If I live to see 100, make that 101, let me live it like Olivia de Havilland, with class, humor…and in Paris.
Just last week, days before her birthday, she was given a damehood by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to drama. She is the oldest woman to receive this honor.
Dame Olivia was one of the top actresses of her time, with a career that spanned decades. She gained the respect of audiences and colleagues alike. But she represented more than just glamour and success. Through the influence gained by her talent, she fought for others, those without a voice, and changed lives as a result.
A working woman in a sexist environment, she held her own against those who would pull her down and managed one of the most successful long-term careers in Hollywood history.
I’m far from the only one to take note of Dame Olivia’s qualities, now and then. In February 2016, The Oldie magazine, a satirical publication from London fighting ageism, named her “Oldie of the Year.”
Her response to that honor was delight and delightful. Over the years, her wit has shown in so many of her personal appearances, with a smile and a wink at life.
My fascination with and appreciation of Dame Olivia de Havilland began when I was high school, at the same school she had graduated from in 1934, Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, Calif.
The summer between my junior and senior years I had a job working in the school library, and my tasks included repairing older books. One of those was the school’s 1934 yearbook, and the librarians turned a blind eye as I spent a little too much time looking for all mention of her. Even then, she stood out from her peers in her poise and class in front of a camera.
Classic movie fans, indeed anybody familiar with her work,
will know her best for two roles, as Melanie in Gone With the Wind and as the dashing Errol Flynn’s most frequent leading lady.
She was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work in Gone With the Wind in 1939, but it wasn’t until she starred in the phenomenal film To Each His Own in 1946 that she won her first Oscar, for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That was followed three years later by the same award for one of my favorite of her films, The Heiress.
In between those two wins, she received a Best Actress nomination for The Snake Pit, a ground-breaking film about the treatment of the mentally ill. Bringing those images to the screen created public awareness of the plight of millions, and those who suffer from mental illness today can be thankful for her work in what I hope & pray is now a long-outdated portrayal of institutionalization.
She had one sister, the late Joan Fontaine. Miss Fontaine was a year younger, and the two are the only sisters in Academy Award history to each win an Oscar for Best Actress.
For those who aren’t aware,
in Hollywood’s early years what was known as the studio system reigned, in which actors and actresses were under contract and controlled by the strict standards and seeming whims of the studio executives. Dame Olivia took her studio, Columbia Pictures, to court in 1943 and won, and the resulting decision changed labor laws, greatly reduced studio power and began the decline of the contract system.
As a result it was almost impossible for her to find work for a couple of years, but at the end of that time she began a comeback that reduced that gap in her work to a non-entity in her overall career.
Perhaps there were times in those years when she wondered if she should have been the one to take that stand. Even if she never wavered in her pride in her decision, she likely cried or otherwise railed over the blacklisting of her talent. I don’t know enough about her to know what her reaction may have been, except it would have been human.
She has stood her ground again, and filed a lawsuit against the FX network, suing for infringement of common law right of publicity, invasion of privacy and unjust enrichment. Her claim is based on the “inherently untrue” portrayal of her as a bitchy gossip-monger, something records readily available to producers would show to be false.
She was, rather, known to be gracious and kind, a woman who refrained from gossip and treated all with respect and dignity.
Although she is an American citizen, Dame Olivia has lived in Paris since 1960. She continued to act until the 1980s, and her last major public event was in 2008 when she was presented with the National Medal of Arts.
Our high school has an annual award, “The De Havilland Cup,” given to a student for a monologue performance. That tradition has lasted more than 70 years, and I expect it will continue for many more to come. It is a fine tribute to her talent and dedication to her craft, for it takes both those qualities to win this award.
Dame Olivia de Havilland was a force in Hollywood, and remains a strong & gracious woman. She is one of the last living stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, that wonderful era from the 30s to 40s.*
Happy 101st birthday, Dame Olivia, and congratulations for a long and marvelous career, for your dignity and poise, for representing the best for working women everywhere.
*Those familiar with the “Golden Age of Hollywood” know that much of the work created during that time was a product of the studio system. It was a wonderful era for film, but not so much, perhaps, for many of the actors and actresses.
Header Image Credits, clockwise from top left: 1) With Errol Flynn in Captain Blood; 2) With Bette Davis in In This Our Life; 3) With George Brent in In This Our Life; 4) With Montgomery Clift in The Heiress; 5) With Jack Carson in The Male Animal; 6) In Princess O’Rourke. Reviews for these films can be found on Classic for a Reason.