Today is a very special day for fans of the golden era of Hollywood as it’s Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday! What makes this centennial extra special for us fans is that she’s alive to celebrate it. She’s one of my all-time favorite actresses, and overall she’s a woman I admire a lot. I love so many of her films, and I can’t wait to see more of them this month on TCM as she’s the Star of the Month for July.
As she had a vast career filled with a number of memorable performances, I thought I’d pay tribute to the five that earned her Oscar recognition. Getting nominated for an Academy Award is no easy feat, but in just the span of a decade, she became one of Oscar’s most-nominated actors. She was nominated four times for Best Actress and went on to win two of those nominations. But before she entered the race in the Best Actress category, she received her first nomination in the supporting category, in what has become her most iconic film role…
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Set in the South during the Civil War era, the film follows Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) from her idyllic life on her beloved plantation through to the numerous tragedies she endures as a result of the war. Throughout the years, she becomes entangled with the roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), all while she continues to pursue the married Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
The year 1939 was the busiest of Olivia de Havilland’s career. Five of her films were released into theaters, which include Wings of the Navy, Dodge City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Raffles. De Havilland ended that year with a bang, as Gone with the Wind was the last of her films to be released and went on to become a huge hit. While audiences in the day saw a lot of the actress in various films, today Gone with the Wind is most people’s introduction to de Havilland, and that was certainly the case for me. I only saw it for the first time a few years ago, and upon my first viewing, it was Melanie Hamilton who became my favorite character. She’s the nicest person around, but not in a sickly sweet way that could potentially get on someone’s nerves (though Scarlett was initially not very fond of her). There’s a quiet dignity about her that makes her as equally compelling as the film’s protagonist.
While almost every actress in Hollywood was vying for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, de Havilland fought hard to get the role of Melanie, which she felt she could effectively bring to life on screen. As she was signed to Warner Bros., she had to be lent out by the studio to do the film for David O. Selznick and MGM. After de Havilland turned to Jack Warner’s wife to help her out, the producer eventually relented and let her do the role. It ended up working out very well for de Havilland, and she received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the selfless Melanie, giving a subtle yet captivating performance amongst larger-than-life characters and extraordinary situations.
Gone with the Wind walked away with a ton of Oscars in 1940, though de Havilland was one of the film’s few losers. She lost Best Supporting Actress to her co-star Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African-American Academy Award winner that night. The film continues to live on in popular culture, being one of Hollywood’s biggest and most successful films ever made. Ironically, while Melanie is the only major character to die, today de Havilland is the film’s sole survivor.
TCM will be playing the film tonight at 9:15 PM (EST)
HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) is a Romanian-born gigolo who arrives in a Mexican border town seeking entry into the United States. Instead of immediately becoming a U.S. citizen as he hoped, he has to wait up to eight years to obtain a quota number. Six months after his arrival, he’s now broke and unhappy, becoming more impatient to enter the U.S. Then comes visiting schoolteacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), who Georges sets his sights on as his ticket out of Mexico.
Hold Back the Dawn was released between two of Olivia de Havilland’s other films in 1941: The Strawberry Blonde and They Died With Their Boots On. The latter film was the last one she made co-starring frequent leading man Errol Flynn. In this film, de Havilland plays schoolteacher Emmy Brown, who visits Mexico for the day with her students and runs into the suave Georges. Though she initially brushes him off, she begins to fall in love with the man and accepts his marriage proposal after a whirlwind day. While Emmy has an overly romantic outlook on the situation, she’s a strong-willed character who continually surprises the people around her.
After the success of Gone with the Wind, de Havilland was eager to branch out more into roles that could better utilize her acting chops. At her home studio Warner Bros., she was often stuck playing the ingénue or love interest. For this film, she was lent out by the studio to work with Paramount Pictures. De Havilland found she loved working with director Mitchell Leisen, who’s careful guidance on the film contrasted the workmanlike approach of the directors she worked with at Warner Bros. As Emmy, de Havilland is the heart of the film, infusing genuine honesty into the role that makes the character into a more well-rounded person.
With this film, de Havilland earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Come Oscar night, she famously lost the Academy Award to her estranged sister Joan Fontaine for her work in Suspicion. Incidentally, Fontaine became the only actor (male or female) to win an Oscar for a role in an Alfred Hitchcock film. While de Havilland was not too keen about the night’s outcome, her time for Oscar glory was just around the corner.
TCM will be playing the film on Friday, July 22nd at 1:45 AM (EST)
TO EACH HIS OWN (1946)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
The film follows thirty years in the life of Jody Norris (Olivia de Havilland), a small-town girl who falls in love with a pilot (John Lund). After one romantic evening, the two make plans to marry, but World War I interferes and Jody’s husband-to-be dies in battle. She soon bears his illegitimate son, and to avoid scandal, she tries to arrange to adopt her own son, but is unsuccessful. She then devotes her life to loving her son from afar as she prospers in business.
