Olivia de Havilland: Queen of the Screen

Today Olivia de Havilland, twice the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actress, celebrates her 98th birthday. To honor her ninth year as a nonagenarian, here are nine of my favorite performances by her.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dirs. William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt) – Olivia’s first major movie role, filmed when she was eighteen years old, is truly delightful. As Hermia, the young lady in the middle of a love triangle with Demetrius and Lysander (further complicated by the presence of the character Helena), Olivia gets into the Shakespearean spirit. There’s a great scene where she lets loose and yells at everyone, her temper flaring as she voices her frustrations over Lysander’s sudden shift of affections to Helena. Wearing gorgeous gowns designed by Max Rée and Milo Anderson, Olivia looks beautiful. To quote the play’s famous line: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”

Captain Blood (1935, dir. Michael Curtiz) – Blazing his way across the screen, Errol Flynn had his breakout starring role in this rousing pirate swashbuckler set in the 17th century. Olivia plays Arabella Bishop, a rich young woman who buys English citizen Flynn when he is sent over to the Caribbean as a slave (a wrongful event, of course). It’s clear that there was real chemistry between Olivia and Errol, and again Olivia wears splendid clothes designed by Milo Anderson, making her all the more charming.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, dirs. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley) – This film was a beloved part of my childhood and it continues to set the standard for adventure yarns. Olivia plays a winsome damsel in distress, Maid Marian, paired perfectly with the dashing title hero (played by Errol Flynn, with whom Olivia made eight films between 1935 and 1941). Their romance, scored by the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is lovely.

Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming) – If you have the wherewithal to sit through all four hours of this classic epic, you will find much to admire about Olivia’s performance as generous and good-hearted Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. Olivia was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and although she did not win she had good company in the category: the winner that year was Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the longtime caretaker for the O’Hara family.

The Dark Mirror (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak) – The same year that Bette Davis played twins in the melodrama A Stolen Life, Olivia played twins in this complex mystery. The influences of Freud and psychoanalysis are evident throughout the narrative as the good sister battles against the bad sister while at the same time the police try to solve a murder that seems to implicate one or both of the women. Spellbound this is not, but The Dark Mirror is still quite good.

The Snake Pit (1948, dir. Anatole Litvak) – This exploration of mental illness and the frightening experience of being institutionalized earned Olivia another Best Actress Oscar nomination. Sans makeup, the fear on the face of her character is magnified. I don’t think that the plot element regarding the husband played by Mark Stevens was necessary (Olivia goes through enough trauma without having to deal with a confused spouse too), but there is no question that the central performance by the film’s leading lady is a powerful one.

The Heiress (1949, dir. William Wyler) – Olivia won her second Academy Award (the first was for 1946’s To Each His Own) for this compelling drama based on the Henry James novel Washington Square (1880). Surrounded by a trio of great supporting actors (Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins), this is essentially Olivia’s show all the way through. Her gradual transformation from naive to embittered is believable because the screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz is so well-crafted and Olivia plays Catherine Sloper with conviction. Trust me, the ending is unforgettable.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, dir. Robert Aldrich) – Joan Crawford was originally cast in the role of Bette Davis’s cousin in this grisly Southern gothic thriller, but after Joan Crawford quit the picture, Olivia stepped in and did a great job. The film was Aldrich’s follow-up to his previous hit with Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and it’s interesting to see the two former costars of the Warner Brothers films It’s Love I’m After (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and In This Our Life (1942) together once more.

Airport ’77 (1977, dir. Jerry Jameson) – You can’t tell from that lobby card, but Olivia is wearing a very chic black dress. (When in doubt, travel stylishly!) Even in a sub-par disaster flick, Olivia adds an aura of classiness. She’s also reteamed with Joseph Cotten, who starred with her in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Olivia de Havilland played her last acting role in the television movie The Woman He Loved in 1988, but she leaves behind a legacy of over fifty years’ worth of films and TV performances.

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