to find that the studio had added all of her periods of unpaid suspensions to the end of the timeline! In a daring move (one that Davis had earlier attempted), she sued the studio and, in time, proved victorious. A law bearing her name still exists, limiting contracts to calendar years. It earned her the admiration of her peers, but led to a dry spell when it came to being hired!
Now at Paramount Pictures, she finally got ahold of a juicy part, and ahold of the coveted Oscar statuette, with To Each His Own (1946.) She played a woman forced to give up her son because he was born out of wedlock. She surely had been aided in her quest for gold by the fact that she had taken on the big boys of Hollywood and won. Yet she had also proven herself worthy of acclaim, aging 30 years in the course of the movie.
In The Dark Mirror (1946), de Havilland did double duty as twin sisters, one sweet and one psychotic! This movie took advantage of new techniques in fooling viewers into seeing both siblings on screen together for periods of time (a double being used during many of the others.)
Olivia's screen work would be slowed to only one film every year or so for a time. After a very full year in 1946, including work on the stage, she wed for the first time and was not seen again on movie screens until 1948's The Snake Pit, in which she was committed to a mental hospital. De Havilland researched the role heavily and lost weight to give herself a more gaunt appearance. She was Oscar-nominated for this, but lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.
Olivia de Havilland was by now fully entrenched in an image of ladylike parts, which she constantly attempted to shake through gritty roles like The Snake Pit or The Dark Mirror, in which one of her sister parts was a murderess.
One of her most significant roles came in 1949's The Heiress. She played a lonely, unmarried lady of means who falls for Montgomery Clift, who may be more interested in her money than in her. The role, in which she went toe to toe with a scene-stealing Ralph Richardson as her father, won her a second Best Actress Academy Award.
She gave birth to a son in 1949 and so it was 1952 before she made another film. This time, she was cast opposite newcomer Richard Burton in My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately, her marriage ended in 1953. 
She bore a distinctive look for That Lady (1955), in which she played a Spanish princess wounded in a sword fight over the honor of her king. The romantic drama was a departure for her (and had initially been offered to Greta Garbo as a means of luring her out of retirement!)
Not as a Stranger (1955) had been a successful novel, all about the struggles and challenges of people in the medical profession. She top-lined the film over Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. Her "yah, yah" Nordic character is probably one of my least favorite of hers. She wed for the second time in 1955 and gave birth (at 40) to a daughter in 1956.
Pregnant during The Ambassador's Daughter (1956) and having done The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd in 1958, she paired with Dirk Bogarde in Libel (1959.)
As a Paris resident for most of the time, she leaned more towards productions being filmed in Europe, such as the Rome-set Light in the Piazza (1962.) Here, she played the mother of brain-damaged Yvette Mimieux, with both of them recognizing the charm of father-son combo Rossano Brazzi and George Hamilton.
The still-elegant de Havilland was dressed by Christian Dior. The story from the not exactly successful movie (based on a novel) later emerged as a Broadway musical.
1964 found Miss de in dire trouble. She played a physically ailing society matron who is trapped in her household elevator during a power outage and is menaced by some obnoxious local thugs and thieves. Lady in a Cage had initially been announced as a Joan Crawford project, but the Pepsi board member was not able to work it into her schedule.
Publicity for the movie capitalized on the way its glamorous female cast members de Havilland and Ann Sothern were mussed up for the screen. (Is it wrong of me that I prefer Sothern's look in the right-hand photo?! LOL)
Speaking of Crawford, she was all dressed and ready to re-team with Bette Davis after their smash hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) in another shocker called Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964.) Things went awry between the ladies on location, however, and soon Crawford was OUT, citing illness.
So after a bit of convincing, de Havilland was in. The role was atypical for her, and the reverse type-casting worked to a degree, though fans who'd been hoping for another round of Bette & Joan couldn't help but be a bit let down.
She appreciated some of the role's challenges, but was not particularly fond of the part and, in fact, didn't even have to work. Her chief reason for doing it was to once again work with Davis, who she'd always admired and got on well with. She also enjoyed being paired with Joseph Cotten as her love interest.
