In Memoriam: Dame Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

Olivia, looking amazing

Just a few weeks ago, I participated in the Olivia de Havilland blogathon, celebrating her 104th birthday on July 1. In that post, I discussed her nine films with her most frequent co-star, the gorgeous Errol Flynn. It brings me great sadness to have to write a memorial post about Olivia. Last weekend, she passed away in her sleep of natural causes in her Paris townhouse at the age of 104.

While this news is not unexpected, I cannot help but feel sorrow over Olivia’s passing. She was the last surviving major Hollywood star from the golden age. When I was growing up in the mid-80s through early-00s, many of the classic Hollywood stars were still alive. Some were even still working! While I am too young to remember the passings of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in 1987 (I was in preschool then), and thank god I wasn’t aware of Lucille Ball at the age of 5 when she passed in 1989 (if that had happened just a few years later, or even now, I would have been devastated). I remember being in middle school when Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Robert Mitchum, and James Stewart passed.

Olivia and sister Joan Fontaine

People like Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope were old when I was born, they were still old throughout all of my formative years. When they both died within a month of one another, I was sad as they were enduring symbols of old Hollywood, immortal as far as I was concerned. Kirk Douglas was always there. Doris Day was too. Joan Fontaine seemed like she would last forever. Shirley Temple was just a child! Surely she would be around forever. Then, there was my queen, Olivia de Havilland.

Now, they’re all gone.

It is moments like this when people start making lists of people from the Golden Age who are still alive. I cannot bring myself to make such a list. To me, that seems like bad luck. It seems like chronicling those who are blessed with longevity is just asking to have a hex placed on them. So I will refrain.

Olivia, looking fierce

Olivia de Havilland’s death represents the final door closing on the Golden Era. She was the last tangible link to this amazing period of filmmaking where everything was in its infancy, numerous techniques, camera angles, acting styles, etc. were pioneered every day during this period of great innovation. Olivia de Havilland was a woman who could recall working with people like: my boyfriend Errol Flynn, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the amazing Hattie McDaniel, James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Rosalind Russell, Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Bette Davis… legendary Hollywood personalities who had long since passed.

Olivia had an infamous feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine. It’s a shame that the two ladies could not get along and share their respective good fortunes with one another, but that isn’t anyone’s business but Olivia and Joan’s. What was the feud about? Who knows? Both ladies must have had their reasons.

Can you imagine if What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had been made with Olivia and Joan instead?

Olivia was also not afraid to put herself on the line to speak out about perceived injustices both she and her peers faced. In 1943, Olivia sued Warner Brothers for violating California Labor Codes. During the early days of the studio system, contract players were signed to seven-year contracts. The studios viewed actors as employees, they were no different than the cameraman, the set designer, the electricians, or the propmen. The actors would be assigned to specific projects and were expected to fulfill their end of the contract and make the film.

L to R: Hattie McDaniel, Olivia, Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.”

However, many of the performers believed that they should have a say over their projects–especially if their appearance in a film was proven to make money for the studio. Many actors, such as Bette Davis, were trying to hone their craft and also take on challenging parts. These performers didn’t want to hurt their box office clout and essentially, their marketability by taking on crappy parts. The studios believed that they were allowed to suspend actors for refusing parts. Then, after the film was completed with a different actor, the length of the production time would be added to the actor’s existing contract.

In 1943, Olivia reached the end of her 7-year contract at Warner Brothers. She was then informed that she owed them an additional 6 months time to make up for the parts she refused. Olivia sued Warner Brothers to be released from her contract and won the lawsuit! Warner Brothers tried to appeal, but lost. The California Superior Court upheld the “seven-year contract” labor ruling and named this law the “de Havilland Law,” a law that is still in place today. Even sister Joan Fontaine gave Olivia kudos stating “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.”

Of course, Warner Brothers, being petty, managed to get Olivia blacklisted in Hollywood for two years.

In 1945, Olivia signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. She immediately went to work on To Each Her Own.

She won the Best Actress Oscar.

Olivia as Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress.”

In 1949, Olivia made The Heiress with Montgomery Clift. I just watched this film the other day. I’d seen it once prior, but didn’t really remember much about it, except for the ending. Olivia’s performance in this film is nothing but fantastic. Her transformation from meek, proper, shy Catherine to a cynical, bitter, hardened woman is nothing short of remarkable. Not only does Olivia’s portrayal change, but her entire look, her voice, the way she carries herself, everything changes. I absolutely loved it.

Olivia won a second Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Heiress.

In the 1950s, Olivia moved to Paris, married, had two children, and continued her film career and started appearing in the theater and on television. Her career continued until 1988 when she retired. From then on, Olivia stayed active appearing in various career and film retrospectives. As the last surviving major cast member (since 1967, with the death of Vivien Leigh) of Gone With the Wind, Olivia served as an ambassador for that film. She also received numerous accolades and honors, including being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Goodbye Olivia. We will miss you.

I will miss Olivia immensely. Knowing that she was still alive, healthy, and active was such a consolation–the Golden Age of Hollywood was alive and well. Now, another piece of it is gone. However, Olivia has achieved immortality. Her films, along with everyone else’s, will live on forever.

We’ll always have Paris.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Dame Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

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