Honoring Olivia: An Appreciation

“….Melanie Hamilton, that goodie-goodie, who wants to know a secret about her?”-          “Scarlett O’Hara” in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind

Olivia De Havilland, who celebrated her 100th birthday on July 1st of this year, is best known as the last surviving principal cast member from GWTW.  However, her legacy as actress and film star goes far beyond her celebrated role as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes.

De Havilland was born on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan.  Her family moved to California when she was three.  De Havilland became interested in amateur theatrics at a young age.  In 1935, she landed the part of “Hermia” in Warner Brother’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

De Havilland spent the remainder of the 1930’s playing ingénue parts, including major roles with swash-buckling actor Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood).  Then, in 1939 she won the part of “Melanie Wilkes” in Gone With The Wind.

Melanie is probably the most thankless principal role in filmdom.  In practically every scene, this relatively pallid character is paired with the far more interesting Scarlett O’Hara.  And De Havilland seemed to be engaged in a no-win situation when up against Vivien Leigh, the fiery actress who played the part of GWTW’s immortal female protagonist.

Yet, De Havilland’s nuanced performance in GWTW is a testament to her skill as an actress.  Her compassionate, serene Melanie appears at first to be a one-dimensional character of unremitting niceness.  But eventually De Havilland’s Melanie shows herself to be cool and level-headed in the most dire circumstances.  One example is her reaction to Scarlett O’Hara shooting a Yankee deserter who has invaded war-ravaged Tara.  Immediately after the soldier falls to the ground, we see Melanie with sword in hand descending the staircase.  It is obvious that this “good girl” intends to act if Scarlett fails.  The following dialog ensues:

MELANIE:  Scarlett, you killed him.  I’m glad you killed him.  [Melanie then shouts out the window to Scarlett’s family, assuring them that the gunshot was just an accidental discharge.]

SCARLETT (looking surprised):  What a cool liar you are, Melly!

In 1948, De Havilland further demonstrated her ability to extend beyond the “good girl” image when she played the role of the mentally ill wife in The Snake Pit.  As Virginia, a schizophrenic mental patient, De Havilland effortlessly whipsaws between placidity, hysteria, and viciousness in a way that is chilling to behold.  Her performance was ground-breaking and a gold standard for later excellent characterizations of mental illness in movies such as The Three Faces of Eve and the TV mini-series Sybil.

My favorite De Havilland role is that of Catherine Sloper, the title character of the 1949 film The Heiress, adapted from the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James.  Catherine, a rather plain and naïve young woman, falls in love with a fortune hunter (played by Montgomery Clift).  Meanwhile, her cold and emotionally abusive father (played by Ralph Richardson), who anticipates the young man’s true motives, does everything he can to stave off the romance.  Dr. Sloper does in fact save the girl from herself, but succeeds in permanently embittering her.

The role of Catherine is a difficult one, because the actress playing her has to make us believe in her transition from an innocent young thing into a cynical old maid.  And she must do it without scene-chewing; this is Henry James territory, not Tennessee Williams.  De Havilland accomplishes the transformation with restraint and decorum, but in a way that is heart-breaking for all involved in the tragic outcome of this story.

I could easily say a lot more about this wonderful actress, but let’s hear from you!  Tell us about your favorite De Havilland roles/movies, or interesting tidbits about the actress herself.  Please post your comments; waiting to hear from you!

 

Sources:

Gone With The Wind, Dir.  Victor Fleming.  Perf. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia De Havilland.  Selznick International Pictures Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.  Film

The Snake Pit, Dir. Anatole Litvak.  Perf. Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm.  20th Century Fox, 1948.  Film

The Heiress, Dir. William Wyler.  Perf. Olivia de Havilland Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson.  Paramount Pictures, 1949.  Film

Legends of Hollywood:  Olivia De Havilland by Charles River Editors.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Honoring Olivia: An Appreciation”

  1. Also very interesting role as the somewhat plain, older women love interest to a very young Richard Burton in 1952 movie “My Cousin Rachel. Film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier gothic novel. Du Maurier also wrote the novel “Rebecca” which when adapted into a movie in 1940 resulted in an Academy Award for Joan Fontaine, Olivia’s not so loving sister.

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  2. I saw “My Cousin Rachel” when I was in my Richard Burton phase; read just about everything about the man, including the memoir of a woman who stated she had an affair with him when she was just 14(!) At any rate, it was interesting watching Burton before he learned film acting. His performance in “Rachel” was a little histrionic for me. De Havilland is, as always, solid.

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