Monday, March 2, 2015


At 98, Olivia de Havilland is the last great star of Hollywood’s golden age, a woman who began her career during the rise of Technicolor in 1935, formed one of the most indelible screen couples of all time with Errol Flynn, and went on to work with James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. With her deep brown doe eyes and apple-cheeked smile, the two-time Best Actress winner excelled at playing heroines whose demure bearing belied a feisty core. The most famous of these great ladies was Melanie Hamilton, the tenderhearted foil to Leigh’s scheming Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller, the beloved epic has sold more tickets in its lifetime than any other film. And 75 years ago it cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning eight of its 13 nominations.

Having outlived all of her costars (as well as the movie’s mad-genius producer, David O. Selznick, and the three directors he hired to steer the massive ship), de Havilland has been GWTW’s principal spokesperson for almost five decades, the sole bearer of the Tara torch. It’s a privilege she calls “rather wonderful,” as her affection for the film is genuine and deep. She’s seen GWTW “about 30 times,” she says, and still enjoys watching it for the emotional jolt it brings as she reconnects with those costars—Gable, Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, and Leslie Howard—who have long since passed on.

Her memory is enviable: She vividly recalls lying in her crib as a baby and hearing the clink-clink of her nanny preparing her bottle. And she is delightfully open about her age. While discussing her day-to-day life at the hotel, for instance, she gets a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she describes the handsome fellows from room service. “How many women in this world are served breakfast in bed every morning by a gorgeous young man? I am,” she says. “So how do I feel about older age? Crazy about it! Wouldn’t trade it for anything!”

When de Havilland moved to France in 1953 to marry her second husband, a Frenchman, she was all too happy to bid adieu to Hollywood, where television had begun to eclipse film. “The Golden Era…was dying and I knew that whatever replaced it would not be its equal,” she writes. So she focused on her children, Benjamin and Gisèle, took the occasional job by “commuting to Hollywood,” as her son once put it, and earned an Emmy nomination in 1987 for her role as a Russian empress in the NBC miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. Even after her second divorce in 1979, living abroad afforded her a life of great privacy, which she continues to cherish. Tabloids frothed for years over her relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine, which was famously strained, at least according to Fontaine, who wrote about it in her 1978 autobiography. De Havilland, however, does not discuss it. (Fontaine died in 2013.)

Though she lives alone, de Havilland is far from lonely. She regularly speaks on the phone with Gisèle, who lives in California. (Benjamin passed away in 1991 from over-radiation following his treatment for cancer.) Depending on her energy level, she entertains about once a week. She is still a dues-paying member of the Academy and follows nomination season “with extreme interest,” but because of her declining eyesight, she no longer watches many films and does not vote. She can still do crossword puzzles, though, and in the coming months she hopes to make progress on the autobiography she began a few years ago. She’s written five chapters in the same buoyant style that she used in her charming 1962 book of essays, Every Frenchman Has One. A lover of words, she is enjoying mining her rich, long life for remembrances.

And if she has anything to do with it, she will collect many, many more. Because this formidable woman has every intention of celebrating her 100th birthday come July 1, 2016. “Oh, I can’t wait for it,” she says. “I’m certainly relishing the idea of living a century. Can you imagine that? What an achievement.”

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