To mark the occasion of the 100th birthday of actress Olivia de Havilland, born July 1 1916, we tell the story of a career of two halves, and how, in throwing down the gauntlet to Jack L. Warner and his studio, she emerged the victor.
In 1934, a young Olivia de Havilland was offered a part in the Saratoga Community Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three hundred miles south of Santa Clara County, a more ambitious staging of the same play was soon to transform the Hollywood Bowl, overseen by director Max Reinhardt. It happened that an assistant of Reinhardt’s heard of de Havilland’s turn in Saratoga. He scheduled an appointment to hear her read (“and I put on my gym bloomers and I put on my tennis shoes, and I leapt all over the tables and chairs of the faculty room, giving my exuberant performance”), whereupon he invited her to understudy a lead actress in the LA production. She accepted, then seventeen years old, only to accede to the role when the actress she was shadowing abandoned ship a week before the premiere. De Havilland held onto the part when Reinhardt’s stage production was adapted, haplessly, for screen the following year, by which time she had had her arm twisted to sign a contract with Warner. The role was the amorous Hermia, joined at the hip with Lysander. But it was not as this character that de Havilland impressed the Austrian’s emissary in her hometown. There, under “a full moon,” she was Puck.
Not for another ten years would de Havilland have excuse to “act up” as she had in Saratoga; to play resourcefully with character as her Puck played havoc with Shakespeare’s lovers. Not, though she achieved instantaneous star billing, could de Havilland please herself as she pleased movie audiences by her appearances. Hollywood—as personified for her in the first instance by Reinhardt and the producers of the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Henry Blanke and Jack L. Warner—saw de Havilland as an ingénue and could or (likelier) would not un-see her as such. While ever she was confined to the “prison house,” as the actress dubbed the studio, under lock-and-key of custodian “Jack the Warden,” she would be made to play myriad Hermias, votaresses to alternately rebel, martial and ranch hand Lysanders—eight of whom wore the face of Errol Flynn.
If her being typecast caused de Havilland private anguish (1939’s Dodge City she called the “nadir” of her career, plunging her into depression, aged only 22), it was never in evidence in her engagements with Flynn. He and de Havilland made a superb team, a natural match. Like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, they brought out the best in each other, insofar as their best was achievable within the narrative conventions of action-adventure and the further limitations of the part of girdled paramour that straitened de Havilland’s talent. Their palpable chemistry peaked with Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), aided by mutual attraction—mutual but not, as de Havilland shared on The Dinah Shore Show, synchronous, his crush waxing (made apparent by his pranks, once putting, during the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade , a dead snake in de Havilland’s pantalettes) as hers waned. All to the good: their magnetism, never consummated, remained as a rubber band pulled taut right until the last film that saw the two play lovers, Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
Far from resenting her coupling with Flynn, de Havilland, who had occasion over the course of her working years to hold forth on the highs and lows of her career, had only admiration for her co-star, who was hard-working as he was handsome: “There was nobody who did what he did better than he did. He cared a great deal about his work.” It was not unusual for de Havilland to pay homage to the abilities of her contemporaries in the entertainment industry; still less unusual that she should single out conscientiousness as quality. Howard Hughes she described as “brilliant” and “very enterprising, in his shy, gangly way,” and where most on the set of The Heiress were irked by Montgomery Clift’s consulting with an acting coach, de Havilland thought it commendable that anyone should be so invested in his work that he should wish to have a second opinion always at hand.
The wording of de Havilland’s praise for her peers was clue to her own disposition; self-reflexive as compliments can often be. De Havilland was herself industrious, trying during her first decade as a contract player to get out of the rut she was stuck in. Without bluster and behind the scenes, she looked for parts in which she might be more “effective”; for more developed characters that would show what she could do. She stole into the office of makeup artist Perc Westmore, borrowed his script of The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and, liking what she read, put herself in the ring for the role of Amy Lind. It was given her, and it was “a happy picture to make,” reuniting her with James Cagney, whom she held in high esteem. It was likewise by the back door, two years before, that de Havilland made sure she was considered for the part of the dutiful, “other-people-oriented” Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939). She befriended Irene Selznick, wife of the film’s producer, who suggested she be seen. De Havilland shared an anecdote about her MGM audition in a 1987 issue of Interview magazine; an anecdote as amusing as it is illustrative of her lack of killer instinct. Immediately after she finished reading with the film’s first director George Cukor—a singularly gruff, galumphing Scarlett, “clutching at the curtains passionately”—he and the Selznicks led de Havilland into an adjacent room, where she was party to their watching the screentests of other hopefuls. De Havilland recalled: “They were all so marvelous! I realized that I had to restrain myself, because my enthusiasm could really have influenced them to pick one of the others. […] Ann Sheridan was absolutely splendid in her test, as were several others. But they still wanted me.”
