Sunday, July 26, 2020

Olivia de Havilland dies at 104

As Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Olivia de Havilland, winner of two Best Actress Academy Awards and the last remaining star of Gone with the Wind (1939) has died. She passed away in her sleep on July 25, 2020.

De Havilland was one of the last links to Hollywood’s Golden Age, having starred in so many classic films. Ironically, it was her lawsuit against Warner Brothers that helped bring down the studio system. She sued the studio for adding six months to her seven-year contract and won. Her court victory was known as the “de Havilland decision.” She was blackballed for a time by all the major studios, but she fought back and eventually reached heights few actresses ever attain.

In 1945, de Havilland signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. Her first film for that studio was The Well Groomed Bride co-starring Ray Milland, but it would her second Paramount release that would launch her career to the next level. As an unwed mother who gives up her child for adoption in Michell Leisen’s To Each His Own (1946), she won her first Best Actress Academy Award. Better roles continued with Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946) where she played identical twins—one good, the other a psychotic killer. One of her best roles was as Virginia Cunningham in Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948). The film dealt with the treatment of patients suffering from mental illness under severe conditions at a state-run mental institution. The film’s success helped bring about many changes in mental hospitals.

William Wyler tapped de Havilland for the lead in The Heiress (1949). The movie was based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. For her performance, she won the New York Film Critics Award, the Golden Globe, and the Academy Award for Best Actress. Now a two-time Oscar winner, de Havilland’s services were in demand by top directors and studios. Elia Kazan wanted her for the role of Blache DuBois in his film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1950), but she turned it down. Her Gone with the Wind co-star Vivien Leigh ended up playing Blanche, winning her second Best Actress Oscar in the process. Besides her work on the screen, de Havilland appeared on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet and Candida, taking the latter on the road.

Celeste Holm (left) and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit
During the 1950s, de Havilland starred in Not as a Stranger (1955), receiving top-billing over Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra, The Ambassador’s Daughter (1956), and The Proud Rebel (1958). The Proud Rebel, directed by Michael Curtiz co-starred Alan Ladd who would become a lifelong friend. The Ladd family and the de Havilland family remain close to this day. In 1962 she starred in Guy Green’s Light in the Piazza. The film co-starred Rossano Brazzi with Yvette Mimiuex playing de Havilland’s mentally disabled daughter. That same year she starred on Broadway with Henry Fonda in A Gift of Time. The play brought some of the best reviews of her career. The New York World Telegram and Sun said of her performance, “It is Miss de Havilland who gives the play its unbroken continuity. This distinguished actress reveals Lael as a special and admirable woman.” Also that year-a busy one—she published her first book, Every Frenchman Has One about her attempts to adapt to living in France; it became a bestseller.

Olivia de Havilland (left) with Yvette Mimiuex in Light in the Piazza
Her movie career slowed down in the 1960s although she would appear—somewhat reluctantly—in the box office hit Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte with fellow Warner Brothers alum Bette Davis. De Havilland replaced Joan Crawford, at Davis’s request when Crawford dropped out of the film. During the 1970s, she still appeared in films, but she also appeared on television in a variety of productions including Roots: The Next Generations (1979) playing the wife of a former Confederate officer played by Henry Fonda. She won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film in 1986 for Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.

This brief obituary of de Havilland is only a small slice of her talent and impact on Hollywood during its most creative period. Thankfully we have her tremendous body of work which will live on for generations to come.

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