After a three year hiatus, Olivia de Havilland returned to the silver screen in 1946 with four films, including Devotion, The Well-Groomed Bride, and The Dark Mirror. To Each His Own was the first of her films released that year, and in this film, she goes through many physical and emotional transformations as her character ages from a young girl to an older, weary woman. While To Each His Own is a rather melodramatic film, de Havilland truly elevates it and makes it a worthwhile watch. Unlike her previous roles, de Havilland studied different acting methods she could use to fully embody Jody. For her own benefit, she even wore different perfumes to define each of the four periods of the film’s story.
The aforementioned hiatus de Havilland involuntarily took between 1943 and 1946 was a result of her ongoing lawsuit with Warner Bros. over her contract. For the time being, I won’t go into the depths of what came to be known as the De Havilland Decision, but I will have a post dedicated to it next month for the Classic Movie History Project. After the success of her court case, she signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures, and the first film she made there was To Each His Own. After their previous collaboration on Hold Back the Dawn (another Paramount film), de Havilland insisted on bringing Mitchell Leisen in to direct her, as she appreciated his empathy for actors and knew he could successfully control the sentimentality of this film.
De Havilland was again nominated for Best Actress for her performance in To Each His Own and went on to win her first Oscar. According to film historian Tony Thomas, the Academy Award, she earned here represented the vindication of her struggle with Warner Bros. and confirmed her abilities as an actress.
TCM will be playing the film on Friday, July 15th at 12:15 AM (EST)
THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is a schizophrenic inmate at a mental institution. She’s constantly tormented by her delusions and unable to remember things, like arriving at the institution and who her husband is. Dr, Kik (Leo Genn) is determined to get to the root cause of her mental illness, and flashbacks reveal how certain events in Virginia’s life may have contributed to her instability.
The Snake Pit was one of the first films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness. It also worked as an exposé of the harsh conditions patients had endured in mental hospitals at the time. For many of Olivia de Havilland’s fans, her performance as Virginia is the best of her career. It also proved to be the most challenging role she ever played. In preparation for the role, she consulted with psychiatrists and visited the Camarillo State Mental Hospital to observe the patients. She also deliberately lost weight to give her character a gaunt appearance.
For a number of the film’s scenes, we rely on de Havilland’s facial expressions to understand what’s going on in her mind. While we as an audience can hear her inner thoughts, de Havilland had to perform them silently as the camera filmed her. She effectively portrays the extremes of Virginia’s personality, where she’ll go from a quiet young woman to one who’s much more disoriented. It’s a restrained and harrowing performance, and in any other year, she could’ve easily won an Oscar for it.
Just two years after de Havilland won her first Oscar, she returned to the Academy Awards with another nomination. That year’s Best Actress category was stacked with great performances, and she lost the Oscar to Jane Wyman for her performance in Johnny Belinda. Though she didn’t walk away with an Oscar for her performance in The Snake Pit, it ended up being the role in which she received the most accolades, and she won Best Actress awards from the Venice Film Festival, the National Board of Review, and the New York Film Critics Circle (the latter group gave her the award unanimously).
TCM will be playing the film on Friday, July 15th at 8:00 PM (EST)
THE HEIRESS (1949)
Directed by William Wyler
In the mid-1800s, the wealthy Sloper family lives comfortably in their house in Washington Square, New York City. Among them is Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a naïve young woman who stands to inherit her father’s (Ralph Richardson). Her father lets it be known that he’s disappointed by her, as she’s so unlike her late mother. As a result, she receives little affection, until Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) gives her the attention she’s been yearning for. But soon Morris’s true intentions come to the surface when Catherine’s father threatens to disinherit her.
Ten years after entering Oscar’s consciousness with her performance in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland gave one of the most praised performances of her career with The Heiress. As Catherine Sloper, she believably plays a painfully shy young woman, struggling to come out of her shell due to her father’s disapproval of her. De Havilland developed her character through carefully crafted mannerisms to convey Catherine’s quiet demeanor, including a timid voice and downcast eyes. It helps make Catherine’s transformation into a guarded, spiteful woman all the more satisfying, as she finally takes a stand for herself against the men who did her wrong.
After seeing The Heiress on stage, de Havilland asked William Wyler to direct her in a film adaptation. Working with Wyler was usually a guarantee for any actor to receive Academy Award recognition. He directed 31 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances (the most of any director), and 13 of them went on to win the award. Wyler helped de Havilland reach her character’s full potential on-screen, and in one particular instance, had her physically convey Catherine’s traumatic heartbreak by having the actress carry a suitcase full of heavy books up the stairs instead of using a dramatic speech as originally planned.
For her performance as Catherine Sloper, de Havilland won a Golden Globe and another Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle. She also entered the Best Actress Oscar race for the last time and won her second Academy Award a mere three years after winning her first. Unfortunately there’s no video available of her accepting her first Oscar, but you can watch her accept her second one from her former beau James Stewart here.
TCM will be playing the film on Friday, July 15th at 10:00 PM (EST)
Though Olivia de Havilland didn’t receive any more Oscar nominations after The Heiress, she continued to work steadily in film and television into the 1980s. Still, it’s impressive that at the young age of 33, de Havilland became a two-time Oscar winner, and with that, she cemented her legacy as one of Hollywood’s most reliable actresses.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the great actress for her 100th birthday. Click the banner below to read more posts celebrating the living legend!