If not exactly a radical departure from the parts she was accustomed to playing, Melanie was, at least, the “other” girl, off-center. Relieved of the need to be glamorous—that burden loaded on Vivien Leigh’s shoulders—de Havilland was free to focus on other aspects of character besides desirability. But it wasn’t the breakthrough she’d hoped for: despite the picture’s colossal popularity, its box-office success, and the zealous attention it received from the press, de Havilland returned to her home studio to find her status unchanged. Worse: forced to play second fiddle and foil to the inclement courtship of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), she was given third billing after Flynn (billed second) and Davis (naturally, and with a fight, first).
Only on the expiration of her contract in 1943 did de Havilland wriggle free of the leathery King Kong grip of Jack L. Warner; ceased to be his plaything—but it didn’t happen overnight, and not without a fight of her own. Making to pull away from the studio following the completion of Brontë biopic Devotion (1946), in which she played Charlotte, she was told she had six months left to serve on account of the four suspensions she had taken rather than appear in films she felt would hurt her reputation. With the help of lawyer Martin Gang, de Havilland took the studio to court, invoking a California law which stated that no employer could impose a contract on an employee for more than seven calendar years. (Theretofore, it was stipulated that contract-players fulfill a total seven years of work, no matter how long that took.) Notwithstanding Warner’s efforts to blacken her name on the witness stand, insinuating she was a spoiled actress with ideas above her station, de Havilland won her case at the Superior court, and Warner’s ensuing appeal was thrown out. This goliath—who once described his employee as having “a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawnlike brown eyes,” as though intelligence were subterfuge in an attractive woman—underestimated this female David, his damsel-for-hire. De Havilland isn’t given nearly enough credit for the change she wrought in the studio system. At no small cost to herself (she lost $13,000 to the trial and was absent from the screen for two years), she not only improved the lot of her fellow actors, but paved the way for the system’s collapse.
It should be acknowledged that de Havilland’s fighting spirit did not originate with Warner’s harassment. No—de Havilland was used to asking for what she wanted. Even at seventeen and outnumbered by three burly Germans who pressed her into signing with Warner, de Havilland stood firm, insisting that she sign for five years, rather than the customary seven. Robustness was in de Havilland’s nature; it was not wrung out of her.
This fact would find its echo in the character of Catherine in The Heiress (1949), for which performance she was awarded her second of two Oscars for Best Actress. De Havilland worked wonders with her voice in this film, affecting a higher, more delicate register than came naturally, reserving her deeper pitch for the epilogue that shows the plain, “unmarriageable” Catherine much altered.
It’s often thought about Henry James’s jilted heroine (the film is based on his 1880 novel Washington Square) that her fortitude at the film’s conclusion is born of Morris Townsend’s betrayal—getting her own back by her indifference when the cad comes knocking a second time, and she does not answer. But it’s sooner than this show of defiance, prior to Morris’s disloyalty, that Catherine displays her strength of purpose. Nearing the hour of their elopement, the lovers agree to go on with the plan, regardless of her father’s withholding his consent. Morris tenders that Dr. Sloper may yet endow them with her $30,000 dowry; may relent and come round. To this, de Havilland, her back to camera, surprises by responding in that lower tone of voice, hitherto unheard: “No, Morris, he will not. But even if he would, I would not.”
Here was the gristlier female part that de Havilland had pushed for. The Heiress enabled her to play a woman in two distinctive phases of life, and she pulled it off with aplomb. De Havilland had an aptitude for making seem seamless—plausible, sympathetic—these transitions between episodes of experience. What’s more, she could funnel huge feeling into minute gestures and physical tics.