But for a pair of TV appearances, she had not been seen on screen for quite a while until 1970 brought The Adventurers, an overly long and overly crazed Harold Robbins concoction. She played a wealthy tourist who utilizes the leading man Bekim Fehmiu for some companionship.
Here is a better look at her in the film, still slim and attractive at 54.
Though Olivia and her sister Joan really didn't resemble one another very much at all, I think this portrait of Olivia allows for just a bit more similarity between them than we are used to seeing. What do you think?
Two years later, a noticeably plumper de Havilland turned up in the television thriller The Screaming Woman. The project placed her once again in the arms of Joseph Cotten.
That same year, she appeared opposite Liv Ullman in Pope Joan. This would be her last movie for five years.
De Havilland turned down the role in The Towering Inferno (1974) which had earned Jennifer Jones a Golden Globe nomination, but in a couple of years she was ready to give this new disaster movie trend a try. She flew back to the U.S. for the first installment.
Airport '77 had her portraying a patroness of the arts who is, along several others, trapped in an airplane which has sunk below the surface of the ocean after an attempted hijacking.
Yet again she was in the arms of one Joseph Cotten! The sleekly-appointed movie was a hit, despite some critical carping, but it was not the awards magnet that some of the earlier disaster efforts had been.
In 1978, she dipped one more time into the disaster well. This time she worked for producer Irwin Allen on The Swarm. She's seen here greeting visitor to the set Jon Voight.
The Swarm did no one in it any favors and was a huge flop. She, in fact, had one of the most humiliating moments in it when she (as a school principal) watches children being stung to death on the playground and then employs a guttural moan in slow-motion! After a final appearance in 1979's The Fifth Musketeer, she made no further feature films.
Since as long ago as 1967, de Havilland had been the only remaining principal performer from Gone with the Wind remaining alive. In 1979, she was an honored guest at a 40th anniversary gala. She couldn't possibly have realized it then, but she would also be alive on the 80th anniversary of the fabled film!
For the most part, she remained in Paris, occasionally taking part in a TV miniseries like Roots: The Next Generation or North and South, Book II (or The Love Boat, again with Joseph Cotten!)
There might also be a swirling, old-style, elegant appearance at the Oscar ceremony, as when she showed up in this vivid red confection.
In 1982, she portrayed The Queen Mum in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana. She, like many others, long admired The Queen Mother, who lived to be 101 and sought to follow in her footsteps (which she did!) After nabbing an Emmy for Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna and the TV-movie The Woman He Loved, she stepped away from the cameras apart from occasional interviews and so forth.
Still sharp as a tack as she met and passed the age of 100, she provided delectable sound bytes when recalling her amazing career for interviewers, particularly when it came to Errol Flynn or Gone with the Wind. She became the only performer to date who ever lived to see the 80th anniversary of a Best Picture Oscar-winner in which they'd starred. Miss de Havilland suffered the grief of having to bury her 42 year-old son in 1991 after a battle with Hodgkin's disease. Unwilling to allow her image to be sullied by a truly ghastly performance by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the fanciful TV miniseries Feud, she sued for damages, though this time she was unable to emerge victorious.
Regardless of some recent moves to suppress or otherwise remove it from view, she will forever be associated with the role of Melanie Wilkes in GWTW. Her character was the subject of ire for her cousin by marriage Scarlett O'Hara, yet she was ever understanding with her, knowing that she was often driven by the same love for her husband Ashley that she herself possessed (why, I'll never know! Ha ha!) Her remarkable work in the film was turned in when she was but 23 years of age!
We bid farewell to the wonderful lady whose fingerprints lingered on many of the cinema's most celebrated movies as well as on some of the less-fabulous ones which we nonetheless cherish! She outlasted practically all of her contemporaries, including 103 year-old Kirk Douglas, with whom she never worked. When asked of the secret to longevity, she cited the three L's, "love, laughter and learning."