By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It might have gone on forever — at Warners, Havilland was regarded as a female lead happy to do whatever the studio told her. They misjudged. She was a very astute handler of her own career, and she was wise enough to know that having tea with Jack Warner’s wife would help dissuade Jack from the policy of never loaning out the talent. That’s how she came to do Melanie in Gone With the Wind(1939); and it’s how she got the lead in Hold Back the Dawn(1941), a lovely Mitchell Leisen film, scripted by Billy Wilder, in which she marries Charles Boyer to get him across the Mexican border.
She received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for Wind, losing to Hattie McDaniel in the same picture; and a best actress nomination for Dawn, losing to someone named Joan Fontaine in Suspicion— and yes, Fontaine was her younger sister. She also made The Strawberry Blonde (1941) with Cagney, and she had a role in a little-known John Huston film, In This Our Life(1942), that set off the raging affair with its director. These were tumultuous years, in which the war broke up many relationships and encouraged many more. Havilland gave up her own strict feelings about affairs. If Huston had sat still for more than a few weeks, they might have married.
But Havilland was also taking stock. At Warners, she feared, she was only offered “consort” parts, the backup to Flynn or one of the other studio men. She had turned down several poor roles, and according to the contract system, that lost time could be added in at the end of the seven years. Her contract was up in 1942. “Well, my lawyer, Martin Gang, told me to look at Californian state law,” she says. “It was quite short and very clear that no term of employment could exceed seven years without being classed as servitude. I thought about it and I was told the case was good, though judges might not be honest. I was a woman, after all. So, I said if I’m going to do it I’m going all the way — state court, appellate court and the Supreme Court if necessary. And that’s how it all worked out. State court found for me. The appeal was unanimous in my favor. Later, I discovered that, on Guernsey, my ancestors had been lawyers for 300 years!”
Havilland had been away from movies for three years fighting her battle, and her courage won respect. So she was launched on a brief purple period. She paid her last debt at Warners, playing Charlotte Brontë in Devotion (1946). Then in three years, as a freelancer, she made these four films: winning her first Oscar for To Each His Own(1946), a gorgeous romance stretched over time, in which she is a young woman whose indiscretion leads to a treasured son she cannot claim as her own; as twins, one sweet and one poison, in The Dark Mirror (1946); as a woman who goes crazy in The Snake Pit(1948), still disturbing, way ahead of its time and enough for another best-actress nomination; and The Heiress(1949), with Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift, winning her second Oscar. That adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, directed by William Wyler, is still the film she prefers above all.
I say, “Well, it must have been a relief to play with a great professional like Richardson,” and now Havilland really bridles. Fifty-seven years later, her anger is genuine. “He decided to treat me in just the way his character treats mine. It was low-down English cunning. He would do a great deal of glove-flapping to take away from me, and once Willy whispered to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve framed the gloves out.’?” But then the real offense is revealed. Just after The Heiress, for David Lean, Richardson played in The Sound Barrier, where he’d been Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, aircraft inventor and cousin to Olivia. “And he played him as a country bumpkin, with a rural accent. When Sir Geoffrey was so entirely well-spoken!”
She means it. This is not just a character raised on Jane Austen, but someone who has stepped from those pages and who has a sense of honor that could be 200 years old. In the late ’40s, Havilland might have won three Oscars in a row — Jane Wyman beat out The Snake Pit in Johnny Belinda, but that sob story now looks old-fashioned, whereas The Snake Pit will frighten you. Or it might have been four, because she was offered Blanche in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire. What happened? “Well, I was married in 1946, to Marcus Goodrich the writer.” (John Huston married Evelyn Keyes.) “I had a son, Ben, and he was the world to me. I had to be in bed five months to have him. There was a risk of miscarriage. And when he was born, I looked at him and I looked at Blanche and the sordid life she led, and I thought I couldn’t do it. As a matter of fact, I worked less.”