Reel Dad: Reflecting on the late Olivia de Havilland’s contributions to film
She filled the screen with a radiant smile, beaming with warmth no matter the film, regardless of the role. And, beneath the surface, we always knew there was 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 died on July 25 at age 104 - 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.
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. Rest in peace, Olivia de Havilland.