Monday July 27, 2020
Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)
Just as Ginger Rogers gave Fred Astaire sex, David Thomson wrote, so Olivia de Havilland gave legendary lothario Errol Flynn onscreen stability. She tamed the bad boy. She basically made a husband out of him. Neat trick. In this way, she may be every woman's wish-fulfillment fantasy. To have that kind of power. No settling for the Ashley Wilkeses of the world. Or: You get your Rhett and Ashley in one.
She survived him by a longshot. I was thinking about this recently: They starred in movies together in the 1930s, he died in 1959, and she lived for another ... wait for it ... 61 years. She lived longer past his death than he lived his entire life. That should be an AA commercial. A warning.
It's been decades since I‘ve seen “Captain Blood,” and 10 year since “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and a few years further for “Gone with the Wind,” which is the movie she’s probably best known for.* She lived long enough to see it go from the pinnacle of classic Hollywood to being so problematic that in the wake of the George Floyd killing HBO Max pulled it from its menu until they could offer it with historical context. Sure, why not? Should‘ve done that decades ago. The movie is still the biggest hit in Hollywood history if you adjust for inflation—and always will be. Adjusted, it’s at $1.89 billion. That's just domestic. Game over.
She was also the Curt Flood of Hollywood—but a successful Curt Flood. Again, from Thomson in his book on Warner Bros.:
Olivia de Havilland felt neglected at her own studio. On loan out to Paramount, she got a Best Actress nomination in Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn, but she was not being offered demanding parts at Warners. So she was refusing scripts and being suspended. It was the Bette Davis story all over again, except that de Havilland took expert legal advice. Martin Gang looked at the statutes and told her that in the state of California it was illegal for any contract to extend beyond seven years, so that the studio practice of adding on suspension time was not legitimate. De Havilland went to court—if Jack Warner could find the time to attend—and she won. It was a decision that changed the contract system for all time, just as the confidence that had once reckoned on seven-year deals was coming to a close. De Havilland was not forgiven or renewed at Warners, and she had a period of two years out of work. Jack had been furious: he had brought this actress “from obscurity to prominence,” and $125,000 a picture! Bette Davis admitted that “Hollywood actors will for ever be in Olivia's debt.” Soon enough, she went over to Paramount and won the Oscar twice in four years for To Each His Own and The Heiress, with another nomination for The Snake Pit.
She just turned 104. She was born during the Great War, when cars and flight were new, and radio was still a sloppy version of the telephone. She lived to see talking pictures, a Great Depression, another world war, atomic power, man on the moon, etc.. She lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. She was born two years before the last global pandemic and left us during this one. Imagine that life. The things she's seen we wouldn't believe.
(* OK, so not her best-known movies according to IMDb. Jesus, those algorithms have issues. “The Heiress”? The fuck? Do they weight Oscars that much? If so, where's “To Each His Own”?)