Following her rejection, de Havilland’s Catherine moves as if her muscles ached, though she wears no pained expression; in fact, no expression at all. Her before-Catherine is innocence incarnate, with creases in her forehead not through age but with the effort “to join in the conversation.” For this mouse, every ball is a masked ball inasmuch as she believes she must conceal her real self, her irreverent sense of humor, for instance, which is surplus to requirement in polite society. It’s not that she can’t behave as expected, it’s that she cannot loosen up—partly because she’s shy of young company, partly because her father’s cruelty has cemented her sense of inadequacy. So convinced is this “defenseless creature” that she is the opposite of what it is right and respectable that her stabs at social graces appear performative, a pantomime. At a dance, de Havilland’s Catherine looks like someone we are used to seeing in spectacles suddenly without them. It’s hopeless; she can’t assimilate, and de Havilland performs a miracle by making her not in the least bit piteous. “You need a very true ear for the harp,” says Catherine, briefing her father as to why the harp-instructor won’t be taking her on as pupil, and Catherine, alack the day, doesn’t have it. But she is true, earnest. Everything she feels plays upon her face, and it is a fatal handicap.
This thoroughness of identification de Havilland brought to her starring role in To Each His Own (1946), which earned her her first Oscar. Jody’s transformation isn’t due to the kind of acute trauma that befalls the heiress, but to the protracted suffering of waiting to be reunited with the son she bore out of wedlock and pretends is a war-orphan. Her plan is to offer to adopt him, and so circumnavigate scandal—a ploy that goes horribly awry.
Via a series of extended flashbacks, we watch the bright-eyed, vibrant Jody, deftly deflecting the advances of her many small-town suitors, become, by stages, as if another woman: the lonely, asocial Mrs. Norris, arms crossed and lost in thought.
In de Havilland’s hands, this transformation is not a simple matter of A-to-B. It’s a finespun performance, with the actress paying as much attention to detail as she would pour into The Heiress, siphoning character, as dancers do, to the very ends of her fingers. One notices Jody’s slender hands placing candy jars, with confidence, in her Papa’s provincial drugstore. One notices, near the close of the film, Mrs. Norris’s errant, uncertain fingers feeling for the proper place to pin a spray of flowers on her person.
If de Havilland is to be remembered for anything besides her fifty years of work, it would not be—if this writer has anything to do with it—for her relationship with her sister, but for her friendship with Bette Davis. It’s hard to think of another pair of Hollywood women whose liking for each other was as obvious, as public, as much photographed as theirs. De Havilland—who was not on speaking terms with her sibling, the actress Joan Fontaine—made it plain that she wished not to discuss whatever it was that had come between them. Nevertheless and predictably, interviewer after interviewer asked her to expound on this family affair. It was a lose-lose situation for de Havilland, a catch-22, for even if she demurred, she stoked the fire, seeming that she had some secret. As such, it was a kind of a witch-trial (she could drown or she could float,) perpetuated by predominantly male reporters.
What better remedy, then, than to have a woman re-script her story? What Bette did for Olivia was to peel her away from Joan and the soap opera purveyed in the press. Their friendship, which was mutually beneficial, created a counterpoint: for every bit of enmity that existed (or didn’t) between Olivia and her biological sister, there was sorority, loyalty, trust, repartee, and laughter between Bette and “Livvie”—and a lot of it caught on camera. Bette nuked Olivia’s negative public image, or might now, if we let her. By the same token, in their time (Davis died in 1989), Olivia, with her refined manners, lent Bette a softer side (for those that needing persuading of it); thawed somewhat her reputation for being fierce, overbearing, even unfeminine. (John Huston, who directed the pair in In This Our Life , described Davis as having “a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears.”) In a ruthless industry that favored men; an industry that necessitated, in the words of de Havilland’s biographer Tony Thomas, that a woman “be aggressive, persistent, and self-sufficient… willing to forgo privacy and sensitivity,” Davis and de Havilland came to one another’s rescue.
So it wasn’t in the arms of a strapping man like Flynn that de Havilland found deliverance, then, was it?