She fills the screen with a radiant smile, beaming with warmth no matter the film, regardless of the role. And, beneath the surface, we know there’s more.
In a period now called the Golden Age of Hollywood, few actresses dared to explore beneath the veneer of their characters. For more than 50 years on film, Olivia de Havilland – who will celebrate her 100th birthday on July 1 – followed her instincts on and off screen to create a rich gallery of women. Though she may have lacked the eccentricities of Katherine Hepburn, or the personality of Bette Davis, her elegance disguised the complexities of her performances. And, when she didn’t like where her career was headed, she became one of the first actresses to stand up to the studios. She gave us, in 49 feature films, a collection of memorable portrayals. Here are a few of my favorites.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
By the time de Havilland created this indelible portrayal of Maid Marian in the classic tale, she had established herself as a queen of the costume epic with roles opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and Charge of the Light Brigade. In their third film together, the pair inspired audiences to embrace an improbable romance between a knight with an agenda and a heroine with a heart. The actress journeys within the character to create a fascinating look at what people need from the people they love.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Who else but de Havilland could make us believe the essential goodness of an unselfish woman named Melanie? As much as the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara (in the hands of Vivien Leigh) dominates the movie of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, de Havilland grounds the film with her authentic portrayal of a woman willing to stand in the shadows. She makes Melanie’s warmth so captivating – while revealing an edge to the softness – that she makes it palatable to savor Leigh’s exaggerations. The two make quite a team.
To Each His Own (1946)
After years of elegant roles in period dramas, de Havilland declared her independence from mannered performances with this gutsy portrayal of an unmarried woman who gives up her child. Piercing beneath the surface of the character – and aging more than 30 years in the role – the actress reveals a depth of talent that surprised many, except those who studied her portrayal of Melanie. No surprise that, at Oscar time, she won her first Academy Award as Best Actress, and initiated the definitive period of her career.
The Snake Pit (1948)
After winning her Oscar, and following with a daring portrayal of twin sisters in the thriller The Dark Mirror, de Havilland delivered the performance of her career as a woman suffering from mental illness. Daring for its time, and praised for its medical authenticity, the film explores the conditions that plague mental health treatment and the prejudice that can limit how patients heal. The actress is magical in a role of such range, imagination and power, that most expected her to win a second Oscar. But she lost to Jane Wyman (in Johnny Belinda).
The Heiress (1949)
A year later, de Havilland did nab a well-deserved second Oscar for her fascinating look at a woman who dares to defy her father’s objections to her love for a man the patriarch could not trust. The actress continues her domination of late 1940s films by bravely exploring what a woman may have to sacrifice to stand up for what she wants in her life. And, as if art could imitate life, de Havilland creates a woman who refuses to be a glamorous package.
After winning her second Oscar, de Havilland ventured into theater, television, and authored a best-selling book, Every Frenchman Has One, about adjusting to life in France, where she has lived since the early 1950s. Looking back, she created a career for the ages by always following her instincts. Happy Birthday, Olivia de Havilland.
A Closer Look at Olivia de Havilland
After winning two Oscars over three years in the 1940s, Olivia de Havilland continued to follow her instincts to put together an interesting collection of performances in the 1950s and 1960s. While few actresses could match the quality of her work from 1946 to 1949, the actress refused to rest on her laurels. Here are a few of her best.
My Cousin Rachel (1952)
After venturing into live theater for the first time in 1951 – and turning down the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire – de Havilland starred opposite Richard Burton in this thriller about murder, money and suspicion. Was the material up to the standards of her late 1940s films? Maybe not but de Havilland embraces the challenge of making a wealthy woman with secrets someone an audience can embrace. And she succeeds.
Not As a Stranger (1955)
In her first role as an “older” woman – at age 39 – de Havilland scores as a woman who supports her husband’s ambitions through medical school. But when he becomes absorbed in his work, and she feels neglected, the layers of tension build as this once timid woman declares her independence from the limits he dictates. Again, de Havilland makes us believe in a woman who dares to be more than the role she plays.
The Proud Rebel (1958)
Who ever would have pictured the elegant Olivia de Havilland in a Western? The two-time Oscar winner proves she can play anything in this drama about the tragedies of war in the open frontier. Besides emoting on cue, de Havilland demonstrates real talent when working with a horse and handling a gun. And, as with so many of her films, she grounds the narrative with her engaging authenticity.
Light in the Piazza (1962)
As she continues to mature, de Havilland becomes even more beautiful on screen, commanding the camera with her presence. And, with each performance, she continues to show how her talent continues to grow. In this touching drama, de Havilland shines as a well-intentioned mother trying to protect her challenged daughter from the realities of the world. The actress is a master of subtlety in a performance of tenderness and surprise.
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
While not exactly high art, this outrageously entertaining melodrama from director Robert Aldrich gives de Havilland a marvelous opportunity to share the screen with longtime friend Bette Davis. The actress gets to play with her elegant image as a woman who may be sweet on the surface but shares a sour edge with anyone who gets too close. While Davis may have the showier role, de Havilland walks away with the film as a woman who knows how to manipulate everyone. Watching her chew the scenery is about as fun as a movie can be.
As the 1960s continued, and de Havilland found fewer movie roles, she shifted her attention to theater (and an acclaimed performance in A Gift of Time on Broadway) and television (and roles, in the 1970s, in Roots: The Next Generations and The Screaming Woman). The decade brought her final appearance on the big screen – in Airport 1977 – before she focused on television in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna and The Woman He Loved.
Looking back, few actresses have created careers of such daring and change. Olivia de Havilland, after hiding behind the costumes in her earlier films, revealed the layers of her talent in a series of complex portrayals before gracefully transitioning into mature performances. Happy 100th Birthday!
See you at the movies.