Onscreen, she was romanced by Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Leslie Howard, Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum. In life, she was perhaps the great love in the turbulent career of John Huston. She was responsible for the decisive legal action that freed contract players from their seven-year sentences (with time added on for defiant behavior). She won two Oscars and was nominated for three others. She also makes the quite preposterous claim that on July 1 she will turn 90. Why preposterous? Because Olivia de Havilland is as alert, quick-witted, good-natured, funny and attractive as many people half her age.
“Where shall we do the interview?” I ask.
“I want you to be comfortable,” she says.
“And I want the same for you,” I tell her.
“I have a large bed,” she says, with raised eyebrows.
Well, we decide to sit down in the shade of her daughter’s garden in Malibu. There is a pearl-gray atmosphere over the shore this afternoon, sweet and heavy. She has a cup of tea for sipping, and we chat like old friends. This is entirely her kindness and ease. We have never met before, but we have corresponded, and she recalls the matters we discussed then — the details of that great ordeal known as Gone With the Wind, which occurred 67 years ago, when the road out to Malibu was so much less crowded. I am sitting in the garden with one of the last survivors of Hollywood in the 1930s. Olivia de Havilland was a movie star in 1935, when she was only 19.
“Can you imagine?” she asks. “I was a very well-raised girl. My mother and my sister and I had our Jane Austen life in the Californian countryside — afternoon tea, enormous walks and big breakfasts. And there I was sitting next to Errol Flynn.” She stops and breathes in deeply. She plays with the edge of her silk scarf. “When I met him, when they decided at Warners that the two of us could do Captain Blood, I was 18 and he was 25. To say I was disturbed — and in those days you were supposed never to show your feelings to a man! We rehearsed some scenes one day, and then we went to the commissariat for lunch. I was so shy, I couldn’t even sit at his table. But then we walked back to the stage together. We were alone, and he asked me, very seriously, ‘What do you want out of life?’
“I said, ‘I want respect for difficult work well done.’ I was so young, I just said it. But then I asked him, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I want success!’ I guessed he meant wealth and fame. He was so vulnerable and so willful. And I had such a crush. If I’d been a little less innocent I’d have been in trouble.”
In which case, several histories might have worked out very differently. But Olivia de Havilland had not had an ordinary upbringing; truth to tell, the woman who was on her way to being the screen’s greatest Maid Marian — the epitome of Saxon womanhood — had authentic aristocratic Norman origins. It’s a story that spills out when I ask what her parents gave her above all — apart from the instinct to ward off Errol Flynn with talk of respect. “I didn’t really know my father very well,” she says, “but he gave me a name and a tradition to live up to.”
She was the daughter of Walter de Havilland, from a thousand years of Havillands based on the isle of Guernsey, an international-patent lawyer who had gone to work in Tokyo early in the 20th century. Then this brave young Englishwoman, Lilian Ruse, a trained singer, took it in her head to try Japan. It was in 1907, in Tokyo, that Lilian met Walter, and he soon wondered, “Would a girl like you ever marry a chap like me?” No, she told him. But matters lingered and seven years later, back in England, Walter tried again and won her hand. He took his bride back to Japan in 1914. Olivia was born there in 1916, and a year later, another daughter, Joan — more of her later.
Alas, the union didn’t last. Alleging a need to have her daughters put under Western medical care, Lilian moved them to California, got a divorce and then married a San Jose department-store manager. They lived in the foothills in Saratoga, and the two girls were united in constant fighting with each other and a precocious talent for theater, not hindered by the fact that they were both beauties.
Olivia was in high school when she was cast to play Hermia in a production of A Midsummer Night‘s Dream. This was very much against the wishes of her stepfather, who believed acting could only lead a fine young woman astray. He told Olivia to either give up the play or leave his house forever. So she left. Some friends supported her and she won a place at Mills College. But then she heard that Max Reinhardt, the great Viennese director, was going to do Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, and then as a film. She understudied. But Gloria Stuart — set to play Hermia — was tied up in a movie, and so adventure bloomed. Young Olivia never took up her place at Mills, but Warners put her under contract in 1935 and gave her one of the greatest ever pieces of screen chemistry in the form of Flynn, with whom she would make nine films (including Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and They Died With Their Boots On).
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.”
She did stage. In time, she and Goodrich divorced and she married Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match. They had a daughter, Giselle, and Havilland began to live in Paris. She worked occasionally — as late as the 1980s she played the Queen Mother in a version of the Princess Diana story. Alas, the special son died too young. Then Havilland nursed her second husband as he died. She has known the ups and downs, and she has proved herself made of steel.
She will be honored at the Academy on June 15 in a program of clips and talk, with her old friend Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies, followed by an 11-film retrospective at the Academy and LACMA. It will be a great occasion, for surely the Academy has no member so illustrious or senior. Unless it is her sister, Joan Fontaine. Their rivalry is buried in the mists of time now, and there's no need to take sides. It is comic but tragic, and one day it may make a masterpiece, like The Duellists. But I ask how things stand with Joan now. “How shall I put it?” she says to herself. “Well, let’s just say they stand still.” Maid Marian never needed armor. She came equipped by nature.
A TRIBUTE TO OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND | At the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art | June 15-July 1 | See Film & Video Events for ?more info.