Today marks the 100th birthday of actress Olivia de Havilland, the oldest living Oscar winner and one of the few remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
To mark the occasion, I offer a two-fold piece:
- A brief overview of Olivia de Havilland’s career and films – and why they are of special significance to me
- Recommendations for TCM’s Star of the Month tribute of Olivia de Havilland films, of which I’ve seen all but one
The Films of Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland made her first appearance in motion pictures in 1935, filming A Midsummer Night’s Dream first after appearing in a stage production. De Havilland appeared in three other films that year: Alibi Ike, The Irish in Us, and Captain Blood, the last of which first paired her with Errol Flynn.
She was under contract at Warner Bros., and these other three films of 1935 were a mark of what was to come during much of her time at the studio: adventure films with Errol Flynn and comedies.
As is the case with many, my introduction to Olivia de Havilland came not through one of these early Warners films but through Gone with the Wind. De Havilland’s performance as Melanie Wilkes remains one of my all-time favorite performances. While Melanie may lack the fire of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, she always drew my attention for her grace and quiet strength. I can hardly think of a role that was better-cast or played so beautifully.
As such, it took me a while to ever see another de Havilland film. But when I had the chance to write a paper about The Heiress in college, I seized the opportunity.
I enjoyed The Heiress so much that I devoured the other films of Olivia de Havilland – everything from comedies like It’s Love I’m After and The Great Garrick to her films with Errol Flynn to her serious dramas like To Each His Own and The Snake Pit. Along the way, I branched out and began to watch other films from the era, leading to my classic film fandom.
I often try to think what exactly it was about The Heiress that so drew me, as especially since I don’t revisit the film very often. And then I remember that, simply, it defied all my expectations. I remember sitting and watching the ending on the edge of my seat, and a large part of that stemmed from Olivia de Havilland’s bold and dynamic performance, particularly in the final scene, when she projects so much with so few words.
The film rightly won de Havilland her second Oscar and cemented her as one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, if not of all time.
As I watched more de Havilland films, I started noticing the dynamism of her talent more and more. In de Havilland’s early work at Warner Bros., there was definitely an “Olivia de Havilland role”: the ingenue, the shy and pretty love interest. But after her break with Warner Bros. – when she successfully sued the studio to be released from her contract, changing the film industry forever – she took on roles that were both daring and important, like that of an unwed mother (To Each His Own) or that of a woman in a mental institution (The Snake Pit).
The best Olivia de Havilland roles were of characters that had true strength under a quiet mask. You see it in three of her most famous films: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind, and The Heiress. Maid Marian, Melanie Wilkes, and Catherine Sloper all had a tough backbone that slowly revealed itself. But you also see it in lesser-known films like Hold Back the Dawn and To Each His Own, which feature two of my favorite performances of hers.
These brief words only scratched the surface of de Havilland’s career. So see TCM’s full schedule of the Star of the Month tribute to Olivia de Havilland to start planning what to watch. Below are a few of my recommendations for the spotlight.
Olivia de Havilland on TCM in July
Recommendations for Friday, July 1 and Saturday, July 2:
- Gone with the Wind
- The Adventures of Robin Hood
- Captain Blood
Recommendations for Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9:
- In This Our Life
- They Died with Their Boots On
- Dodge City
- It’s Love I’m After
- The Great Garrick
Recommendations for Friday, July 15 and Saturday, July 16:
- The Snake Pit
- The Heiress
- To Each His Own
Recommendations for Friday, July 22 and Saturday, July 23:
- My Cousin Rachel
- Hold Back the Dawn
- The Strawberry Blonde
- Four’s A Crowd
Recommendations Friday, July 29 and Saturday July 30:
- Light in the Piazza
- Princess O’Rourke
(Note: The only film in the series I have not seen – The 5th Musketeer – airs in this final block.)
It is not every day that a star reaches the age of 100, so it is only fitting to present such a wide retrospective of Olivia de Havilland’s career. Despite the series’ thoroughness, I would add in two films, each wonderful examples of de Havilland’s talent: The Dark Mirror, in which she plays very different twins, and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which she plays the most uncharacteristic de Havilland role I’ve seen her play.
Olivia de Havilland’s immense talent drew me into the world of classic film, which changed my life. So, take it from someone who cares about the films of Olivia de Havilland: if you are not familiar with her work, there is a lot to discover, and now, as we mark the 100th birthday of this magnificent star, is the perfect time to do so.
So, Happy 100th Birthday to Olivia de Havilland!
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